We all know someone who is always going out for happy hour with their buddies after work, or the person who must have a cup of coffee before they talk to anyone or get anything done at work. But how often do we stop and think about the context behind these kinds of actions? 

National Addictions Awareness Week (NAAW) from Nov. 20-26 is an opportunity to learn more about addictions, recovery, and treatment. During NAAW, the hope is for people to have conversations with others about addictions and learn how to help those who struggle with substance abuse.

According to Franki Harrogate, a registered provisional psychologist, “Addiction – my own personal definition – is something that alters our mental or emotional state, well-being, and/or functionality such that its absence, loss, or interruption causes significant disruption.” 

Harrogate explains that comments like, “it’s wine o’clock” or “don’t talk to me before I’ve had my first cup of coffee” are often brushed off as jokes, “but those are simply people using substances in a context that’s considered socially acceptable.” 

Harrogate says substance use is generally an attempt to self-medicate. “Substance use becomes a problem when the needs we’re trying to meet remain unmet and unregulated substances continue to be the only way to reduce that pain or stress.” 

There are certain signs to look for when it comes to substance use. Harrogate says a big one to look for is trauma.

“Trauma that is untreated, particularly trauma that is ongoing, is a huge risk factor for substance use,” Harrogate says. To make matters worse, treatment for trauma tends to be inaccessible and barriered. “Doctors refuse to believe patients who report unresolved trauma as a mental health issue, never mind the health impacts of unresolved and/or prolonged exposure to trauma. So right here, we’ve got a huge barrier in people’s needs being met.” Also, if someone’s essential needs are unmet, that can cause or worsen existing trauma. Mental health is another factor.

“Folks with untreated mental health issues or unresolved trauma tend to be over-represented in substance use demographics because they’re attempting to meet a need and nothing else is accessible or available,” Harrogate explains. “Specific to substances, people use for a reason – again, maybe it’s self-medication (for a variety of reasons, all are legitimate). Self-medication can involve mood management or increasing appetite. Regardless, substances aren’t the issue – people’s responses to people who use substances are.”

There are numerous ways to help. “Doing so can look like making sure they never use alone; making sure that you are trained in the use of and have access to naloxone; ensuring access to drug testing kits to reduce accidental overdose; and, finally, pushing for safe supply of substances to prioritize safety of people who use substances.”

Harrogate explains that if you want to support someone who is interested in reducing usage or completely stopping, it is better to avoid the abstinence-focused programs. “Their success rate is extremely low, they use shame and rigid frameworks that don’t leave room for relapsing, and they tend to be run by people with a highly ideological, often religious perspective.” 

What does work, though, is harm reduction programs that involve a community.

“Giving people someone safe and trauma-informed to talk to when they’re struggling is the baseline. Access to trauma-informed therapy that centres around harm reduction, access to supporters who engage in harm reduction frameworks, and most of all, meeting essential needs like housing and food security. Stopping substance use while still being forced to endure or navigate the same conditions and spaces that contributed to using in the first place is pretty much impossible.”  

For more information, visit: ccsa.ca/national-addictions-awareness-week.