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How stigma prevents wider understanding of risks and prevention of overdose

In the wake of International Overdose Awareness Day (August 31), UnitingCare ReGen’s Donna Ribton-Turner says the taboos surrounding deaths from alcohol and other drug overdose magnify the burden for grieving families and increase the risk for all of us.

She looks at how we are improving, or not, with public awareness through the media coverage of the high profile deaths of Robin Williams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

See at the bottom of the post for other reflections on that coverage, and the statement issued by Mindframe on the day Robin Williams’ death was announced, reminding media to be cautious and responsible when covering his death and linking to their guidelines.

***

Donna Ribton-Turner writes:

For those of us working in health and community services, media coverage of the private tragedies of celebrities and other public figures is a two-edged sword.  It can help draw attention to important health and social concerns we work with every day, but often distorts public perception of what are typically complex issues.

Two recent examples highlight the challenges we face in improving public awareness of potential harms associated with alcohol and other drug use.  Both involved the untimely deaths of well-loved performers: one from an apparent opioid overdose, one by suicide.

On the surface, the narratives about the lives and deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams had clear similarities.  Both were gifted and successful.  Both had a history of personal struggles.  Both had children.

Yet the difference in media reporting was striking. Within minutes of the Williams news breaking, articles began to emerge celebrating his life and his achievements.  This soon became the frame of reference for most public discussion, even providing awareness raising opportunities about depression, suicide and mental health services.

While Williams was remembered for his life, Hoffman was defined by his death as media coverage rarely moved beyond the detail of his final hours and headline writers reached for the usual stereotypes.

This contrast is an effective marker of the progress made in breaking down the stigma associated with mental health and suicide.  Much has been achieved in this area and our communities are the stronger for it.  However, this progress also serves to highlight how far we still have to go to build an informed public discussion of illicit drug use and recognition of the ongoing impacts of overdose.

In the absence of informed debate, simplistic and misleading stereotypes limit public understanding of the issues and awareness of the potential risks.  Stereotypes about overdose (and the people affected by it) blind us to the reality of alcohol and other drug use within our communities (and our families), especially when it comes to the risks posed by prescription medications.

As a society, we are consuming ever higher levels of medication to deal with pain (mental as well as physical).  Consequently, rates of accidental overdoses involving prescription medications continue to rise.  This was highlighted last week by new data indicating that overdose rates amongst middle aged women (not a group that fits with common stereotypes about people who use drugs) have more than doubled in the past decade.

For the last two years, we have lost more Australians to overdose than the road toll.  This is not an issue we can ignore, but we need to create an environment in which people can tell their stories without shame or fear.

As well as blinding us to the truth, the stigma associated with overdose (and, more broadly, dependent alcohol and other drug use) effectively silences the voices of many who could lead an informed public discussion.  With a few notable exceptions, those directly affected know the isolating impact of that stigma and, typically, keep their suffering to themselves.

Families and friends who have lost a loved one to overdose want to be able to remember that person’s life: what they loved about them and why they think about them every day.  They don’t want that person’s memory to be defined by the manner of their death.

Stigma prevents this.

It keeps people quiet for fear of being judged.  It stifles public discussion and it strengthens misleading stereotypes.

If we can’t see beyond the stereotypes, we can’t recognise the risk to ourselves and those we love.

If we’re already feeling vulnerable, fear of being further stigmatised can prevent us from seeking help.

Overdose can affect us all.  Overdose prevention saves lives.  We all have a role to play.

Donna Ribton-Turner is Director Clinical Services at UnitingCare ReGen

***

See other responses to the media coverage of Robin Williams’ death.

 

***

For help or more information

For people who may be experiencing sadness or trauma, please visit these links to services and support

• If you are depressed or contemplating suicide, help is available at Lifeline on 131 114 or online. Alternatively you can call the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 4671300 659 467.

• For young people 5-25 years, call kids help line 1800 55 18001800 55 1800

• For resources on social and emotional wellbeing and mental health services in Aboriginal Australia

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