In case you missed it: 3 key takeaways for communicating the opioid crisis

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 Dr. Bonnie Henry, Jon Woodward, Am Johal, Garth Mullins and Davis McKenzie

On Wednesday, February 28, 2018, I joined a full house of communicators gathered together to explore the opioid crisis through a panel discussion: “Humanize, don't stigmatize: communicating the overdose crisis”. Through their individual perspectives, the four panelists emphasized just how much our storytelling about the opioid crisis affects those at its centre. Moderator Am Johal was joined by panelists Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer; Davis McKenzie, Director of Communications and Public Affairs, First Nations Health Authority; Garth Mullins, Activist, Writer, Broadcaster and Musician; and Jon Woodward, Investigative Journalist with CTV Vancouver/W5. The four panelists’ diverse backgrounds promised and delivered a dynamic discussion.

Am Johal opened by providing some context on the opioid crisis, sharing that of the 1,400 drug-related deaths in BC last year, over 80% involved fentanyl. The issue has become a health and human rights tragedy that is not restricted to Vancouver’s downtown east side. He invited the panelists to share their perspectives on the crisis, and to comment on how we got here and how we might find our way out. While the entire discussion was captivating and many lessons could be drawn from the panelists’ comments, three key points resonated for me.

People come first

One sentiment that echoed across the diverse panelists was the importance of people coming first. Dr. Bonnie Henry talked us through the brave decision to declare a public health emergency in BC in 2016, emphasizing the priority of keeping people alive so we can meet them on their journeys and work together. Davis McKenzie pointed out the importance of talking to our own family members and thinking of the person on the other side of the bathroom door. Garth Mullins asserted that the opioid crisis is a social and political phenomenon whose burden shouldn’t be placed on individuals. In messaging around the opioid crisis, we should be showing the people who are leading the fight. He warned against using pictures of people using drugs, which perpetuate stigma, and suggested imagery of people doing mundane activities in the suburbs to underscore the idea that the crisis is affecting people far beyond the downtown east side. Above all, individuals are at the heart of the matter and should be treated as people first.

Words are powerful

As communicators, we understand the power of words and how they can shape perception. When it comes to the opioid crisis, the words we use influence its accessibility and who is able to participate in the discussion. Dr. Henry made the striking statement that “words can kill people through shame and stigma”. We should use care when we speak about the crisis, as words impact how those in its midst are perceived. As Jon Woodward commented, “words can make you decide whether someone is worth saving or not”. Framing is key: terms such as “the overdose crisis” can be taken to blame the drug user, while a reference like “the poisoned drug supply” implies that the issue is structural and people are the victims. When we say “people who use drugs” rather than “drug users”, we choose words that put people first. Davis McKenzie noted that when substance use is “framed as a treatable condition, the public is more likely to support policy interventions that can lead to solutions”.

Focus on connection

Dr. Henry spoke about the introduction of safer injection sites, and their success in reversing overdoses and reducing the number of drug-related deaths between their walls. She shared that 80% of deaths since safer sites have been introduced have been men between 19 and 39 who used alone and whose family and friends were unaware of their drug use. This underlines a disconnect between people who use drugs and those close to them. Dr. Henry reminded us of Johann Hari’s point that “the opposite of addiction is connection”. Connection is key to recognizing potential signs of opioid use in our peers and opening up communication about it. Davis McKenzie pointed out the importance of taking a fresh approach to the opioid crisis. He spoke about the First Nations Health Authority work on peers helping peers, and how language and connection to culture and family is key to turning things around for people impacted by the opioid crisis. Garth Mullins cautioned that if the crisis isn’t already present in our workplaces, it soon will be. We need to be equipped with the right words to connect with people using drugs, as well as the practical knowledge of what an overdose looks like and how to use naloxone.

As people who work with words, we have a responsibility to communicate about the opioid crisis in a humanizing and non-stigmatizing way. Davis McKenzie warns, however, that humanizing substance use in news media is a “double edged sword”, and framing it through personal story can lead the public to see substance use as an individual problem rather than a social one. He elaborates: “If the subject of the story has social distance from the reader, (the person doesn’t look like them, or belong to the same class) the reader/viewer can further distance themselves from the issue. Framing substance use through a public health lens illustrates the societal and systematic issues that lead to substance use and move the issue from being one that is personal to societal. This is proven to increase support for policy interventions that are social and political rather than individual.”

An underlying current to all the panelists’ points was the danger of stigma. Jon Woodward warned us that stigma can cause blind spots, and challenged us all to address our blind spots. He pointed out that words can make us decide whether someone is worth saving or not. In her powerful memoir This Is Happy, author Camilla Gibb says that blind spots are “of our own making. They protect our sense not of how things are but of how we wish or need them to be”. To come together and tackle the opioid crisis, we must first acknowledge the sobering reality of the situation and its impact on individuals. Through being conscious of the power of words, putting people first, and focusing on connection, I am hopeful that we can become aware of our blind spots and find common ground to work on solutions.

Some great additional resources are available at:

5 myths about drug addiction

Notes on stigma from Health Canada

Johann Hari’s TED talk on connection: “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong”

Revisit the event on Facebook here.