build better conversations

What would it look like to build better conversations about substance use?

Reducing fear and shame associated with substance use is an important step in dismantling barriers to care. BC’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Honourable Sheila Malcolmson advocates that substance use and addiction are public health issues, not criminal ones. As such, BC is currently working toward decriminalization.

Substance use and addiction are critical issues. With alcohol-related hospitalizations on the rise and BC’s ongoing battle with a toxic drug supply, this issue is devastating our local communities. If stigma is barring people from accessing care, focusing on empowering people who use drugs and substances is a critical piece of the puzzle. This month, we’re looking at understanding how we can spur change by adjusting the language we use when talking about substance use.

where stigma starts

The words we use – and don’t use – can help people feel included, understood and supported, or they can leave people feeling judged and ostracized. As communication practitioners, we are often facilitating difficult conversations. That’s why try to shine a light on helpful and harmful language, to help people build better conversations on topics that matter.

Over the last year, we’ve been incredibly lucky to work with some brilliant partners in this space. We’ve been learning from the folks at Bunyaad Public Affairs, the McCreary Centre Society and leading local experts in substance use education like Cindy Andrew and Art Steinman. Together we’ve helped launch the ABCs of Youth Substance Use, an initiative to promote comprehensive, evidence-based approaches to youth substance-use education in BC schools. By providing strategic communication services to this team of expert substance-use educators, youth advocates, and public health researchers, we are now heartened to be a part of a team working and continually learning to prevent, delay and reduce substance-related harms among youth in BC.

Through this work, we’ve learned so much about how to tackle the stigma around substance use and spur conversation for positive change; starting with the words we use. Below are some dos and don’ts to support inclusive and respectful language around substance use.

people hold coffee cups and wine

dos and don’ts

As always, the list below is by no means comprehensive. But we wanted to start with some guiding principles to lead meaningful conversations.

  1. Do meet people where they’re at. People’s experiences and journeys with substance use are personal and complex. Meet people where they’re at by leading with compassion and care. Don’t wish they were somewhere else on their journey. Don’t tell people to ‘clean up’ or ‘get sober.’
  2. Don’t assume that a person who uses substances misuses them. People have diverse experiences with substances. Some are necessary for people to experience life as they want to. For many of us, our substance use serves a healthy function. Substance use isn’t always negative or harmful.
  3. Do say ‘recovery,’ not ‘relapse.’ Over time, the term relapse has developed a negative connotation. People have the right to their own path to recovery and these paths will look different for many people. Along the same lines, don’t use the term ‘clean’ when referring to a person who is not currently using substances. It’s harmful to connote that those using substances is dirty.
  4. Don’t talk about substance-use disorders as a choice. People experiencing substance-use disorders are not opting into the difficulties they are facing. Although it’s important not to strip people of their agency, referring to substance misuse as a choice misconstrues the fact that addiction is a health issue, not a moral failing.
  5. Do take a people-first approach. Say things like, ‘people who use drugs.’ A person is not their circumstances. They also shouldn’t be defined by one characteristic. Person-first language is respectful of lived experiences and we should adopt it across a range of topics and issues.
  6. Don’t use stigmatizing language. Although we’d hope it would go without saying, there is no place for terms like ‘junkie,’ ‘addict,’ and ‘drug abuser/user’ these days. Using this type of language reduces people to their substance use, which is never appropriate.

substance use is complicated and often misunderstood

This small list of dos and don’ts is meant to serve as a launching point for further conversations. We are in dire need of richer conversations about substance use and addiction more broadly. Although some folks are quick to recognize (or sometimes judge) substance-use disorders with things like alcohol and drug use, addictive behaviours also exist with other substances like caffeine. When approaching conversations around substance use, enter with language that embodies curiosity and kindness.

Although this is meant as a thought-starter, we’re always open to being called in. What did we miss? What doesn’t sound right? Let us know how you’ve learned to talk about substances and how it transformed your approach. We’d love to hear from you.

a blonde haired woman with glasses poses in front of the camera
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Hilary is a multi-award-winning communication and engagement strategist, with a decade of industry experience. She has a knack for designing thought-provoking campaigns and facilitating constructive community dialogue.

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