British Columbia

UBC panel examines how academic institutions can reduce stigma of drug use

More organizations not typically involved with drug policy are examining their role in fighting the escalating opioid crisis.

Discussion looks at how a university can help tackle the escalating opioid crisis

UBC is holding a private panel discussion to look at how academic institutions can help address the stigma of drug use. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The University of British Columbia is bringing together academics, community members and people who use drugs in a bid to find out how institutions can reduce stigma around substance use.

It's a sign that more organizations not typically involved with drug policy are examining their role in fighting the escalating opioid crisis.

"We want to get those experts' advice on what we should be doing in our research, in our training and also in our community engagement," said Dr. Gurdeep Parhar, one of the panellists at a round-table discussion at UBC on Tuesday.

Parhar, a family physician and executive associate dean of clinical partnerships and professionalism at UBC's faculty of medicine, said the issue of stigma is something that comes up all the time when he's treating patients, and can be a barrier to effective treatment. 

"I often think in my practice, 'Are patients not telling me about their substance use patterns or am I not asking the right questions?'" he told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition.

"That's why I'm really keen to get input and learn from the real experts — those living with this illness, those that are affected, family members, frontline workers."

Focus on barriers, language

The university is already doing cutting-edge research around substance use, Parhar said, but more focus is needed on the barriers to treatment.

"The university, being a public institution, we have a responsibility to be at the cutting edge of that," Parhar said.  

For Kenneth Tupper, director of implementation and partnerships with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, preparing the next generation to respond to the crisis is key.  

"Of course, the faculty of medicine and school of nursing are critical, but there are other aspects. Education, social work, law — all of these aspects should be brought to bear on thinking how to address this problem collectively," said Tupper, another panellist at the discussion.  

Even small changes around language — using terms like substance "use" instead of "abuse" — can make a difference to de-stigmatize the topic, Tupper said, and is a concrete step education institutions can focus on.

"Language is a really critical aspect of how stigma is perpetuated," he said. "Often, our language is very unconscious … We need to do a much better job of addressing that."

With files from The Early Edition.