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As we come to the end of National Addiction Awareness Week here in Canada I’m left with many questions, but the most prominent among them is definitely: why? Why is raising awareness about this issue so damn hard? Why are we still struggling to gain social acceptance for statements like ‘all people deserve compassion’ or ‘access to effective healthcare is a human right?’

There are a lot of answers to this question, which is probably an answer in and of itself. If there are lots of reasons that people are rejecting the idea that addicts and addiction are worthy of our attention then raising awareness and compassion is going to be all the more difficult for us. In a room full of people who object to the idea that addicts deserve to be included in our society you might have one person bemoaning the moral outrage of providing care for someone who ‘isn’t even trying to provide it for themselves,’ sitting between one person who thinks that spending money to provide care for an addict is a waste ‘because they’ll be dead soon anyway,’ and another who thinks that all addicts ‘just need to hit rock bottom’ before they can find recovery so leaving them out in the cold is the more compassionate option. How do you create an event that can reach all three of these people with their disparate but equally damaging misconceptions about what addiction is and what care can do for them?

A short and convenient answer is that you can’t, and it’s true to a certain extent. No amount of tweet storms, Facebook battles or blog posts is truly going to be able to change the majority of people’s preconceived notions, as anyone who’s spent any amount of time on the Internet could tell you. So perhaps it’s time to leave the Internet behind, or at least to stop relying on it as a platform to change minds and hearts with words. As many have observed before me, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a face-to-face meeting with an actual addict is going to go much further to changing the fantasy of what addiction looks like in the minds of Canadian citizens.

I’m not advocating giving up, not by any means, instead I am advocating for a much more comprehensive attempt to raise awareness in our communities for those struggling with addiction. In the vast majority of addiction awareness events I’ve attended in the last year addicts are massively underrepresented. There are often people in recovery, doctors, sociologists, harm reduction advocates and family members of overdose victims, but not the faces of the people we are actually advocating for. They remain a nebulous and undefined theoretical, which allows all of us to continue to perceive them through a lens of media and misinformation.

So my suggestion is this, don’t rely on images from the Internet or on experts giving talks to raise awareness. This time next year what I think would make the greatest difference in creating awareness about addiction and addicts is to have these people actually represented at our awareness events. It becomes much more difficult, nigh impossible really, for people to maintain their illusions when confronted with the reality that people with addictions are human beings with names and faces and not the anonymous statistics they see online or hear at talks. So hold your talk at a soup kitchen and have your attendees serve lunch afterwards. Invite a few people to talk about their experiences for your blog or your video, have your presentation outdoors and invite the people you’re trying to help to attend. Treat them like participating members of the conversation you’re trying to have, with unique voices that have value. Because that’s what they are, and how they deserve to be treated.

And next year, we might see National Addictions Awareness Day contributing a lot more awareness and gather new allies to our cause.

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