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Stigma and discrimination experienced by people who use drugs

Why does it matter?

People who use drugs are often prevented from recognizing that they have an issue with their substance use due to the effects of stigma and discrimination. This causes people to avoid accessing harm reduction support or treatment, creating delays for help-seeking behavior

Families also experience discrimination and stigma as the loved ones of someone with a substance use issue, preventing them seeking the support that they need, as well as being a driver for rejecting or trying to control their family member with a substance use issue.
This jeopardizes the family and social connections that are often critical to including and supporting a family member with substance use issues, and being part of the journey to better health and wellbeing.

Stigma and discrimination against people who use drugs is harmful and can lead to serious health problems and even death.

Read more from the recent Family Drug Support Day

Yarra Drug and Health Forum and the issues of stigma and discrimination against people who use drugs

Dependence on alcohol and other drugs is a health issue. Substance use disorder is a medical condition

A ‘substance use disorder’ is recognised as a ‘mental disorder’ and is contained in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (‘DSM‑5’), which is the most widely used diagnostic handbook by psychiatrists and other clinicians around the world. The clinical description of a substance use disorder is substance use that is harmful to one’s health or where the person has a substance dependence.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5)

It is a basic human right to have access to health services, and yet we find that support for people with dependence on drugs is often conditional, as stigma and prejudice often pervades the health and community services as it does the general community. 
The Medically Supervised Injecting Room (MSIR) located in North Richmond in 2019 is a very successful health and harm reduction service and is often the subject of media commentary that stigmatises and stereotypes people who use the service, and indeed people who work in the service or work supporting injecting drug users.

There have been active street-based heroin markets in a number of areas across Victoria for many years, with the heroin market in the inner Melbourne areas of Richmond and Abbotsford in existence since well before 2005. In 2015 the number of heroin overdose events, and deaths for heroin overdose, in the area reached such a level that the State coroner recommended the establishment of a medically supervised heroin consumption room and the community was galvanized to support it. 

The Yarra Drug and Health Forum has been unwavering in its support for this essential health service in the area, having advocated strongly for its establishment, and seen its success in saving lives.
This is not to say that there are not harmful impacts of street based drug injecting for residents and others in the North Richmond area, which was recognized in the Hamilton Review as persisting, as the level , albeit lower level, of street based drug injecting continued, and continued to impact local residents and businesses.

The media around these problems has often been one sided. People who use the MSIR are hardly in a position to publicly state their case as people who use, and often are dependent upon, an illegal substance.
People who use heroin are as diverse a group of people as being who drink alcohol or smoke tobacco, and yet they are often stereotyped, demonized and judged. Stigma and discrimination results from fear and ignorance.

Alcohol and Other Drugs: Stigma
A background Paper from the Australian Drug Foundation

The Yarra Drug and Health Forum is committed to working with the community to address stigma and discriminations about people who use drugs, and to elevating the voice of people who use drugs in the discourse in the community that takes place around these issues.
Decriminalizing drug use is the most effective way to reduce the stigma and discrimination experienced by people who use drugs, encouraging people to seek help if they have a problem.

The harms arising from alcohol use in the community are much more harmful than those associated with the use of other drugs but the illegality of drugs such as cannabis and heroin exposes people who use these drugs to the criminal justice system with all the associated harms a police or corrections record can cause.
Drugs law reform seems to be hugely difficult to achieve.
In the meantime the YDHF will be encouraging the community to appreciate the humanity of people who use drugs, their access to evidence based health and harm reduction services, and will continue to support information, respectful conversation and cooperation to address harms arising from drug use in the community.

May 7th is International Harm Reduction Day, promoting evidence based public health policy, practices and human rights.

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