I’ve been thinking of this for awhile, I want to ban the word ‘clean’ from drug services, granted it’s only a word so you might think I’m just being picky, but words like this carry both a lot of power and a wide range of meanings.
Right I’m going to leave the stigma stuff for later on in the article, first lets concentrate on why I’m writing this article in the first place ‘clean needles’.
We’ve all been guilty of it (yes, me as well) “make sure you’ve got clean needles” or “do you always use clean kit?”. It all seems perfectly fine, after all we know what we mean don’t we.
The only problem is, the word ‘clean’ means many things.
I clean the dishes, I clean my hands, I even (occasionally) clean my car. At no point are these sterile. If we continue to use the term clean when talking about equipment then we are going to have this confusion of language.
Instead we should be using (and getting people to use) terms like ‘new’, ‘unused’, ‘sealed’ or ‘sterile’.
It’s rare for me to have a day at work without at least one person telling me that they’re ‘Clean’ or that they want to get ‘Clean’. Although I’m happy for them that they have got to a stage where they are either seeking or entering ‘Recovery’ (another word loaded with it’s own hidden meanings, arguments and history) the fact that they use stigmatising language like this is something that needs challenging.
The term ‘Clean’ is of course a wonderfully positive image, however the implication is that anything not clean is ‘dirty’. In this context that means that people on some level are still seeing other drug users as dirty, or if they lapse/relapse they’ll see themselves as dirty. It’s bad enough that tabloid media and a large chunk of the public stigmatise drug users, lets not add to this ourselves.
As I’m sure many of you know there is a body of thought, mainly headed by people like Neil McKegany who seem to think stigma is something that can be a positive influence to change (See Neil McKegany’s article suggesting this in DDN 15 – February 2010, p14). The main points are that stigma may prevent people from starting to use drugs, and that people using them will be more likely to stop if people think they’re scum.
Stigma is something that can lead to hate crimes and assaults on drug users (something I’ve seen in the areas I’ve worked in. But it’s also something that can keep people feeling worthless within society. The UKDCP ‘Getting Serious about Stigma’ states in it’s conclusion:
…society has to look at itself, to begin to challenge the negative attitudes and barriers that can keep those with addictions and drug dependency problems locked into dysfunctional lifestyles. The public needs to understand better the nature of addiction and the routes out of it.
If society is serious about promoting recovery from drug problems it has to get serious about challenging stigma.
We need to stop adding to the stigma, we need to stop using the word ‘Clean’.
Abstract of a randomised study showing there is a difference in the way workers see people depending on the language used.
Nigel Brunsdon is the owner of Injecting Advice. He’s been working in harm reduction since the 1990’s, previously a frontline needle programme worker he now splits his time between photography and developing online resources for drugs workers and users.