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Social Media a Powerful Weapon in Combating Opioid Crisis, Reaching Teens

99% High Scoolers do not use pills colorful graffiti surrounds black numeral 99 with skateboarder riding over it,
Matt Smith: Video Still

ATLANTA — It used to be common behavior, but few would consider getting into a car with an open beer today.

Public awareness of drunk driving, lobbying by organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and eventually, federal pressure led to changes not only in the laws regarding alcohol and driving, but the culture. And Colorado health advocates are trying to pull off something similar with teens in a state where marijuana is now advertised alongside beer.

The Rise Above Colorado campaign is attempting to harness the draw of social media to show young people there that there are “healthy, positive alternatives” to substance abuse, said Jonathan Judge, the program’s director.

Speaking at a national drug abuse conference here this week, Judge said teens appear to be responding to clear, data-based and well-sourced messages over their favorite platforms.

“One of the things we try to do is to balance between hope and concern, between the head and the heart,” he said. “We want intellectual content to go with some of the emotional, inspirational content. Teens more than adults really respond to that.”

Judge and his colleagues at Rise Above Colorado were among dozens of presenters at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta. Mae Thompson, a student board member, said 94 percent of young people between 13 and 17 use social media platforms, especially the photo-sharing site Instagram.

“We’re meeting teens where they’re at, which is social media,” Thompson said.

Judge said the nonprofit, state- and donor- supported organization’s pages — primarily on Facebook and Instagram — got 250,000 visits in March, including 22,000 engaged viewers. It also drew about 29,000 clicks from about 9.5 million appearances on search engines.

The content, some of which is student-generated, tries to use research data to reinforce social norms about drug use, pointing out the low numbers of teens — especially middle schoolers — who don’t use drugs or alcohol. Surveys show there’s a big gap between how many students report using drugs versus what they think their peers are doing, and the campaign tries to use those numbers to reinforce norms against drug usage.

Kavitha Kailasam, the campaign’s director of community partnerships, said that while drug use is now commonly portrayed, seeing someone driving with a beer in their hand would be “a shocking image” today. “Our society has really changed the acceptability of this kind of behavior,” she said.

Traditional anti-drug messages using billboards, posters or broadcast ads are easy to ignore by kids at an age when they’re questioning or challenging what authority figures are telling them, Judge said. But on social media, “They let you know immediately what they think of your post,” Judge said. The campaign has honed its message by getting feedback from youth, whose input led to replacing stock photos with video, and making the numbers the star.

It’s particularly challenging in Colorado, where the legalization of marijuana means weed dispensaries now advertise their wares freely.

“It has normalized usage, even among teens, and we’re seeing a decrease in the perceived risk associated with marijuana. We’re watching to see if that spills over to other substances,” Judge said.

The four-day conference featured addresses by former President Bill Clinton and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway. It also produced some news from Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who called for the widespread distribution of the opioid overdose countermeasure naloxone to help reduce the current average of 115 opioid deaths a day.

National Rx Drug Abuse Summit

Live at the 2018 National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit: Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

Posted by WYMT on Thursday, April 5, 2018

“If you or someone you know is at risk for an overdose, carry and know how to use naloxone,” Adams said. Issuing the first Surgeon General’s advisory in more than a decade, Adams has urged doctors to get the drug to relatives or friends of drug users wherever possible, calling it a top priority.

“There are countless examples of individuals for whom naloxone was a moment that changed their lives and many others’ lives for the better,” he said. And in an accompanying commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association, he argued that since more than half of opioid deaths occurred at home, making naloxone available to friends and family members “should be a top priority.”

Rise Above Colorado: Seated at presenters' table by slide screen left to right: Jonathan Judge, Kavitha Kailasam and Mae Thompson

Matt Smith

Left to right: Jonathan Judge, Kavitha Kailasam and Mae Thompson of Rise Above Colorado

The surge in the availability and abuse of opioid painkillers and the increase in the use of related drugs like heroin has had effects beyond the emergency room or the morgue. It’s estimated to cost more than $500 billion a year and cut into economic growth.

But for many users, their most likely route to treatment is a jail cell.

“Correctional facilities are addiction facilities,” said Dr. Lipi Roy, who used to run drug treatment programs at the New York city lockup on Riker’s Island. “They’re also mental health facilities.”

Among prison inmates in neighboring Connecticut, up to 90 percent have some sort of substance use disorder, said Dr. Kathleen Maurer, the medical director for that state’s Department of Corrections. Maurer said the state is trying to get people to treatment programs early — in some cases, by diverting them from prosecution toward treatment as soon as they’re arrested.

But as in other states, treatment programs in Connecticut struggle for funding, Maurer said. Even in her own department, “I’m in a position of cobbling together money from various grant funds … None of this is secure funding.”

Roy, now at New York University’s School of Medicine, said nearly a quarter of recent arrestees nationwide have a substance use disorder. About one in five tested positive for opioids. And of the roughly 23 million Americans with a substance use disorder, only 10 percent get treatment — in large part because there’s still such a strong stigma attached to addiction.

“The barrier is stigma,” she said. “So if there’s one kind of good thing about this opioid crisis, it’s making us really talk about this. And not just about opioids, but also about alcohol, which kills far more people, and tobacco and all those other substances.”

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