International Overdose Awareness Day was established in 2001 in Melbourne, Australia and is now a global event held every year on the 31August. It aims to raise awareness of overdose and strategies for avoiding it, remember those who have lost their lives to overdose and to acknowledge the grief of family and friends who are left behind. More broadly, it also aims to raise awareness of the stigma attached to drug consumption and drug-related deaths.
For many years, peer organisations such as Harm Reduction Victoria having been working hard to deliver overdose prevention education and initiatives to save lives. Increasing awareness and uptake of naloxone, a drug that reverses the respiratory depression caused by overdose, is one of many examples of initiatives that owe much to peer organisations. Despite their tireless work, measures aimed at reducing overdose deaths such as safe injecting facilities and take-home naloxone initiatives continue to face obstacles to expansion. Prohibitionist regimes, along with illicit drug consumption-and addiction-related stigma, help shape overdose risk and the social settings of overdose in ways that actively produce impediments to life-saving harm reduction initiatives such as take-home naloxone (Fomiatti et al. 2020). A key example of this effect can be found in media coverage of overdose. Recent research indicates that newspaper reporting often positions these deaths as an inevitable end point for people who consume drugs, whose lives are presented as ‘invalid, disposable and, in turn, potentially ungrievable’ (Fraser, Farrugia & Dwyer, 2018, p. 30). With rates of overdose high in Australia and at unprecedented levels in many Western nations (e.g. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020; Ciccarone, 2019), efforts to address this issue are more urgently needed than ever.
International Overdose Awareness Day is an important event recognising that behind each death from overdose is a human life that has its own story and remains connected to the lives and stories of others. This day offers a time to publicly grieve those who have lost their lives to overdose, remember them as valued people with names and rich lives and experiences, who are loved and missed by family and friends. ARCSHS’ Drugs, Gender and Sexuality (DruGS) program is proud to mark this important day.
As part of the DruGS program’s response to drug consumption-related stigma and overdose rates, it conducted a large Australian Research Council -funded project investigating perspectives on and experiences of overdose and use of take-home naloxone. The project aimed to promote awareness about opioid overdose by developing a dedicated website presenting carefully researched personal stories of overdose and the use of take-home naloxone to save lives.
In 2017 the team began collecting stories of opioid overdose and responses to it for a new website entitled Overdoselifesavers.org. Planned and designed with the help of a national advisory panel that included peers, services providers and policy makers, Overdoselifesavers.org aims to fill in the many gaps in public discussion of overdose, to counter stigmatising misconceptions about people who consume drugs, and to promote understanding and more effective community responses.
One of the main issues the research project explored was the life-saving work being done by people who consume opioids. More and more consumers are acquiring take-home naloxone and using it to save the lives of their friends, family and even complete strangers. However, we rarely hear these life-saving stories in the mainstream news or other media. Documenting this life-saving work and informing researchers and the public about the ways consumers are caring for each other, often under very difficult circumstances, is one of the purposes of Overdoselifesavers.org.
The website offers a wide range of detailed personal stories and a variety of topic sections that focus on key themes found in the interviews such as:
- Experiences of overdose and strategies for avoiding it;
- Experiences with take-home naloxone;
- Helping family and friends; and
- Coping with stigma and discrimination.
To read about people’s experiences of overdose and administering or receiving take-home naloxone, go to Overdoselifesavers.org.
The website was also designed as a companion to our first website, Livesofsubstance.org, a site presenting stories of alcohol and other drug addiction, dependence or habit. Together the sites strive to inform professionals and the broader public about the serious issues people who consume drugs face, presenting their experiences in their own words and in the context of whole lives.
On International Overdose Awareness Day, it is important to remember that efforts to address overdose require more than the supply of naloxone or even the establishment of additional safe injecting facilities. Achieving the level of traction to which those of us passionately opposed to further deaths aspire requires initiatives and campaigns that seek change in how opioid consumption is viewed, such as in the de-stigmatisation of drug consumption through decriminalisation. Only in tackling these wider issues will we achieve consistent reductions in death by overdose and improve the lives and wellbeing of people who consume drugs and, therefore, the community at large.
Fomiatti, R., Farrugia, A., Fraser, S., Dwyer, R., Neale, J., & Strang, J. (2020). Addiction stigma and the production of impediments to take-home naloxone uptake. Health, doi.org/10.1177/1363459320925863
Dr Renae Formiatti, Dr Adrian Farrugia and Professor Suzanne Fraser
Drugs, Gender and Sexuality Program, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University