This annual event held around the world recognizes those who struggle with substance abuse issues. In this Verywell Mind article, Mindpath Health’s Dean Drosnes, MD, explains how awareness is needed to reduce stigma and promote healing.
International Overdose Awareness Day was first celebrated in 2001 by social worker, Sally J. Finn in Melbourne, Australia. Since 2012, this international event has been coordinated by the Penington Institute.
Two decades later, International Overdose Awareness Day is now commemorated around the world, in such cities as Kisumu in Kenya, Glasgow in Scotland, Pune in India, and San Juan in Puerto Rico.
By sharing personal stories of the impact of overdose without stigma, individuals and organizations gather to address this pressing issue.
To manage the risk of overdose, many individuals and organizations have been working to raise awareness in their communities about how to better support individuals navigating substance use health. This article is a testimony to their stories and efforts.
Advocacy after her son’s overdose
Kim Lacey is based in San Luis Obispo, the traditional land of the Salinan people, in what is colonially known as Atascadero, CA, where she organized the SLO Overdose Awareness Day event last year.
While Lacey was unable to hold an event in 2020 due to the pandemic, she wanted to be safe. “In 2021, we moved the event outdoors from our indoor location, which seems to have been a positive move,” she says.
Typically, the local overdose awareness event is coordinated to include a resource fair with a dozen local organizations participating, free NARCAN training and distribution, crafts like rock painting for memorializing or honoring lives touched by overdose, panel speakers sharing lived experiences, a candle-lighting ceremony, a syringe exchange, etc.
Lacey explains, “Overdose does not discriminate and can happen to all kinds of people (race, age, income, and regardless of any addiction problem). Dead people have no chance to recover and make positive changes in their lives. The problem is getting worse, not better and it is time to try new ways of addressing this growing problem.”
The loss has a tremendous impact on the loved ones of those who do not survive overdose, as Lacey knows from her own son’s death. “Ending stigma makes it easier for people with substance use issues, as well as affected families and friends, to seek help and to stop feeling alone,” she says.
Addressing overdose risk in Illinois
As the Community Health Specialist III in the Take Action Coalition of Clinton County, Deb Beckmann, MA, says that they have been doing speaking engagements in the community with businesses and schools.
Beckmann notes that they do email blasts to reach different segments of the community. “We have developed materials on local resources, stigma reduction information, how to identify an opioid overdose, etc.,” she says.
Having begun work in 2021, when face-to-face contact was not permitted, Beckman spent time posting on social media, doing email blasts, and attending Zoom meetings. “Overdose is preventable,” she says.
Beckmann highlights, “Have NARCAN on hand. Any place with a public restroom should have [Naloxone] and employees trained in its use. Also—don’t use alone. Lastly, talk to your children about substances. You may not think it is in your community but you would be wrong.”
Since stigma about substance use health prevents many people from reaching out for help, Beckmann hopes that others keep an open mind. “Be empathetic and don’t judge people for their substance use. Celebrate those that made it into and maintain recovery,” she says.
Supporting indigenous youth in Alaska
As the Deputy Director of Youth Services for the Fairbanks Native Association in Alaska, Linda Setterberg, MA, says, “Our services continued throughout the pandemic and we expanded crisis services. We have a few opportunities for community outreach, and they are increasing.”
With outreach and training, detox services, and opportunities to build connections with the community, the Fairbanks Native Association offers both outpatient and inpatient treatment programs for youth over 12.
Setterberg notes that their work has evolved in terms of how it meets the needs of Indigenous communities to manage the risk of overdose from opioid and fentanyl. “We want all to have access to NARCAN and fentanyl test strips and know how to get them and use them,” she says.
Deconstructing how an addiction works
Neuroscientist and clinical social worker Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, says, “Addiction is an incurable brain disease but many of us still view it as a behavioral choice. Viewing it [like that] can impact our mental health.”
Weaver explains, “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change. If you feel guilty and question what you could have said or should have done differently [regarding an overdose], remind yourself of the three C’s. You didn’t cause it, can’t cure it and can’t control it.”
