'Reduce the stigma': Barrie city councillor calls for people to make addiction get-well cards

WATCH: Natalie Harris, Barrie's Ward 6 councillor, has her own lived experience with addiction. Now, she's hoping to reduce the stigma.

A Barrie city councillor is calling for people to make get-well cards for those who are battling addiction, in an effort to reduce the stigma that can be associated with the illness.

“There is this image that’s out there that is so hard for individuals that are battling the disease of addiction because they feel like everyone is looking at them like they’ve made this choice,” Natalie Harris, Ward 6 councillor and a former paramedic, told Global News.

“That just isn’t the case.”

Harris knows the stigma of addiction well — she has her own lived experience with the disease, with which she’s grappled for over six years, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’ve had relapses along the way. I practice one day at a time,” she said.

“I work with a lot of different people in the community who battle with addiction as well,” she added, “so I know how their struggles affect them, and I know what the stigma does.”

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Harris was a paramedic for 11 years. She loved her job, but in 2012, she was involved in the double murder call at the Barrie Travelodge. The murderer was her patient.

“I developed what was called a moral injury, and I never heard of what that was before,” Harris said.

“I learned, obviously, as I got my diagnosis of PTSD, that it was very difficult for me to kind of accept the fact that humans can consciously make decisions to harm people like that.”

But at the time, the former paramedic said she was scared for anyone to know that she was sick.

“I lived behind this fake persona of perfectionism,” she told Global News.

“I didn’t have any room to be sick.”

In 2014, Harris had to testify at the double murder trial, and that was the day her world came crashing down.

“That night, I overdosed,” she said. “I was texting my friend who was a dispatcher at the time, and she could tell something was wrong and sent an ambulance basically to my house.”

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Looking back now, Harris said all the embarrassment she experienced came from stigma. She’s since sought treatment and started blogging, through which she says she’s found a supportive community.

“Most people were just so kind and accepting of what I was saying, and inspired them to share their stories as well,” she said.

“It just had this amazing ripple effect of kindness and positivity. That’s what I’m hoping the cards will do.”

Harris said the homemade cards can be simple or elaborate, with positive, encouraging words inside. Then, she added, people can deliver them to their local hospital, rehab or detox centre.

“Deliver them to where people that would be battling addictions would be getting help,” she said.

The Barrie fire department has already gotten on board. On Monday, local firefighters made cards with messages like “you’re not alone,” “you can do this” and “stay strong.”

“We just sat around the table, and we all came up with some ideas together,” Eric Webster, a Barrie firefighter, told Global News.

After the cards were completed, Harris delivered them to the Rapid Access Addiction Medicine Clinic at the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre and the Hope Centre in Barrie.

“ have a higher rate of instances when it comes to PTSD and addiction, so it’s a soft spot with us as well,” Webster said.

The Barrie firefighter said the cards can make a big impact on someone else’s life.

“ not a bad thing to have an addiction or mental health problem,” Webster said. “It’s out there, everybody is susceptible to it, and we need to get rid of that stigma.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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