Confronting the opioid epidemic with comms

Communication is only one part of the equation that can help combat this epidemic, but it's a powerful and potentially life-saving one.

(Image via Wikimedia commons, by Rotellam1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
(Image via Wikimedia commons, by Rotellam1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In 2015, for the first time, more people were killed in the U.S. by drug overdoses than gun homicides. Opioid overdoses, including prescription opioids and heroin, took the lives of more than 33,000 people, and entire communities are reeling from the devastation of lost loved ones. As the epidemic continues, there is an urgent need for public communication to play a role in saving lives.

Communicating about the dangers of opioid use poses a challenge because the scope of the problem is unprecedented. It’s penetrating communities across the country, from small towns to large cities and affecting people of all walks of life. Opioids can be highly addictive, even when taken as prescribed, meaning there are critical points when people need to receive or recall messages to influence their behavior—before it’s a missed opportunity.

Despite these challenges, we know for certain that messages about opioids need to be heard. The most urgent being to avoid using opioids in the first place whenever possible, to prevent the risk of addiction and overdose. There are other, and potentially more effective ways, to handle pain. This is a hard message to deliver, especially because pain is a reality that many people suffer from in their daily lives—and the burden of their experiences should not be understated.

We are fortunate to live in a society where some public health challenges are met with straightforward responses. Seat belts save countless lives each year and vaccines prevent the spread of disease. Communication about these issues has been highly effective leading to behavior change and improving public health. Unlike these examples, the opioid epidemic is complex and unique in that no single solution will bring about change. Communicators need to account for both prescribed and illicit opioid use while also acknowledging that there is no easy cure for pain. 

Communication is only one part of the equation that can combat this epidemic, but it’s a powerful and potentially life-saving one. We need to draw on the best available science, deepen our understanding of how audiences are affected and what novel strategies will inspire behavior change, and apply our creativity and open-mindedness as communicators to develop solution-focused approaches to help end the epidemic.   

Zoe Donnell is a senior communications specialist in ICF’s social marketing and health communication practice. She has been working on the issue of prescription opioid misuse for nearly three years.

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