Learning Strategies about Drugs: Against the Stigma of Addiction

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Mr. Giorgos Athanasias, a medical student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece. He is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writers and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

Harm reduction is fundamentally based on a human rights based approach to addiction, shaping a response mechanism that guards the rights of individuals with addiction. It is centred around people’s health, taking into account their social well-being. That is why meaningful harm reduction policies should be guided by an advocacy effort to combat the social stigma that surrounds addiction. The discrimination individuals with addiction face is a major exclusion factor, and especially within the health sector, personal and institutional stigma has a critical effect on their lives and health.

Eliminating discrimination essentially begins with tackling the stereotypes and prejudice against addiction. Hence, educational and sensitisation interventions for the public are necessary steps to an inclusive and safe social environment. In that context, addressing disparities in the health system is directly connected with embedding a holistic approach to addiction in Medical Education, and therefore, undergraduate medical curricula should be accordingly formed to answer the needs of society by incorporating the thematic. This holistic approach contains all biological, psychological, and societal aspects of addiction, with an emphasis on stigma and related human rights issues.

With this premise, over the last decade, HelMSIC – Hellenic Medical Student’s International Committee has developed substantial action on the education of medical students in addictions and stigma. Identifying a significant lack of medical education in Greece, we partnered with KETHEA, the largest national stakeholder in addiction treatment and rehabilitation, and created “Learning Strategies about Drugs”. Throughout the activity, medical students had the chance to learn more about the nature and treatment of addictions from KETHEA’s professional staff, explore the related human rights issues in peer groups facilitated by HelMSIC’s trainers, and lastly visit therapeutic communities to get to know their members and actively question their stereotypes and prejudice.

This year marked an important milestone for the activity, being successfully organised as part of the medical curriculum in the majority of medical schools in Greece. In accordance with professors in charge of related subjects, it was embedded in their syllabus, systemising the educational opportunities for medical students regarding the psychosocial aspect of addiction. The yearly evaluation firmly concludes that the activity has a significant affective and behavioural impact on students, with each reach getting larger the more incorporated in the curriculum it gets. Yet, we have a long way ahead until the final objective of complete and universal education on addiction, which demands consistent and escalating advocacy, but this year’s accomplishment provides a confirmation that we are headed in the right direction.

Achieving the vision of a health sector with professionals equipped with the principles of humanitarianism and a holistic approach to vulnerability related to addictions is the end result of a complex action path that requires coordinated and focused effort to eliminate stigma and achieve health equity for individuals with addiction. The call to action is open to everyone and we have the moral obligation to answer it, fighting to the most of our capacity to create a better world by providing actual help to those that need it the most.

About the author

Giorgos Athanasias is a medical student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece. He is the National Officer for Human Rights and Peace 2022/23 in HelMSIC, a National Member Organization of the International Federation of Medical Students Associations – IFMSA.

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