Destigmatizing addiction: How awareness and prevention can save lives

Click to play video: 'Reducing the stigma: National Addictions Awareness Week highlights importance of support'
Reducing the stigma: National Addictions Awareness Week highlights importance of support
This week is National Addictions Awareness Week, which looks to change the way Canadians think about those who use substances. Eloise Therien touches base with experts and people impacted by addiction to find out more – Nov 23, 2021

National Addictions Awareness Week, which runs from Nov. 21 to 27, aims to shed light on the way Canadians view those dealing with addiction while recognizing efforts to spark change.

What is addiction?

“Addiction is really quite prevalent in our society in different forms,” said University of Lethbridge associate professor Dr. Bonnie Lee.

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“It could be related to substance use, but it could also be related to certain behaviours, such as gambling, internet gaming, and you know there are other forms of behaviours that could be addictive that are under study.”

Lee, a clinician who teaches in the faculty of health sciences, said there is still a lot of stigma and misconception surrounding addiction.

“I would just like to call attention to addiction being really a human way of coping that overwhelms our natural abilities, and the more natural ways that we can find, the better off we are so we don’t have to resort to substances or behaviours to change the way our brain functions,” Lee said.

Click to play video: 'Family caregivers need more support, says nursing expert'
Family caregivers need more support, says nursing expert

Dr. Cheryl Currie, an epidemiologist and associate professor of public health at the U of L, has been conducting several studies related to the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected rates of addiction.

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She said social factors seem to play a role in the development or progression of an addiction, describing it as a “slippery slope.”

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“In Alberta, adults who experienced racial discrimination during the pandemic were much more likely to say that they dramatically increased their alcohol use as well as their cannabis use,” she explained.

“There’s a lot of shame around addictions, and I think if we don’t study it, if we don’t bring it into the light, it really does get hidden quite a bit.”

She added Canada is leading some of the richest countries when it comes to per capita alcohol consumption.

Prevention and treatment

“We’re trying to understand treatment on the clinical work, and we’re also trying to understand prevention, so people don’t slide into a level of addiction that they can’t get out of,” said Currie.

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“The role of mindfulness, I think, can really be helpful for (someone) in their early stages (of addiction).”

Lee said: “Largely, prevention has to do with knowing how to build solid, supportive relationships with the people important to them.”

Lori Hatfield, a member of the non-profit Moms Stop the Harm, has been dealing with the effects of her son’s drug use since he was 16 years old.

She said it was thanks to a recovery facility in Calgary that her son was eventually able to begin the journey to recovery, but there were many difficult years that came with it.

How can addiction affect those around you?

“(My son) ended up losing everything,” Hatfield said. “He lost his vehicles. He had nowhere to stay. He ended up living on the streets.

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“When you have somebody — a loved one — living with addiction, it does create a traumatic symbiosis in the family.”

Hatfield believes it takes compassion, along with tangible supports from the community and the government, to help people recover.

“Gone are the days of stigmatizing and judging people who use drugs,” Hatfield said.

“Trauma is one of the highest reasons why people are living with addictions, and to further traumatize them by treating them as less than human is just horrific.”

Hatfield said the support from joining MSTH has been extremely helpful in relating to others in a similar situation.

“For people that have somebody in active addiction, don’t give up on them,” she said.

“They are still there. Realize that when they get you so angry and frustrated, you’re not dealing with the person — you’re dealing with the addiction.”

Saving a life

According to the Alberta government’s substance use surveillance data, 1,026 people died from January to August 2021 from drug and alcohol poisonings.

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Loa Manning, assistant owner and pharmacist at a Lethbridge Shoppers Drug Mart, is encouraging the public to stop by a pharmacy to pick up a naloxone kit, a medication used to block the effects of opioids.

“If you see anyone you think might be having a drug overdose, what’s inside (the kit) will help you save their life,” she said.

The kits are provided at Alberta pharmacies for free. Manning said their pharmacy typically gives out a few each week.

“You can get as many kits as you want — if you want one for your house, one for your car,” Manning explained. “So just come and ask for one because everyone should have one.”

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