Language matters: reduce stigma, combat overdose

Mark Lysyshyn | March 15th, 2017

86% of people dying of illicit drug overdoses in our region die inside residences where nobody sees them overdose and nobody is able to call for help or administer naloxone until it is too late. Stigma is one of the main factors that drives people to use drugs alone and also prevents them from accessing life-saving treatments.

This new report from the BC Centre for Disease Control reminds us to use respectful language when talking to or about people who use substances.

What can you do to decrease the stigma around substance use?

Post your ideas below.

About the Author

Mark Lysyshyn
email iconmark.lysyshyn@vch.ca  

Dr. Mark Lysyshyn is a Vancouver Coastal Health medical health officer for North Shore, Bowen Island and Sea to Sky.

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3 comments on “Language matters: reduce stigma, combat overdose

  • Shannon Riley says:

    Speaking up is important. Often people do not know that the words they are using cause harm. When substance users are referred to as ‘dirty’ versus people who don’t use substances are described as being ‘clean’, it creates a polarization that one state is better than the other. We need to be using language that does involve labels, shame, and judgements. If you hear people using words like this have a discussion about it. In the words of Neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart, “when I discovered that 80 to 90 percent of the people who actually use drugs like crack cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana—80 to 90 percent of those people do not have a problem.”

  • Matthew says:

    Hi Mark,
    You have raised a timely and important topic which has also been discussed recently in the Journal of Addiction Medicine. Language can perpetuate the stigma surrounding substance use.. Terms such as “drug of choice” and “clean time” should be removed from our substance use treatment referral/intake forms. Although I do not have control over the language used in external agencies referral packages, when speaking with clients I can chose to replace stigmatizing language with more respectful and inclusive wording such as “recovery time” and “primary and secondary substances of dependence”. If a client refers to themselves as an addict that does not give me permission to use the label. Instead, I can choose to remind the client that they are a human being with a illness deserving of respectful, compassionate and competent care.

    • Mark Lysyshyn says:

      I totally agree Matthew. We need to treat our patients with respect and compassion. We also need to do what we can to work within our programs and departments to change things like the language on intake and referral forms.

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