Stop stigma: The importance of seeing the person not the substance


​The language we use and the way we view those who have or are experiencing alcohol and other drug (AOD) dependency can be powerful. Let's talk about drug use, not drug abuse;  the person with a drug dependence, not "addict", "junkie", "druggie" or "alcoholic"; the person who has stopped using drugs, not "clean", "sober" or "drug-free".

Each year, on June 26th the United Nations (UN) observes International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking to raise awareness of drug use and its distribution across the globe. The yearly campaign calls for better worldwide drug policies that prioritise public health and human rights.

What is stigma and discrimination?

Stigma is a set of negative beliefs that a group or society holds about a topic or group of people. Discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people – in this context, prejudicial treatment of people because they have used or are experiencing a dependency on drugs.

The World Health Organization (WHO) believes that stigma is a major cause of discrimination and exclusion and contributes to the abuse of human rights.

Why is this so important?

Stigma and discrimination stops people who use drugs and are looking for help from accessing support and treatment services because it impacts on their self-esteem, mental health and general wellbeing. According to Lives of Substance - a website that is built on the personal commentary of those who are or have used drugs – a key concern for many of the people interviewed for the website is coping with the stigma associated with drug use and dependency.

Stigma can also influence whether or not people tell others about their drug use due to a fear of being discriminated against. Lives of Substance also highlights concerns about experiencing stigma and discrimination within the healthcare system, which can lead to a delay in seeking medical or professional help when it is required.

Larry Pierce, chief executive of the network of alcohol and other drug agencies (NADA), says: "We know that fear of stigma and being labelled as a 'drug addict' can and does stop people from accessing treatment and support.

"It's time we stop using this language and start being more mindful and deliberate about avoiding pejorative terms."

How can we make positive change?

People judge because they don't understand. Those who use drugs aren't criminals, junkies or looking to cause problems. Often they are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Before making a judgement about a person who has used or is using drugs, be well informed and focus on the person, not their substance use.

Sometimes people who use drugs experience discrimination and negative attitudes from those closest to them (family, friends), who do so without realising. Without family and peer support, those using drugs are more vulnerable and susceptible to harm. Family Drug Support (FDS) is an organisation that provides support and assistance to families who are dealing with a family member who is using drugs.

Language matters is a resource from the Network of Alcohol & other Drugs Agencies (NADA) and the NSW Users & AIDS Association (NUAA) that encourages AOD workers to move away from out-dated terms like 'drug user' and 'addict' which stigmatise people who use drugs.

The resource advises workers to use person-centred language, which focuses on the person, not their substance use. According to NADA and the NUAA, using this type of language is a simple and effective way of showing respect to a person's agency, dignity and worth.

Lives of Substance contributors also said that sharing personal stories and talking openly about drug and alcohol consumption was a way to challenge stereotypes. Being aware of and acknowledging the stigma surrounding AOD use is a step forward and has the power to help those who need treatment or support.

Mary Ellen Harrod, chief executive of NUAA, said: "Empowering people by treating them with respect is a powerful catalyst for change".

Language and awareness matter, stop stigma today.

For free and confidential advice 24/7 call Family Drug Support on 1300 368 186 or Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) on 1800 250 015. Counsellors are available to provide information, referrals, crisis counselling and support. Or start a Web Chat with an ADIS counsellor online Monday to Friday, 8.30am – 5pm. ADIS can also provide up-to-date information about service availability in your area during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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