Photo courtesy BC Emergency Health Services
Time was, people with epilepsy were hidden away because of the intense stigma. A family’s shame at having someone with epilepsy meant little treatment and often death alone, during a seizure. Today, we are enlightened. There is treatment. No one hides away because of epilepsy and no one needs to die alone, untreated.
Yet, stigma still kills. Recreational drug users and addicts often hide their drug use. People using out in the open, in back alleys are exceptions, not the norm.
The shame means that, according to Margot Kuo of the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), “People typically hide their drug use because of the stigma. This makes them less likely to ask a friend to check on them, and less likely to seek medical attention for their addiction. They’re also much less likely to be attended by paramedics if they overdose, because there is no one to call 911.”
According to Dr. Nader Sharifi, a physician with BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, many people don’t understand addiction.
“Addiction is a chronic disease,” he says. “Just like high blood pressure or asthma. Addiction can be treated with success rates similar to the chronic diseases we typically treat. Only when we look at addiction in a non-judgmental manner, can we remove the stigma associated with it and move forward on a path to recovery.”
While BC’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy says, “Immediate harm-reduction programs such as Take-Home Naloxone are crucial.”
Darcy continues, “We also know we need a system of addictions care. If people who are suffering are going to get well, they need to be able to get help when they ask for it. They also need to feel safe doing so, which means we need to address the stigma associated with drugs.”
Dr. Jane Buxton, the harm reduction lead at BCCDC, agrees. “While the Take-Home Naloxone Program is saving lives, it’s just one piece of the opioid response. One of the next hurdles is reducing stigma—because it’s deadly,” she says
Kuo says, “Our data clearly show that people who use alone are more likely to die. If they’re going to survive their addiction, we need to address the stigma by showing compassion rather than judgment.”