Stigma surrounding mental health, substance use, and addiction is harmful to those vulnerable to its effects and is a barrier to seeking help or treatment. The Umbrella Project strives to reduce stigma by providing education about person first language and encouraging compassionate and inclusive responses to those seeking assistance in achieving positive substance use health.

Stigma surrounding substance use is one of the leading causes of poor heath outcomes for persons who use substances. It exists at the individual, community and institutional level and is the act of treating an individual as less worthy of care or support as a result of their choice to engage in substance use. Stigma can also be represented in the notion that some substances are better, or more acceptable, than others and thus, individuals who consume ‘bad’ substances are less deserving of assistance and bear more responsibility for the challenges they face. Stigma is the largest barrier to individuals seeking out supports and can lead individuals to use in more risky ways by forcing them to hide their use, use alone or without proper sterile supplies. It contributes to individuals who are struggling with substance use to feel isolated.

To hear more about the effects of stigma and how it can prevent individuals form receiving support, watch this video where Tina shares her story:

Youth and young adults face the unique predicament of being doubly stigmatized as there is also pressure to use substances in social settings. The choice to abstain or practice safer substance use habits can be looked down upon while high-risk behaviours, such as binge drinking, can be promoted as a positive measure of social status.

Stigma is present in negative attitudes and stereotypes of persons who use substances, and institutional policies that disadvantage persons who use substances, but is most commonly displayed through stigmatizing language. Stigmatizing language can be directed at individuals and groups, or even exist in the ways we talk or think about certain substances and the persons who use them.

To combat the negative effects of stigma, person-first language promotes an approach that is compassionate and acknowledges that all persons are deserving of dignity and respect regardless of what substances they use or where they are on the spectrum of substance use.

How to use person-first language and avoid stereotyping

Stigmatizing Language

“They have been clean for six months”

“They are a drug abuser”

Avoid calling someone an addict, junkie, druggie etc

“All people who use substances are homeless”

Person-First & Supportive Language

“They haven’t used any substances for the past six months”

“They are someone that struggles with substances use”

Instead, say “someone who uses substances” or “someone with living experience of substance use”

“Substance use and housing insecurities are not mutually exclusive. Some persons who use substances experience housing insecurity, however, substance use and addiction could affect anyone.”

Here is a video from the Community Addictions Peer Support Association (CAPSA) that demonstrates the importance of the language we use when talking about substance use:

If you are interested in being an ally, check out Stigma Ends at CU, a Carleton University student-led campaign functioning out of with the goal to reduce stigma around addiction and substance use. This student society provides safe and non-judgmental ‘study or chill’ sessions and many other initiatives for students directly or indirectly affected by substance use and addiction.