Dealing in Stigma

I’ve been sceptical (to say the very least) about the value of using ex-users in school drug education, this feeling isn’t universally held, the government’s drug strategy for example sees a role for recovery who they believe should “contribute to prevention in communities
and schools.”

I’m concerned that these Recovery Champions are making the same mistakes as their counterparts in Israel (poster here) which concludes that:

A meeting with ex-addict might lead to an increase in readiness to use drugs. This is true especially for those who have already explored drugs.

The UK Drug Policy Commission take a slightly different view, in report looking at the stigma problem drug users face in society they suggest:

There may be worth in such approaches [exposing school children to ex-users] if the accent is on developing compassion and understanding: preventing social stigma that even young children quickly develop towards drug users rather than ‘scaring them straight’.

Which brings me to this paper by researchers at Oxford University which suggests that if we are going to go down the route suggested by the UKDPC that it may be important not to put all the accent on the positive.  They found that where:

a single negative encounter was imagined just prior to imagining a positive encounter resulted in significantly reduced prejudice. Furthermore, reduced anxiety uniquely derived from the mixed-valence imagery task statistically explained enhanced intentions to engage positively with the previously stigmatized group in the future.

For me though I still think we should urge people to take the utmost care when it comes to exposing young people to ex-users and ask them to think about how they will help those young people most at risk to develop the skills and values they need to avoid the harms associated with drug and alcohol misuse.

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