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Fighting the stigma of opioid use

Durham's health department launches new campaign

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

The region is setting its sights on transforming the stigma associated with opioid drug use.

Durham’s health department has launched a new campaign titled “People Who Use Drugs are Real People. Get Informed. Get Involved. Get Help.”

Over the past half-decade, the number of ER visits, overdoses, and deaths from opioids have skyrocketed across Canada – and it’s no different in Durham.

The number of emergency department visits due to opioid overdoses has risen from 160 in 2013 to 389 in 2017, a 143 per cent increase.

During that same period, opioid-related deaths in Durham spiked 222 per cent.

Preliminary data indicates there were 57 opioid-related deaths in the region last year.

“The opioid crisis is impacting individuals and families across Durham Region,” said Chris Arnott, a public health nurse with the Durham Health Unit. “It’s important for us to come together as a community to support our residents who could be our neighbours, friends and family members, who may be struggling with substance use disorders.”

According to Arnott, one of the biggest barriers preventing people from getting help is the stigma surrounding opioid use.

“When a person encounters stigma, it can diminish their self-esteem and make it very difficult for them to seek out health care, housing, and employment opportunities,” he says.

When it comes to stigma, language can be an important factor, Arnott explains.

“We need to try using people-first language, such as a ‘person who uses substances’ versus ‘drug user’ and avoid slang or derogatory language such as ‘addict’ or ‘junkie,'” Arnott said.

The campaign will include posters, website information, videos, and social media posts.

The creative material is adapted from the “Stop Overdose BC” campaign, launched by the British Columbia Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions in 2018.

The cost of the campaign, $15,000, is being funded through the province’s harm reduction program enhancement strategy. It will run until September.

Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter, who appears in a campaign video, says he wants to be part of all regional efforts to “remove the stigma and educate people regarding the dangers [of opioids].”

Carter, who speaks openly about his past struggles with addiction, said beyond the stigma, there is a great deal of shame.

“It plays a significant role in people coming forward with their issues… that is what holds people back sometimes,” Carter told The Oshawa Express.

An update on the region’s opioid response plan was presented to the health and social services committee recently.

Melissa Hutchinson, manager of population health, said Durham is comparable to provincial levels for opioid-related deaths but higher in emergency department visits.

She explains while opioid use is increasing, deaths are slowly but surely stabilizing.

A greater distribution of naloxone, a substance that can temporarily stop the effects of opioids, is one of the reasons for this, Hutchinson told the committee.  Hutchison said it took time for the crisis to unfold, and it will take time for it to be addressed.

“Nobody, if I can be honest, is winning this battle across the country,” she said.

– with files from Chris Jones