In this way, Weaver notes that there are ways to support someone who is at risk of overdose, but it may look different than imagined. “I wish the public knew that brain cells that wire together fire together,” she says.
Weaver highlights, “When we engage in a substance and/or process that lights us up, it changes the brain and makes it harder for the brain and our nervous system to navigate back to feeling good or better than good without re-engaging in that same activity. Overdosing is usually an accidental byproduct of trying to achieve that better-than-good feeling.”
From doing this work for over a decade, Weaver notes that she has come to terms with the principle of surrender. “Sometimes we can get frustrated because we think we know what’s best for others. When someone changes, it has to be their choice, on their time, and on their terms. Acceptance of that can bring us inner peace,” she says.
Holding space for the grief
MaryBeth Moore Zocco is based in Davenport, Florida, and founded The FRoM Project Inc., which stands for Forever Ryan’s Mom, following the death of her youngest son Ryan by fentanyl overdose at the age of 25.
While she is only one person, Zocco sends out hundreds of handmade cards worldwide every month to parents who have lost a child to overdose. “We share the faces of our loved ones gone too soon,” she says.
In her work, Zocco gathers helpful information regarding overdose, which she shares with various online and face-to-face groups. “[These] include support groups for grieving parents of a child lost to overdose, groups that [raise] overdose awareness, local agencies and more,” she says.
Zocco even provides a space online for loved ones to share photos of those who are no longer alive following an overdose. “A lot [of] families found their way to The FRoM Project Inc. on Facebook,” she says.
Since many lives were taken by overdose during COVID-19, Zocco notes that more loved ones were looking for support during the pandemic. “I want the public to know that it can happen to anyone! No one is safe! Don’t say NOT MY CHILD,” she says.
Peer support services can help
As the Chain Breakers Women’s Addiction Group Coordinator and Peer Recovery Support Specialist Supervisor at Potomac Highlands Guild, Heather R. Bergdall, BA, NCPRSS, CPRC, says, “We link those [with] substance use disorder with necessary resources such as peer recovery support specialist services, education, NARCAN, and Fentanyl test strips.”
Bergdall notes that the pandemic impacted the already challenging work that her organization does. “It definitely made it tougher for us, [as] use and overdose increased during this time,” she says.
When programs shut down during the pandemic, Bergdall explains how it made it harder for those in recovery to get the support from recovery meetings and in-person PRSS services during COVID-19.
As a person who has been in recovery for 8 years from 16 years of an addiction, Bergdall is passionate about recovery. “Multiple factors can trigger an overdose, it can happen to anyone. Community support is very important in order to make a change or an impact,” she says.
Often diminished quality of life
An addiction specialist and psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, Dean Drosnes, MD, says, “A family member’s overdose is an enormous stressor. One may ask, “Was it an accident? Intentional? Will they survive? Will it happen again? What can or should I do?”
Dr. Drosnes explains, “Anxiety, worry, desire for urgent resolution of the substance use, and other concerns may pervade thoughts when a family member overdoses. Inability to make sense of the event frequently results in what is known as an adjustment disorder.”
In this way, Dr. Drosnes describes how the affected family member may then suffer sleeplessness, changes in appetite, disrupted self-care routines, poor decision-making skills, mood fluctuations, etc.
When addressing problematic substance use, Dr. Drosnes recommends a kind, loving, and caring approach. “Confrontation frequently backfires, so the softer, gentler approach is called for, especially initially” he says.
Dr. Drosnes highlights, “Most people who overdose, survive it with a resultant diminished quality of life. They may have permanently impaired brain function, physical disabilities, and fewer opportunities.”
There can be consequences that commonly impact families and friends in different, challenging ways, as opposed to grieving over a loved one’s death, according to Dr. Droses. “Frequently, families are emotionally devastated and faced with the ongoing care of the person,” he says.
Read the full Verywell Mind article with sources.
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