Five Questions with Health Champions Conversations

The project helped me in my recovery, once I was able to talk about my story. I held that story in
me for years. Telling that story helped me to deal with and get over the stigma of it. – Health Champion Peer Expert

This month, Talia Kleinplatz from Richmond Mental Health and Substance Use Services and Peer expert workers with the Health Champions Conversations joined CAI is to answer five questions about their important work.

Health Champions aims to empower persons with lived experience of substance use (PWLE) to use a tested and structured narrative methodology to share impactful harm reduction stories with high priority peer-identified populations. These populations have included primary care providers (GPs and NPs), pharmacists, local NGO/service providers and hospital emergency department staff who provide services to PWLE. The Health Champions Conversations recently completed a project funded through the Community Wellness and Harm Reduction Grants.

All questions were answered in collaboration with the peer experts/people with lived experience who continue to co-lead this work.

1. How did the Health Champions Conversations project first come about?

The Health Champions project was borne out of the Richmond Community Action Team (CAT) in 2019- an initiative focused on strategies to address the overdose crisis on a local level. As part of the Richmond CAT, people with lived and living experience (PWLLE) were invited to consultative meetings within Richmond where participants took part in a Belonging Matters session. These sessions were used to gain a better sense of experiences of stigma within healthcare settings as they pertain to substance use, as well as potential avenues to address stigma within healthcare encounters. Some of the topics explored included the benefits of belonging, the costs of not belonging, and how to build a sense of belonging.  Participants were also asked what would have helped them most during times of need and what they would like to see for other people who find themselves in similar challenging circumstances. The Community Action Initiative Grant allowed the Health Champions team to build on the foundational work laid by the Richmond Community Action Team and continue to support peer experts in their efforts to address stigma within their communities.


2. What is the importance of involving PWLLE in this education work?

“If you want to know what it’s like to walk on the moon, ask a guy who’s walked on the moon.” -Health Champion Peer Expert

When you involve PWLLE, you are benefitting from first-hand knowledge and information from people who have actually experienced the challenges you are trying to address. According to peer experts who co-led this project, what they share during their presentations is raw, gritty and the information tends to hit harder than just reading about it in an article or a book. They are experts in the field and their messages hold more weight as people who have actual lived experience. Involving PWLLE also demonstrates a respect for their expertise, knowledge and skills. PWLLE are often relegated to the margins of this work. This project has worked to re-center the people most affected by substance use-related stigma.

3. Your project uses a “narrative methodology” – how is storytelling impactful? What made you choose that method as opposed to a more structured information or education session?

In conversation the peer experts co-leading this work, they shared that telling their own stories is more impactful. Participants get to hear the personal experiences of people who have used substances. They shared that they chose this method because it is more heart to heart and hits harder than an educational booklet or a handout. Audiences get a first-hand look at someone’s life. Their stories ground knowledge in the personal rather than information that can be more depersonalized. Peers noted that sharing their own stories also gives them the opportunity to “get real and heal through the telling.” Their hope is that those who are listening will go on to heal others. They expressed that the more they have shared their stories, the less stigma they feel, the less pain they carry with it. Peers shared that while a narrative methodology has been educational for participants, it has also been a healing process for them as well.

4. The Health Champions team recently participated in an orientation session for new VCH staff. What kind of feedback did you receive from participants and PWLLE educators? Do you feel anti-stigma education should be a standard part of orientation for new health authority employees?

“It’s nice to know that people are getting it. It’s nice to be listened to for a change.” -Health Champion Peer Expert

Participants shared how powerful it was to hear first-hand stories and experiences from peer experts. One of the main takeaways identified by participants also included the need to be mindful of stigmatizing language, acknowledging the impact words can have in each healthcare interaction. They also noted the importance of recognizing the numerous strengths that clients bring with them, even when they are dealing with various challenges.

From the peer presenters’ perspective, they shared that these presentations helped them to process and deal with their own experiences of stigma. They described it as empowering to be in a position to teach the teachers. They were pleased to know that participants were engaged and showed a willingness to learn from their experiences. Peer experts also shared that these presentations created feelings of self-worth through opportunities to be of service within their communities.

Peer experts feel strongly that anti-stigma education should be a standard part of orientation for all healthcare employees and feel it’s a shame that this isn’t already a requirement. They identified the need for this to be required education for anyone coming into the field. They shared that clients are more likely to come back for a second visit if health care professionals treat them with dignity and respect at the first encounter. They noted that when a person is experiencing health issues, they don’t need any additional barriers to accessing the care they need. Stigma adds to the stress of an already stressful situation. They noted that people won’t heal as well or as quickly if they’re faced with stigma in their care. Adopting an anti-stigma approach helps to establish trust between clients and clinicians.

5. The Health Champions Conversations project has been active for a few years now. Have you observed any lasting impacts on how health care professionals work with people with lived and living experience of substance use in your community? Looking to the future, what is your hope for this program?

Through numerous presentations, the Health Champions team have heard that health professionals are committed to doing better. There is recognition, however, that there still a lot of work to do. The hope of those involved and leading the Health Champions project is that this work continues and makes long-lasting, impactful changes not just for the Richmond community but for everyone working in the healthcare field. The hope is to address stigma in all the places it exists and that people with lived experience continue to be centered in the process. The Health Champions team recognizes that stigma also evolves. It’s ever changing and will require ongoing education to ensure it is being addressed on all levels in all its forms.

“May we be well, practice compassion and be happy.” -Health Champions Peer Expert

“I really felt that we can all use more empathy when we are working at the front dispensary for our
OAT clients. Sometimes, the stress and pace of work make us forget why we, pharmacists, should
be helping everyone the same regardless of where they come from.” -Health Champions Participant