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Come As You Are: Identifying Problematic Substance Use April 20, 2022 @ 7:40pm

There are various individualized reasons why people use drugs. These exist upon a continuum. Most drug use (approximately 85%) is experimental and recreational and causes no long-term or severe harm to a person. For example, it is not uncommon for people to use only on the weekend, when on personal downtime and free of responsibilities such as work, or at a special event. Other people use what’s considered a minimal amount daily to maintain productivity and efficiency in their days/tasks, but it doesn’t develop into what we typically think of as problematic. When substance use moves into a place where the person is experiencing significant or life-altering consequences, the first step to help support them is to understand why it may be happening.

One of the most common experiences shared with workers is that people self-medicate with an illicit drug because of undiagnosed or improperly treated mental health concerns. It can be challenging to navigate the healthcare system, especially in communities where resources and support may be limited. Wait times to see specialists can take weeks or months and may not be tailored to what a person is seeking. Often in rural areas, the primary way of accessing care for mental health issues is through the family doctor or emergency/crisis visits to hospital. Unfortunately, these points of care are not always the most equipped to handle severe mental health interventions.

The illicit supply of drugs often mimics the effects of prescribed substances used to treat health concerns. For example, the chemical makeup of methamphetamine is very closely related to medications used to treat ADHD (Adderall). Therefore we see many people who use illicit drugs to “feel normal” when they are without needed prescriptions to treat these disorders or suspect they may have an unconfirmed diagnosis. For many people, using meth can provide focus, clarity and better memory when completing tasks required in their daily lives. Unfortunately, it typically becomes problematic because their chosen substance is criminalized, and they have to access it from an illegal, unregulated source (street dealer). Legal problems, dwindling finances and declining physical health are the usual suspects when determining if use has become addictive.

Other factors that can move people from recreational into more dependent use may include: unstable housing, poverty, Adverse Childhood Experiences (abuse, dysfunction, neglect during developmental years), trauma/PTSD, coping with grief/loss, physical health issues, lack of connection to community & social supports, safety, and breakdowns of relationships. It is essential to remind ourselves that the chaotic or harmful use of substances is often related to poor coping mechanisms in response to difficult life situations.

We, as frontline workers, hear from people in active use that they need support rather than punitive actions and safe, non-judgmental spaces to communicate their feelings and concerns. These are the stepping stones to accessing resources that can ideally help someone reach what they deem as recovery. But without open dialogue to discuss drug use, we will continue to see addiction thrive in the stigma surrounding the issue.

As a community, there are relatively simple things we can all do to promote understanding and compassion to people who use drugs. A shift in the language we use in everyday conversations (and online) is a great place to start. Avoid using stigmatizing words that place blame or judgment. People who use drugs are the hardest on themselves; having to hear or read hurtful comments online makes them want to hide the issues they’re struggling with. Read about the root causes of addiction with an open mind. Try to act as a safe person to discuss substance use with, as challenging as that can sometimes be. Offer to assist with finding resources for your loved one in your community. Or perhaps accompany them to appointments (if they ask) as a show of support in their treatment care plan. We have to build communities to be inclusive and welcoming. If we can do that, people want to connect with supports when they are able and ready to. If they feel shunned and outcast by the people around them, they will most likely continue to isolate themselves and try to manage their drug use alone.

Turning Point’s Rural Outreach program offers Peer Support, navigation of systems and a judgement-free option for people to talk about their drug use. We work to educate about reducing harms, resulting in safer and healthier individuals and communities.

Jenn McCrindle, Rural Outreach

Turning Point


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