I don’t know about you, but there are days when the events in the world leave my head spinning. In British Columbia, it has been particularly devastating to see the number of overdose deaths by far outnumber COVID-19 deaths. While many variables contribute to substance abuse, one I'd like to create more awareness for is the role of dignity.

Using the Belonging Matters framework in the overdose crisis

In 2019, I had the privilege of working on a year-long project with local experts on the overdose crisis - people who either used substances or were in recovery. We drew on the Belonging Matters framework and toolkit to support their voice, dignity and leadership.

Most of our experts (people with lived experience) had experienced an overdose at some point in their lives. All had experienced the pain of being stigmatized when they reached out for help when they needed it the most. These painful experiences led many to self-isolate and self-medicate even more, putting their lives and health at risk. 

Through their stories, I learned that we can never underestimate the power of building a sense of dignity in saving lives. These two quotes from leaders with lived experience stands out the most for me:

  • “I feel I don’t belong when service providers roll their eyes, follow me in stores or talk about me in front of other people not respecting confidentiality.”
  • “Shame is the hardest feeling of all. It can lead to not reaching out for help, using drugs, overdose and death.”

When people feel safe and are confident they will be treated with respect and dignity, they are more willing to reach out for help. 

What Dignity and Belonging mean...

I’d love to share with you some of the tips and strategies this group of experts (people with lived experience) came up with to build dignity and ultimately save lives.

Tips for Everyone:
  • Build rapport and ask me how my day is going
  • Show me respect & trust
  • Be interested in who I am and my story

Tips For Pharmacy and Service Providers:
  • Make eye contact
  • Don’t just look at the form you are filling out
  • Ask questions to understand
  • Show genuine interest
  • Don’t follow me in the store

Tips For Doctors and Nurses:
  • Talk quietly about confidential information
  • Don’t assume every ailment is connected to my addiction
  • Understand we have a disease, are vulnerable and need support
  • Listen
  • Ask me, don’t assume

For all their tips and strategies, read through the posters they made about how to build belonging and dignity...

peer-led overdose prevention - how to build belonging
dignity and stigma - peer-led overdose prevention - how to face the roar of stigma

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3 Strategies Every Leader Needs to Know to Facilitate Change


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About the Author

Jessie Sutherland

An international speaker, trainer, and consultant, Jessie Sutherland works with organizations and communities to engage diversity, build belonging and ignite intercultural collaboration. Her approach creates sustainable community change that effectively addresses a wide range of complex social problems.

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