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International Overdose Awareness Day and Compassionate Language


On International Overdose Awareness Day and beyond you have the power to challenge your biases and prejudice surrounding substance use. Creating a safe place with less stigma and oppressive language is vital to anyone seeking support. The language we use can either foster a trusting relationship or turn away individuals from the supports they need. The words we use have the power to create an inner monologue, and cycle of self- stigma that is deeply rooted and can impact help seeking.

Stigma against substance use is deeply woven into society and the language we use, for example, using the term “drug abuser” has a direct association with physical, or emotional abuse giving others the idea that individuals are engaging in ill-natured substance misuse – in reality the choice has been lost.

Vulnerable groups need a voice and should be the main navigators in conversations about language used to describe their experiences and challenges as they know best what impacts them.  These conversations can often become complex as some find certain language offensive and others do not, however it is the best way forward to create allyship. Furthermore, using a peer lens and focus is vital in creating justice and change in the language we use.

You may never fully understand the depth of an experience you have never had and the importance of compassionate language and the changes that need to be addressed. Consider the following stories:

“I have just ended a 10-year long battle with substance use. I found out I was pregnant 1 month later because of a sexual assault. I am in withdrawal and experiencing trauma-induced psychosis. I need help, I need support, I need education, I am alone. The police do not trust me, and I do not trust them. The hospital knows me by name, and I know the trauma I endured there many times before. The past flashes through my mind like bolts of lightening and I am terrified to reach out to someone. I am locked in my room, I have painted the words HELP ME in black paint on my walls, I cry and hold myself tightly. I am alone.”

“In the past I have reached out for help with my substance use. I have been told I need to be ‘clean’ and ‘sober’ to receive any type of support. The words used hit me hard and make me feel ‘dirty’ and less than. I do not try to reach out for support again and the consequences are fatal.”

“I enter a service providers office finally having the courage to reach out for support for substance use. I see signs everywhere that say ‘addict’ ‘drug habit’ ‘substance/drug abuse or misuse’ ‘relapse’. I feel ashamed and leave before speaking to anyone at the front desk. All the words remind me how my family talks to me about my substance use.”

Through these experiences the people felt judgment, disrespect and hurt. The people who should have created safety and a compassionate approach were the ones they feared the most. In the above stories the individuals did not seek support and the messages that they were worthless, lazy, sick and less than ran through their mind and became an embedded cycle of critical self-stigma.

One day, on a leap of faith they walked into CMHA WW’s Self-Help and Peer Support and see a smiling face who uses compassionate language and from that day forward they feel supported on their journey of healing and learning. Language, the system, and our societal ways can create the barriers to wellness.

Let us all be allies, let us invite the right people to the table and be humble enough to listen and make the appropriate changes. Let us change language and direct the conversation to end stigma, save lives and separate human beings from their experiences.

View the video below to learn more about compassionate language:


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