Words are a powerful weapon. Words like junkie, crackhead and prostitute – even when said in jest – are dangerous. These words, and others like them, create stigma and perpetuate stereotypes about people who use drugs or sell sex. The dehumanizing effects of stigma push people to the margins of our society where help and security are much harder to find. Using stigmatizing language tells people that they are less valuable than others and less worthy of support. Stigma prevents those who use drugs or sell sex from seeking help for addictions, seeking mental health support and even accessing basic medical care. Stigma is a killer. It is time to use our words wisely.
At Avenue B we strive to build a compassionate community that promotes health, diversity and inclusion by embracing harm reduction as an evidence-based strategy that saves lives. Respect, dignity and personal autonomy are at the core of everything we do. We are on the frontlines of an opioid crisis that has already claimed more than 13,900 lives in Canada since 2016. And that number continues to climb. We are also dealing with a significant influx of crystal meth in our city. With limited resources, we aim to promote health and safety among some of the most vulnerable in our city.
When you use stigmatizing language, you are making a statement that it is okay to make fun of those who you consider less valuable. When you do so publicly – particularly on social media – you discourage efforts to bring change through harm reduction practices. Lately, we were dismayed to hear comments coming from prominent members of our community. This is not acceptable, not from them and not from anyone. It’s not about the size of the audience, but the message conveyed. It is a threat to the very work we do. So watch your words – spoken and typed. If you can’t be kind, be quiet, because it is a matter of life and death.