‘Support Not Stigma’ campaign promotes empathy, compassion, Board of Health learns

“70% of Canadians use drugs or alcohol to cope with a variety of challenges. Stigma makes it hard to see someone clearly.”
An image of ‘Kristy’ from the Support Not Stigma Facebook Page.

A stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. Unfortunately, as Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington’s (KFL&A) Board of Health recently learned, that sense of disgrace can lead people who use substances to hide their circumstances and not seek help. But there is hope.

At its monthly meeting on Wednesday, Jun. 26, 2024, the Board of Health received a presentation from Anoushka Moucessian, Public Health Promoter for the Substance Use Health and Mental Wellbeing Team at KFL&A Public Health, detailing a campaign that battles the challenges presented by stigma: the Support Not Stigma (SNS) campaign.

Moucessian said the campaign came about through the work of the Community Drug Strategy Advisory Committee for KFL&A, which first formed in March 2017 in response to harmful substance use in the community. Community partners came together to discuss substance use from the perspectives of their organizations; that research led to the conclusion that stigma had a negative impact on the outcomes for people who use substances.

The KFL&A Community Drug Strategy seeks to address substance use through the lens of prevention, harm reduction, and treatment. Moucessian explained, “People use substances for a variety of reasons and deserve support wherever they are along the continuum of use. We recognize that addiction is not a choice or a moral failing.”

According to the SNS website, the initiative is about restorative social justice for people in our community who use substances. Informed by the Integrated Care Hub’s 2021 Needs Assessment, the SNS campaign strives to give people in the KFL&A community who use substances “a hand up, not a handout.” It also provides support for those who love them and training for those who work with them.

The SNS initiative is a $1.5M grant funded by Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program. It involves six key areas: support for a region-wide anti-stigma and education strategy, low barrier vocational training and paid employment, building community through creativity, family support and repair counselling, specialized training for those who work with people who use substances, and outreach to an under-serviced population.

The region-wide anti-stigma and education strategy involved strategic awareness advertising. Image from presentation.

The campaign was launched last year on August 31, International Overdose Awareness Day, and its first phase ran for about seven months until March 31, 2024. The objective, Moucessian explained, was to increase awareness of substance use stigma by introducing real people in the community who have struggled with substance use, like opioid addiction.

Moucessian then took the Board of Health through some of the stories and how they were presented publicly in the campaign. Each individual had a different path that led them to begin using substances, and they discussed how stigma had impacted them on their journey to wellness.

One such individual is Kristy, whom Moucessian described as a colleague. “Kristy is a mother and a strong, compassionate harm-reduction worker,” according to the introduction to her story on the website, “She’s also recovering from opioid use and her father’s death from his own addiction. Kristy continues to battle grief, judgment, and anger. When Kristy is stigmatized for substance use, it brings back the sense of weakness, making treatment tougher and more isolating. As she says, she ‘feels powerless.’”

In the presentation, a video introduced Kristy. One of the main reasons Kristy fell into opioid use, she shares, is that “someone very close to me was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I knew the easiest way to numb those feelings, and that was with opioids. My experience started with a little bit of dabbling. After a very short time, it progressed into full-on intravenous substance use. It became very difficult for me to look in the mirror at the woman I had become.”

She goes on to say, “My journey with substance use has been full of anguish, grief, stress, anxiety, and numbness. I ended up in the intensive care unit, fighting for my life because of a relapse. I woke up three days later to find out that my own father had lost his battle with addiction. So it definitely hasn’t been easy.”

As for how she has been impacted by stigma, Kristy shares, “I still feel that I’m very judged. I feel sometimes that I don’t have any value. People sometimes make me feel powerless and it definitely brings back the sense of feeling not strong.”

“People are mean. And I think that they have to really take a step back and look at the whole picture. No one wakes up one morning and wants to be an addict. Nobody.”

“I think [people] have to really take a step back and look at the whole picture. No one wakes up one morning and wants to be an addict.” Still image from Kristy’s video interview.

“I find that I have more empathy and compassion than I ever have before. I know that I’m strong, and I’m resilient. And I’ve actually just only realized that in the last few days preparing for this interview.”

“I think that everyone needs to show empathy and compassion to those that struggle with addiction because I’m telling you, just from my personal experience, it has most definitely been the hardest trial and tribulation of my own life. And my goal in life is to make sure that everybody [who’s] struggling knows that I’m struggling with them.”

The campaign shared Kristy’s story along with those of Sue, Jay, Derek, Candice, Chris, and Nikki, through interviews and images in and around Kingston, to encourage others to get to know the people behind the stigma. One caption stated, “70 per cent of Canadians use drugs or alcohol to cope with a variety of challenges. Stigma makes it hard to see someone clearly. “

The campaign website explains that it encourages the audience to dialogue to expose the stigma against people experiencing mental health and substance use challenges, and to critically reflect on systemic changes to address potentially morally injurious events faced by those who are struggling.

Moucessian continued her presentation by explaining that, “in terms of next steps,” a report to Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program is in the works to provide feedback on the successes and challenges of the campaign.

In response to a question, Moucessian said, “As challenging some of the content has been,… to be privy to people’s vulnerabilities… has been a great privilege.”

Board of Health member and Kingston City Councillor Conny Glenn thanked Moucessian, saying, “It’s always difficult when you hear from people [about their challenges], so thank you for working on a project that I think is going to change hearts and minds and hopefully open the door for us to really assist people on whatever journeys they’re on.”

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