It’s so easy to think of drug addicts as problems and not people, Natalie Harris says. We see addiction as a moral failing, and addicts as simply lacking willpower, rather than people who are sick and struggling with dangerous and crippling conditions.
“There’s this massive stigma that people who battle with addiction can just choose to stop,” the Barrie, Ont. city counsellor told HuffPost Canada. Many people “don’t see that it’s a disease like any other disease.”
Harris, who’s in recovery for addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, wants to change that perception. So, she started making cards.
“People battling addiction deserve get-well cards too,” she said.
The cards are homemade, filled with messages of encouragement and hope, and delivered to hospitals, shelters and rehab facilities. It’s the same idea as delivering a get-well card to someone hospitalized for broken bones or pneumonia: a small gesture can go a long way when you’re sick and vulnerable. But these small kindnesses often aren’t afforded to people hospitalized for addictions, Harris said.
She hears addicts talk about that stigma in many of the meetings she attends for her own recovery, she said. The topic was especially front-of-mind after she started reading the results of a citywide survey about how to make Barrie safer. The way many people in the city think about drug addicts shows the need for more compassion, she said.
“There’s still a lot of the perception that it’s not like cancer, it’s not like diabetes, it’s not a disease. and that’s just not the case,” she said. “It’s very much a disease.”
While medical professionals don’t unanimously agree that addiction should be classified as a disease, a landmark 2016 report by former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy bluntly stated that “addiction is not a character flaw — it is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.”
Opioid addiction disorders “actually change the circuitry in your brain,” he later explained to NPR. “They affect your ability to make decisions, and change your reward system and your stress response. That tells us that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain.”
About eight million Canadians are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, according to the most recent monitoring survey. The rising opioid crisis is exacerbating the problem: more than 2,000 people died from opioid use in Canada last year. Barrie has been particularly badly hit. The city’s central north area, which includes its downtown, had 10 times more overdose hospital visits in 2017 than the provincial average that year. Within Ontario, Barrie is second only to St. Catharines in its rate of opioid-related emergency room visits.
Harris came across a lot of people in the throes of addiction during her previous career — she was a paramedic for 11 years, something she’s written about for HuffPost — and she understands why people might initially develop the attitudes they do about drug addiction.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t see the stigma, even myself as a new paramedic,” she said. “No one would receive lesser care for the call that we would go to, but there would be a grumble from time to time.”
It was when she started experiencing PTSD symptoms from the trauma she saw face-to-face in her job that she started self-medicating, eventually leading to addiction. The insurance she had access to through her work allowed her to seek treatment, but many people don’t have that option, she understands now.
For many, calling 911 and summoning paramedics was “their only way to care,” she said.
Her work on Barrie’s city council means she was able to get the city’s Mayor Jeff Lehman on board with the card-making initiative, as well as local firefighters.
Lehman made two cards, and signed his name to both, Harris said. “Somebody will get that card from the mayor. To know the mayor believes in them, has faith that they can get well ... I think it’s super cool.”
The firefighters were excited to get involved, too. “We had all these craft supplies out over this massive table, getting these firefighters covered in glitter,” she remembers. “It was amazing.”
Harris has been in contact with schools, trying to get classrooms to get involved as well. She’d also love for individual people who have spare time to start making cards, too. She’s documenting the process on Twitter and Instagram.
“Anyone can do this, anywhere,” she said. When she delivered them to her local hospital, the receptionist was a bit confused at first, but quickly got on board with the idea.
For people who want to start an initiative like this in their own areas, Harris suggested researching detox or rehab centres, and delivering the cards either by hand or mailing them. She hasn’t been in direct contact with any of the people who have received the cards yet, but one of her friends has, and said the recipient was really touched.
“It’s such a simple thing to do, but the ripple effect can be enormous.”
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