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September 29, 2020

Words matter: From stigma and apathy to empathy and action

By Denise Elerick, of the Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County

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Substance use disorder is now widely recognized in the medical community as a chronic illness which responds to treatment. Similar to other chronic diseases such as diabetes or heart disease, remission and recurrence are part of the disease and healing process. Research has shown that the recurrence or relapse rates for substance use disorders are the same as other chronic medical conditions.

With treatment, these behaviors transform. Life starts to normalize. Our words can be supportive. Our words can help decrease stigma and help people seek treatment and regain their lives, a hopeful prospect. But often, our words judge recurrence as a moral failing, bringing back the stigma and shame.

There has been attention and commentary in both the media and social groups in Santa Cruz county regarding words to describe those who suffer from substance use disorders in less than favorable terms. Words such as “junkie,” “drug seeker,” “criminal like,” and “addict,” add to the stigma associated with addiction. Addiction is a diagnosis characterized by compulsive drug use despite negative consequences. And the people who use drugs are our neighbors, fathers, mothers, children, people in business, medical providers and teachers.

As difficult as it is to live with a chronic, potentially relapsing disease, the impacts of stigma can be devastating. Public stigma leads to barriers in employment, education, training, health, housing and social support. Personal stigma leads to shame, guilt, lowered self-esteem, delays in seeking help and poorer health outcomes. Stigma may involve labels, negative stereotypes, and dehumanization that impact social and health outcomes.

Words can be powerful, and they matter.

Words can be used to inform, to encourage and to support, but they can also misinform, shame, or isolate. Changing our language from “addict,” to “person who uses drugs,” or “someone living with substance use disorder,” is part of the journey from stigma to empathy.

The impact of words can be seen in the shift in memorializing those who have died from substance use disorders in obituaries. Rather than “Joe Jones, a 47-year-old drug addict, died of a heroin overdose,” a less stigmatizing and more dignified obituary might read: “Joseph Jones, beloved son of Mary and Monte Jones, died after a long struggle with substance use disorder. Joe was a graduate of Soquel High and was loved by many.”

The simple act of becoming aware of our language, refraining from using labels or outdated language, and treating people with dignity brings humanity back into the picture.

As a community, we can address bias and stigma through education, personal witness, stories of lived experience, placing real people at the center, and changing our language and terminology. We all deserve to be seen, respected and to have the opportunity to seek recovery on our own terms.

In the shadow of Covid-19, we have seen a national increase in overdose deaths. Social isolation, increases in depression and anxiety, and using drugs alone are consequences of the pandemic.

A single overdose is one too many. Our neighbors are grieving alone, often silently, as the loss of a loved one is viewed with judgment. Let us shift the conversation to access to treatment, overdose awareness and prevention.

We can move from stigma and apathy to empathy and action.

Join us for a community conversation on International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31. Our presenters have suffered the tragedy of losing loved ones to overdose. We grieve and honor the lives we have lost over the years by moving to action. We commit to take efforts to eliminate preventable overdoses. This is an attainable goal that will take more than thoughts and prayers. We need action now—and you can get involved with solutions by joining us on Aug. 31, from noon-1:30pm for a Zoom session.

RSVP to receive the Zoom link by viewing our invitation: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/116671165597

Denise Elerick is an organizer with the Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County. She is joined by Elisa M. Orona, Executive Director, Health Improvement Partnership of Santa Cruz County; Matt Nathanson, Public Health Nurse; Jen Hastings, MD, Lead Physician, SafeRx Santa Cruz County; Kristen O’Connor, RN BSN CARN, Santa Cruz Community Health; Casey KirkHart, DO, Chief Medical Officer, Santa Cruz Community Health; Joey Crottogini, MPH, Health Center Manager, Homeless Persons Health Project; Kristen Petersen, Capitola Mayor; Rebecca Garcia, Watsonville Mayor; and Justin Cummings, Santa Cruz Mayor in this message. Their views are their own, and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.

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