Substance abusers demand an end to abuse

By KomodoMK · Sep 24, 2008 ·
  1. KomodoMK
    Her son was only a day old when a midwife confronted Angela Simpson and said accusingly: "How do you feel about your wee one being not well because of you? Because of the methadone and whatever else you've been taking?"

    Doctors had put the baby on a dose of morphine to account for any withdrawals, but Simpson says his only signs of being unwell were jitters related to his blood glucose levels, and that was more to do with sorting out her breastfeeding.

    In fact, she hadn't used anything other than her methadone prescription for months. The midwives should have known that, as the results from the battery of tests she'd endured during her pregnancy were on their computer.

    However, she still had to cope with suspicion and hostility when she was at her most tired and in need of help.

    A few days later a doctor asked Simpson about her son's toxicology report and she realised that the midwife had given her baby a full drugs screening without telling her. "I saw her rip up a bit of paper and put it in the bin. I got it out and taped it back up - they had tested him for benzodiazepams, opiates, barbiturates, amphetamines, cocaine and cannabinoids."

    As Simpson could have told staff, he tested positive only for methadone. She certainly didn't need to tell anyone that she was taking the heroin substitute drug - when she asked for help on another occasion, the midwife shouted across the ward: "I take it you want your methadone?"

    "I really did get treated like a bit of trash," Simpson says.

    The Perth mum concedes that her experience, at Dundee's Ninewells Hospital a year ago was mainly due to the attitudes of one midwife. But in many ways, what she had to cope with is a common problem for former substance misusers.

    Both workers and clients acknowledge that there is limited public sympathy for drug users who are victims of such prejudice.

    Nevertheless, next Tuesday, Simpson will be a speaker at a one-day conference being held by Scottish Drugs Forum (SDF) to challenge such attitudes.

    One of the questions at the conference will be: how can prejudicial attitudes be prevented from affecting the services people receive?

    For Dave Liddell, director of SDF, the question is this - if we genuinely view addiction as a disease, how can it possibly help people's recovery if the services which are meant to help them compound the hostile judgments they face elsewhere in their lives?

    "We've done a lot of work on getting people back into the workplace. It is interesting that it seems to work fine when employers see somebody as an individual because they look beyond the classic image. But otherwise it can be difficult for people to see beyond the stereotype." As a result, former drug users are most successful in finding work with the agencies which offer them work placements through the course.

    SDF wants to challenge the language we use about drug misuse - terms such as "addict" and "junkie" which label people with a problem as part of a mass group - and one which is regularly demonised.

    The more those who have used heroin or other drugs are demonised, the easier it is for politicians to call for extreme policies, Liddell argues.

    In recent years Labour MSP Duncan McNeil has called for contraceptives to be put in methadone, while Glasgow University academic Neil McKeganey said women who abused drugs should be paid to take contraception.

    "Demonising them enables people to call for drastic measures inside a particular population that they wouldn't consider for any other individuals," Liddell says. "They should be seen as individuals with specific problems."

    It isn't just health services which are at fault, he adds. Drug users and recovering drug users alike can face hostile or prejudiced treatment at housing services, Job Centres and social work offices, GP surgeries and pharmacies.

    In research ahead of the conference, SDF has uncovered dozens of stories of individuals who feel they have been discriminated against by workers in the public and voluntary sector, including ambulance staff dismissing someone who had deliberately overdosed as an attention-seeker, a social worker telling a mum that she wouldn't get her son back because it was "only a matter of time" before she used drugs again - when she had been clean for two years - and a mother and retired nurse who was subjected to a strip search after being arrested with her drug-using son.

    As the latter suggests, it isn't just drug users themselves, Liddell adds. Family and friends are also marginalised and blamed by society for a range of social ills.

    "The conference will look at ways of changing the attitudes of front-line workers, particularly non-specialist workers who can have very unhelpful opinions."

    He suggests more experiential training where staff of public services at all levels get a chance to meet former users and hear about their experiences.

    He also suggests a See Me-style campaign to change public attitudes, like the ongoing campaign of that name challenging prejudices about mental health. However he concedes that perhaps "Scotland isn't quite ready for that."

    Drug Users and Stigma is at the Teacher Building, St Enoch Square Glasgow, on Tuesday, September 30.


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