How to talk about substance use

Correct and respectful language can help reduce stigma

The overdose crisis dominates the news with reports of multiple causes, possible solutions and tragic stories of those who are affected.

Heather Morris is a PhD candidate in the School of Public Health and a research trainee with the Inner City Health and Wellness program at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. She says speaking about the issue with understanding and respect can help reduce the stigma surrounding substance use.

Morris explains some key terms you should know about this complex topic.

  1. Harm reduction
    Harm reduction refers to a philosophy of care that involves being non-judgemental, compassionate and meeting people where they are at, when offering support. Harm reduction interventions are meant to keep people who are using illicit drugs safe and healthy, without requiring that they reduce or stop their use of drugs.

    Examples of harm reduction interventions include sterile needle exchange programs, supplying naloxone in the community and drug safety testing.

  2. Supervised consumption services
    Supervised consumption service sites are another example of a harm reduction intervention. The sites offer people a safe, hygienic setting with supervision by health professionals where they can consume their own illicit drugs (oral, smoked or injected). They also provide supports to clients, such as health education and counseling, referrals to community supports and access to medical treatment for their substance use disorders.

    Research has shown these services do, indeed, reduce overdose deaths, minimize the spread of infectious diseases like HIV, and decrease drug use in public places.

  3. De-criminalization for personal use
    The threat of having a criminal record for using drugs can negatively affect someone's feelings of self-worth. It can also prevent them from getting help for their problems with substance use.

    Many people who have experienced drug use, health officials, and policy and research experts, including the Canadian Public Health Association, are calling upon the federal government to de-criminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. This action is intended to better support people who struggle with substance use.

Using better language

Morris says using respectful language when talking about substance use and people affected by it can help reduce the negative impacts of stigma. For example:


Morris recommends Health Canada for more compassionate, people-centred word choices.

Morris and Assistant Professor Elaine Hyshka have partnered with fellow researchers at other institutions and advocacy groups from across Canada to share the stories of parents of children whose death was either directly or indirectly related to drug use.

See the Lives videos include the stories of four parents and call to action for scaling up harm reduction efforts and to end the blame and shame that prevents people with substance use disorders from getting the care they need.


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