Compassion for People with Substance Dependency

October 22, 2018. Article by: Island Health

Negative views about substance use is a major barrier to people asking for help, even when they need it most. These negative views can lead people who use substances to stay silent and avoid seeking care, even when their health or life is at risk.

In response to this issue, Island Health recently developed the Perceptions campaign. It shares stories of patients, clients and their loved ones and medical and non-clinical staff who have had negative experiences related to substance use in a health-care setting. Through these stories, Island Health explores the way negative views about people with substance use disorders impact care providers and those seeking care. Watch Tara and Nancy's story of a mother and daughter on a journey to improved health.

#StopOverdose: A Mother and Daughter from Island Health on Vimeo.

The campaign builds on the StopOverdose BC campaign message that it is critical to have courageous conversations about substance use to educate people and eliminate stigma. We had the chance to ask Dr. Richard Stanwick, Island Health’s Chief Medical Health Officer, and Kelly Reid, Interim Executive Director in Mental Health and Substance Use, Public Health and Child, Youth and Family, about the Perceptions campaign. Here’s what they had to say.

How will people who access care benefit from this campaign and its message?

The campaign makes it clear to staff that people who use drugs include people we know and love. It raises awareness about the impact of language, the role of trauma, and the importance of small acts on a person’s healing journey.

Awareness can help compassion thrive.

Health-care providers are in a unique position to connect a person who uses substances to help when they are most in need. Compassion may be the most meaningful and important thing they can offer. Compassion allows connections to grow, reduces barriers and encourages people to take part in supports and services, including treatment.

Why is it important to share these stories?

The campaign formed through conversations with people who use or have used substances and their family and friends. It includes voices from community service providers and Island Health staff. One of the most powerful themes that emerged was the need to connect and better understand each other’s perspectives. It also gives a first-hand look at the gaps in our health-care system that can make it challenging to get help when people are ready.

People who use substances want people to understand they are not their substance use – they have unique experiences and stories to tell about themselves. They want to break down the walls of silence and invite health-care providers to learn about them as people, as sons or daughters, parents or friends with a life story that started long before their substance use did.  

Health-care providers want to hear more about these experiences and learn how to make a positive impact on patients’ lives. They want to tell colleagues about the challenges of having a loved one living with a substance use disorder and how this changes the way they view their patients and the nature of addiction.

How can health-care providers, frontline workers, and people supporting loved ones maintain their own well-being in the face of difficult situations?

People in caregiver roles feel deeply about those they care for, but it may be difficult for them to recognize that they themselves also need care. Many have experienced trauma and grief when responding to increased number of overdoses. They may suffer from compassion fatigue and burnout. Those supporting a family member or a friend with substance dependency may feel alone and frustrated.

Everyone builds resilience and well-being differently, whether it’s with one person or through a group, a formal resource or an activity. It’s important for people to know what maintains their well-being and personal vitality. In challenging work situations, staying grounded or asking a colleague for help may make a big difference.

We are all human.

There may be moments where we’re not at our best. Accepting this is not only being kind to ourselves, but to the people we encounter, and those we love.


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