Anti-stigma campaigns in prison settings can have a huge impact , says Lashandra
My name is Lashandra , and I work for an addiction treatment charity inside a prison . Working in this setting I often witness stigma against people who use substances – it ’ s so commonplace that you could easily become resigned to it . I often hear people who use drugs being referred to in demeaning , labelling , and dehumanising terms . Words can hurt and they can poison , or they can empower and build people up .
‘ I was in the meds queue one morning to get my methadone ,’ says a member of the prison stigma forum . ‘ An officer was manning the queue and as “ banter ” said to me , “ yeah , but you ’ re just a crackhead ”. He laughed , and I laughed along with him . This really hurt me , and I went back to my cell and it went round and round in my mind . In that moment I felt like I wasn ’ t worth anything . The officer thought he was being funny , and he didn ’ t realise how it made me feel . Since being part of the Stigma committee and attending our meetings , I feel like I would be able to challenge him in an appropriate way .’
The people we support generally tend to agree that it ’ s ok for them to self-identify as something – an ‘ addict ’, for example – but that doesn ’ t mean it ’ s okay for someone else to use that term to describe them . In order to create behaviour change , stigmatising language needs to be called out and challenged . Many people who use substances , however , don ’ t challenge it because they ’ ve internalised these labels throughout their lives , and their confidence and self-esteem are so low that they start to
HERE ARE MY TOP THREE TIPS FOR STARTING UP A STIGMA CAMPAIGN
Do background research . Don ’ t presume to know how people feel . Have open and honest conversations and listen to people .
Don ’ t have a top-down approach . It was important that the people joining the committee had an equal seat at the table – we garnered a lot of support and interest from peer-led conversations .
Co-creation is important . As a committee we value everyone ’ s voice , and all decision are made as a group . believe that is all they are . Whether I ’ m talking to someone using our services , a prison officer , another colleague , a family member , or the public , I ’ ll educate them as to why the terminology used isn ’ t respectful or inclusive . I explain the impact of stigma , offer insight into how it makes people feel , and suggest alternative terms .
I started to have conversations in the prison with the people that we support to better understand how stigma impacts them , and through these I understood there was a definite need to act . We created a stigma committee made up of people with lived experience , and it meets regularly to discuss ideas and feedback . We ’ ve also implemented stigma forums which are used as safe spaces to discuss issues relating to stigma and substance use – it ’ s a place where people can come and talk about their issues openly . Through these forums we ’ ve found that many people have been in denial about their substance use , or kept it a secret because they don ’ t want to be treated differently . We ’ ve also learnt that some people on scripts will collect their meds late because they don ’ t want others to look down on them for being on medication .
We ’ ve seen a great response to the stigma forums from both people who use substances and the wider prison population . It ’ s been impactful to see the benefits for those who are
gaining support , self-esteem and confidence , and I ’ ve also noticed a move away from the acceptance of certain words and behaviours . The committee is currently working on co-producing our own anti-stigma campaign , and we ’ re also developing awarenessraising leaflets , posters and an educational video that shares lived experience .
We ’ re also delivering training to staff and the wider prison community . To make antistigma education as accessible and inclusive as possible , the committee has developed an approach that suits different learning styles – as part of that we ’ re putting on a play for the prison staff and governors . It will then be put onto a digital platform for the wider prison community to watch .
Reaching out far and wide , breaking down barriers to accessing support , and offering education to those who don ’ t fully understand stigma are important tools in facilitating change . We must speak up on behalf of the people we support . Even when they have the confidence and self-belief to advocate for change themselves , it ’ s all of our responsibilities to find innovative and inclusive ways of amplifying their voices and making sure they get heard .
Lashandra works for a treatment charity in a UK prison . Join the Anti Stigma Network at www . antistigmanetwork . org . uk
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