Posted in Opinions, Top Opinions

“Addiction shaming” on the Internet badly backfires

Drugs don’t define their users, and pretending they do doesn’t address the problems they cause

Image Credits: Alexa Tarrayo

Vancouver is in the middle of a drug crisis. We’ve known this for a while. But you might be surprised to hear that there’s more than one drug-related crisis plaguing our city.

Over the past few months, I’ve seen a steady increase in photos, anecdotes, and videos posted online, meant to show the harmful side of drugs and addiction. Many of them have probably appeared in your Facebook feed.

All of these posts have one thing in common: they were created to help educate people about the dangers of addiction. While these intentions sound good, I think these posts are themselves a sort of danger, and cause problems of their own.

Brenden Bickerstaff-Clark made one video that really caught my attention. In it, Bickerstaff-Clark sits down to tell his eight-year-old son that his mother died of a drug overdose. It is a deeply personal and sad moment, and it resonated with many people. Others, like me, had different concerns.

While Bickerstaff-Clark admits that his video is made for addicts, and the video is “focusing on the message it would send to people in active addiction,” what I worry about is the way others are receiving it. People who struggle with substance abuse are already incredibly stigmatized in our society, and these videos only increase that stigma.

According to Dr. Howard Koh, a Harvard professor, “The stigma associated with addiction can discourage people from coming forward to seek treatment.” Ironically, the very messages we’re creating to spread awareness about drug use and addiction could be alienating people struggling with addiction, and preventing them from getting help.

These online posts are also incredibly narrow in their focus, telling stories that are only about mistakes, tragedies, and otherwise negative outcomes. While addiction can lead to criminal charges, health problems, or death, it can also end in recovery or rehabilitation.

Therefore, they perpetuate the idea that there’s no hope for anyone who is currently struggling with addiction. They don’t recognize the people who have or are working towards having a life beyond their pasts with substance abuse. Our society continues to create a dialogue in which we only talk about “failures.”

Instead of trying to change people’s outlooks with guilt or fear, it would be much more beneficial to spread the stories of those who have recovered from substance abuse, and gone on to lead happier lives.

These online posts about addiction reduce people to a simple label, and judge them on a superficial level. They might intend to send a positive message, but they’re degrading and damaging.

I’m not an advocate for open drug usage. I just believe that, no matter who you are, you deserve compassion and dignity. These posts exploit people at their most vulnerable in order to take a moral high ground and teach others a lesson. The people in these videos are more than just their addiction, and if we as a society want to change the impact of drugs, we first need to change the way we talk about drugs and their users.