#FeatureFriday – Stigma and the 2019 CCSA Conference

An insight into the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction’s 2019 Issues of Substance Conference held November 25 to November 27 in Ottawa, Ontario.

November 25th to December 1st is National Addictions Awareness Week (NAAW)! This week is dedicated to raising awareness and improving understanding of alcohol-related and drug-related harms. This year’s theme is Stigma Ends With Me. The goal is to raise awareness of the impacts that stigma can have on substance use and addiction and the well-being of those affected by these issues.

CanFASD had the opportunity to celebrate NAAW at the CCSA’s Issues of Substance Conference. This conference was a wonderful chance for our team to interact with other researchers, professionals, and service providers to gain a better understanding of the landscape of substance use in Canada. It also gave us the opportunity to share the knowledge and resources that our organization has collected and developed about FASD, alcohol, and pregnancy.

IMG_9133A few members of our team at the CanFASD booth

A major theme of this conference was the notion of stigma. The conference brought together a number of amazing presenters who shared their real-world experiences dealing with stigma regarding substance use and addiction.

Séan McCann, a singer-songwriter, a mental health and recovery advocate, and the founder of the band Great Big Sea, presented a very raw and unique keynote session on the second day of the conference. He talked about his own experience with alcohol addiction and the stigma that he faced surrounding recovery. His presentation was equally lively and sad, candid and beautiful. It prompted lots of laughter, some holiday singing, and a few tears from the conference-goers in the audience.

IMG_9087-copy-3.jpgSing-along with Sean McCann of Great Big Sea and his guitar, Old Brown

Petra Schulz, co-founder of Moms Stop The Harm, shared her story on behalf of all grieving mothers. She lost her 25-year old son, Danny, to accidental fentanyl poisoning. Her presentation described the part stigma played in her son’s death, and how the stigma surrounding substance use continues to affect her family and countless others across Canada. She called on the government to improve drug policies, including decriminalizing possession and improving education and supports for those using substances. Her presentation sparked confidence in quite a few conference-goers that she would be a great candidate for the next Minister of Health!

IMG_9130-copy.jpgPetra Schulz and other panelists at the keynote session entitled “If I Were the Minister of Health”

Although all the presentations were incredibly moving, the speech that will stick with me for long after the conference ends was that of Harold R. Johnson. Mr. Johnson has held a number of different professions over the course of his lifetime. He is an author, advocate, former crown prosecutor, traditional trap line operator, and a member of the Montreal Cree Lake Nation. He focused his speech on the harms caused by alcohol. This is a topic he knows quite well as the last couple years he’s been working to develop and implement an effective alcohol strategy in La Ronge, Saskatchewan. However, his presentation also touched on the importance of stories and how they can shift our perspectives on life.

IMG_9065-copy.jpgStanding ovation for Harold Johnson after his keynote speech 

His frank and honest presentation highlighted the impact that stigma, racism, and socially ingrained stereotypes can have on our lives and the lives of others. In no way can I summarize his presentation as eloquently as he told it, nor can I convey the power of his speech and the effect it had on the audience at the CCSA conference. But I can tell you that I experienced a profound shift in my way of thinking about stigma, and I recommend that everyone take the time to read or listen to his story first-hand.

As an organization, we are so excited that this year’s theme for National Addictions Awareness Week is Stigma Ends With Me. Stigma regarding  alcohol consumption, mental health, and disability is an issue that negatively impacts the health and wellness of those impacted by these challenges.

Stigma is a huge barrier that can prevent women with substance use concerns from accessing medical treatment, services, and supports. Women who consume alcohol or use substances fear judgement from service providers. This fear of judgement can compound in them choosing not to access treatment out of feelings of shame, guilt, depression, or low self-esteem.

Stigma is also an issue that affects individuals with FASD, their friends, and their families. Parenting a child with a disability can be challenging, but it is also a very positive and rewarding experience.  However, caregivers may perceive stigma surrounding raising a child with a disability, which can result in emotional distress, can negatively impact their health, and can prevent them from accessing services.

Along with caregivers, individuals with FASD experience stigma. FASD is generally an invisible disability, therefore the impacts of FASD can be misconstrued as “poor behaviour”. It can become a never-ending cycle, where stigma prevents the individual from accessing the necessary supports that can improve outcomes and as adverse outcomes grow from lack of supports so does the discrimination and isolation these individuals may face.

One way that we can tackle stigma in our daily lives is to ensure that we are using non-stigmatizing, person-first language when we are talking about substance use, mental health, and disability. Resources are available through the CCSA website to help us shift our language surrounding substance use and addiction, and through the CanFASD website to change how we think about FASD, alcohol, and pregnancy.

It is important to recognize that stigma is a negative stereotype and acting on those stereotypes is discrimination. Remember: stigma ends with us.

Visit the CCSA’s webpage to take the pledge.

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Written by Victoria Bailey, CanFASD staff

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