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Reducing stigma – one story at a time

February 9, 2012

When we think about the sort of evidence that informs our policies and practices, we often picture a study that has appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. But lived experience is another crucial kind of evidence that needs to be integrated into our thinking. The personal narratives of people experiencing problematic substance use, addiction, or mental health challenges can be a vital source of knowledge – and can help reduce stigma.

On January 26, persons with lived experience, family members, service providers, and others gathered at the Parliament Street branch of the Toronto Public Library for the premiere of “Our Harm Reduction Stories.” The digital storytelling project about stigma and discrimination screened a series of short films, each one created by a peer educator with the instruction and support of the Centre for the Digital Story Telling Project, North York Community House (NYCH). The project was fostered by the Toronto Harm Reduction Task Force.

“This group got me in touch with my community, and I just want to say thank you,” one peer educator, Margarita, told the attendees, who’d filled a standing-room-only space to watch the digital stories. The moving and artfully made films expressed the educators’ personal experiences with substance use, schizophrenia, and suicide, among other challenges. The educators showed how their experiences have been shaped by their circumstances, and they connected their stories to the larger community – a key part of reducing stigma. The project also highlighted the growing importance of digital storytelling in the process of knowledge translation and exchange.

“The people we work with and on behalf of are the experts on their own lives, their own drug use, their own goals, and how harm reduction strategies can work for them,” says Holly Kramer, coordinator of the Toronto Harm Reduction Task Force. “We are grateful to them for sharing their stories, so that we can better understand why it’s so important that, as harm reduction philosophy contends, ‘helpers’ meet people ‘where they’re at.’ Drugs and drug use per se aren’t ‘the’ problem or a ‘personal’ problem; a host of social issues – poverty, pain, food insecurity, mental health issues – inform substance use. These stories elucidate that poignantly.”

The educators received instruction and support from Jennifer LaFontaine and Emmy Pantin, both of whom work with the Digital Story Telling Project of NYCH. “Our Harm Stories” is the tenth annual peer-driven project by the Toronto Harm Reduction Task Force. Previous projects have included the development and delivery of overdose prevention training by and for users, and a DVD and guide on “How to Keep Your Housing While Actively Using Drugs.”

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