While the fight against mental-illness stigma has made great strides on campuses in recent years, public awareness and education around substance use and addiction have been lagging. A student-led campaign at Carleton University aims to address this gap.
The campaign, called “Stigma Ends at CU,” uses social media to educate the Carleton community about substance use and to share personal stories of people affected by addiction. It began as a proposal by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction for student-run anti-stigma campaigns on university campuses across Canada, after the organization saw the success of public education campaigns such as #StigmaEndsWithMe by Ottawa’s Community Addictions Peer Support Association.
Carleton neuroscience professor Kim Hellemans introduced the initiative to her fourth-year neuroscience of addiction class in March 2019, and four students jumped at the chance to participate. “The students did an amazing job,” Dr. Hellemans says. “And because it was so successful, two of the four initial students decided that they wanted to continue with the campaign.”
What started as a two-week social media campaign launched by four students has since grown to a full-blown campaign that is 20 students strong with plans to expand into a peer support drop-in centre, conferences and other resources for students in the spring.
The campaign is run primarily on social media, with a focus on Instagram and Twitter. The student volunteers, many of whom are in the neuroscience program, create posts that break down the science behind addiction and teach the public about stigmatizing language — use “people who use drugs” instead of “addicts,” for example.
“We’re learning about how addiction works in the brain,” says Olivia Turner, a fourth-year neuroscience and mental health student and one of the campaign founders. “We know it’s a disorder. We know it’s not a choice…. And society does not currently treat it that way or even understand this, so we want to educate people.”
The campaign also highlights the faces of addiction by sharing stories of people with lived experience. One of the first faces of the campaign was Carleton University president Benoit-Antoine Bacon, who has been open about his own experience with recovery from substance use.
“People with addictions cut across all social classes, all races, all ethnicities, all religious groups,” says Dr. Hellemans. “So, it’s really important for us to continue to show that addiction doesn’t define any one individual.”
Dr. Hellemans, who acts as a faculty mentor for the campaign, says that she has noticed learning outcomes in students participating in the program beyond simply gaining knowledge about substance use and mental illness. Specifically, she says she has seen an increase in their mental-health literacy — that is, the language around talking to someone about a mental-health disorder.
“They do seem to be able to feel more confident about that literacy,” says Dr. Hellemans. “And that’s something that I’d like to explore more systematically in actually measuring how this might be impacting students’ perceptions and their competence in how they speak about mental health down the road.”
The students themselves also speak to this. “I’ve kind of brought myself to the more human level with this, beyond the classroom,” Ms. Turner says. “Obviously, we learned it from a science, biology and neuroscience perspective, but talking to people, interacting with people about this first-hand experience, changes that completely.”
She adds: “In the campaign I kind of realized why we’re doing it: we’re actually affecting people. And that’s the point, right? We’re trying to actually help people.”
While Ms. Turner will be graduating in the spring, she says she is optimistic that the program will continue, now that more students are involved and there are plans to expand the campaign. Just as promising, Dr. Hellemans says, other institutions have reached out wanting to start campaigns of their own.