Lisa Raville is a powerful woman whose days are filled with stigma—thinking about it, coping with it, wanting to reduce it, and seeing the real-life horrible impact of it on virtually every drug-injecting client who walks through her front door. She understands, better than most, that stigma is not a meaningless concept but that it is absolutely real and its consequences can absolutely destroy lives.
With a series of newly released ‘super-short’ videos, all of which clock in at under :30, Raville’s organization, Harm Reduction Action Center (HRAC) in Denver, CO, is exposing the impact of stigma on the real lives of real people who use drugs. This is stripped-down narrative, just faces, shot in black and white.
In one video, a mother talks about getting the call from the coroner that her son had died. In another video, a woman talks about how even if she has a problem with drugs, she’s still a human being like everyone else.
The video snippets provide just enough of a thought-provoking statement to stimulate further reflection or conversation. They are intentionally brief and intentionally open-ended.
Too often, people who inject drugs live on the margins, turned away from frustrated family members, kicked out of rehab for relapsing during treatment or unable to sustain employment and living on the streets.
We tell people they have a disease, but grow weary and angry when they don’t exhibit sufficient remorse for having that disease. We promote drug treatment, but usually demand total abstinence, ensuring that at least a portion of drug injectors will fall well short of that goal and incur our wrath.
In short, we get very impatient and frustrated and we manifest those feelings in the numerous ways we attempt to keep drug users away from us, out of society and far away from the people and services that could offer solace and assistance.
That’s stigma—and it hurts to be on the receiving end of it.
When people die alone in gas station bathrooms with needles in their arms, we can look to our institutionalized stigma as a factor in that death. If we supported heroin-assisted treatment or supervised injection facilities instead of projecting unbridled contempt on heroin users, far fewer of our sons and daughters would die alone, their last minutes spent hiding their drug use.
The way we treat people; the way we speak and write about them; the policies we make that impact their lives and the way we keep them away from us (and other parts of our shared human experience such as employment, housing, and even simple human friendship)—these are all elements of what we call ‘stigma.’ And people struggling with drug problems usually bear the absolute worst of it.
In a recent study out of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, researchers found that the public feels more negatively toward people with substance use disorders than people who are mentally ill. To add insult to injury, the researchers also found that the public does not support employment, health insurance or housing policies that help people with substance problems.
Raville is a smart woman. She knows these videos aren’t going to solve the problems of the world overnight. What she wants, is a world where people don’t hate themselves for self-medicating their own traumas; a world where we don’t judge people for whatever chemicals they put into their own bodies as a result of whatever complicated life journey they may have had.
We want a world that is just a little better educated, a little more compassionate and a little bit more understanding. We want a world where we kill stigma—not a world where stigma kills.
Meghan Ralston is the harm reduction manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.