A Shameful Affair - Chief Exec Blog on the harmful effects of stigma

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21 September 2020

Read Phoenix Chief Exec's latest blog on the pernicious effects of stigma 

A Shameful Affair

Two weeks ago the UK Government published its response to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee report into Problem Drug Use in Scotland.

The response has been received with criticism both sides of the border for refusing every one of the Committees asks;

  • declare Scotland’s drugs deaths a public emergency
  • decriminalise the possession of small amounts of drugs
  • make drugs misuse a health rather than a criminal justice issue
  • pilot a safe drugs consumption room
  • UK Government to role model anti-stigma language and behaviour

The outcome of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee inquiry was similar to the Health and Social Care Select Committee report on Drugs Policy. Both reports were published within a month of each other and drew on representations and research from across the world.

What stood out for me at the time was the wealth of personal stories of people impacted by addiction contained in and published alongside the report.

Real people telling real stories of despair, adversity, pain and suffering.

‘’Never in a million years did I think my daughter was going to grow up to become a heroin addict – because she wanted to be a school teacher not a heroin addict’’  Sandra's story.

Real people with bucketsful of bravery telling their stories so others lucky enough not to have their life experience can learn for them

‘’Listen to the evidence and listen to it again and again’’ urged Sharon

Reading the response my cynicism that politics would interfere with a rational review of the recommendations prepared me for much of what I read, but one sentence in the report remains gut wrenching for me.  

’there is a balance to be struck between the potential positive elements of stigma dissuading individuals from taking illicit drugs in the first place’’

UK Government response to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee report on Problem Drug Use in Scotland.

3 years ago we made a strategic commitment at Phoenix to call out stigma where we saw it. We reasserted that commitment in our new strategic plan because

“when we talk about stigma what we actually mean is discrimination - Judgements and behaviours that limit opportunities for people. We will continue to call that out where we see it and to give insight into the lives of people who experience addiction.

We will continue to give voice to people who use and need our services and support their human right to recover.” [1]

In November 2019 in Phoenix’s response to the Scottish Select Committees report I said;

We believe stigma is the single biggest risk to addressing the continued increase in people dying from drug use, because stigma impacts every decision made at a national and local level;

  • it means life-saving budgets are slashed
  • it means it’s acceptable for drug treatment to be the political football in endless national and local debate
  • it means people are judged when they seek help and forced to prove their willingness to get better
  • it means it’s seemingly okay for dehumanising images and language to be used in our media
  • and it means that our politicians have an excuse to ignore the preventable deaths of thousands of people a year across the UK [2]

Little did I know at the time of writing, that in 2020 the UK Government's response to that very report would highlight stigma as a good thing.

Another word for stigma is shame. Shaming people is not an addiction prevention strategy. Much of the time people spend in treatment is spent undoing the effect of shame and stigma. Listen to the story of anyone in addiction and you will understand that addiction isn’t a lifestyle choice for people to be nudged away from through shaming. Addiction is a health condition and more likely to be found alongside poor mental health, experience of trauma and poverty. [3]

Research shows us that sharing stories about people’s lives in adversity reduces stigma – sadly that didn’t work in this case[4].  I can only think the authors of the Governments response didn’t listen to the stories so bravely shared. Listen to Hannah's Story and tell me how shaming her would have changed her life at the age of 12, how shaming her would have made her feel more loved when she was in care, how shaming her would have interrupted the cycle of homelessness and prison she tried to escape for over a decade.

If we are to make real progress in helping people whose lives are devasted by addiction we need our Governments, our media and our public servants to understand stigma, how it is created and the pernicious effect it has on so many peoples' lives.

The shame in this story doesn’t sit with people who have lived experience of addiction, but it certainly sits somewhere.

Phoenix Futures is a registered charity in England and Wales (No 284880) and in Scotland (No SCO39008); Company Limited by Guarantee Number 1626869; Registered Provider of Social Housing with Homes England (H3795).