How changing the language around addiction could reduce opioid-use stigma

A new social media campaign from Nova Scotia's Health Department, Health Canada and British Columbia aims to reduce the stigma around opioid use starting this summer.

Twitter, Facebook accounts from Health Department, hospitals and harm reduction groups enlisted

A new social media campaign this summer aims to remove the criminal stigma around opioids and educate the public on medical issues. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

Twitter and Facebook are being enlisted to help reduce the stigma around opioid use.

Nova Scotia's Health Department is working with Health Canada and British Columbia on a pilot project for release this summer. The social media campaign is aimed at changing public attitudes and encouraging people with drug use problems to get help.

Christine Porter, executive director of the Ally Centre of Cape Breton, said the campaign is a great idea. She said withdrawal from opioids is so severe, it can lead users to illegal behaviour.

However, Porter said, research shows opioid use disorder can be treated medically, which is why reducing the criminal stigma around opioid use is so important.

Christine Porter, executive director of the Ally Centre of Cape Breton, says the stigma around opioids is often reinforced through labels, which is why the language also needs to change. (Holly Conners/CBC)

That stigma can act as a barrier preventing users from seeking the help they need and force them into illegal or dangerous behaviour, such as seeking out opioids on the street, she said.

"It's a disorder. It's a disease, and one that can be treated, and one that we can find help for people instead of shunning them all and pushing them all into the corner," Porter said.

"It's not about a flu, or anything like that. It's a terrible sickness that people endure, so, you know, it leads them to desperate measures, and unfortunately that's where a lot of the stigma comes from."

The stigma is often reinforced through labels, which is why Porter said the language around opioid use also needs to change.

People used to refer to opioid abuse or opioid addiction. Lately, people are increasingly choosing to discuss opioid use disorder.

That's partly because there are people who legitimately need opioid medications to deal with chronic pain, said Porter.

"A lot of education has to take place," she said. "People are still under the impression that substance use disorder or addiction is still a person's choice, when we know and science knows, and lots of research has shown, that indeed that it is a disease.

"We absolutely have to change the language."

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, says opioid use disorder needs to be treated in a health-care setting instead of being criminalized. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer, said some of the stigma around opioid use has made some physicians reluctant to prescribe the medication.

However, he said, national prescription guidelines have been updated to counteract that.

Strang said to reduce the number of overdoses caused by opioids, people with a use disorder need to be treated in a health-care setting.

"The worst thing we can do is to actually push people to a street drug, or supply of opioids on the street, because now we've put them at much-increased risk for an overdose," he said.

No cost to Nova Scotians

Working with Health Canada and officials in B.C., where opioid use and overdoses are at a crisis level, a series of videos and other materials will be developed for release this summer at no cost to Nova Scotians, Strang said.

"Stigma reduction is part of our opioid response plan, so we're always happy to partner with others when there's ability to share some costs, etc.," he said.

The campaign will be monitored and, depending on results, may be rolled out nationally.

Strang said it dovetails with work already underway in Nova Scotia to improve harm reduction strategies, including making overdose antidote kits available across the province.

About the Author

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 32 years. He has spent the last 14 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.