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Breaking down stigmas attached to overdose to transform our society

According to the most recent World Drug Report, an estimated 585,000 people died as a result of drug use in 2017. Image: pexels- Rodnae Productions

Today Tuesday, 31 August, is International Overdose Awareness Day

An Opinion Piece by Mary Malak, CEO of Humanity Matters

With the pressure and isolation caused by the current COVID-19 lockdowns, many agencies are reporting higher levels of drug and alcohol use, as people try to find a way to cope with the stressors they are facing.

One of the most tragic consequences of increased drug and alcohol use is the irreversible and permanent loss of life caused by accidental and non-intentional overdoses. 

According to the most recent World Drug Report, an estimated 585,000 people died as a result of drug use in 2017.

In Victoria alone, last year, we saw reports revealing overdose related deaths increased ten-fold in 2020 compared to the year before, which the causes related to unemployment, isolation and mental health strains. 

International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD), 31st August, calls for collaborative and concerted efforts to be made to prevent the avoidable loss of lives resulting from non-intentional drug overdoses.

IOAD also aims to reduce the stigma associated with overdose and support for the families and friends mourning the loss of loved ones to overdose related deaths.

Changing the way we think about overdose

Existing stigmas and discrimination around overdose are hamstringing effective efforts to address the condition.

When it comes to discourse around drug use, it does not help that there is an overwhelming focus on illicit substances which contribute to negative perceptions which surround the public health issue.

It is important to recognise that legal substances, like pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol, are also contributing to high rates of overdose across the country.

Without recognising this, we’ll fail to address the problem in holistic ways that are necessary to minimise future lives from being lost to overdoses.

In addition, the criminalisation of users of illicit drugs is another barrier that hinders efforts to address the issue.

In Australia, policies that support a “war on drugs” cultivate societal stigmas attached to the issue of drug use and overdose.

When society criminalises individuals that have addictions or use illicit drugs, we focus on incarceration rather than support.

People will then be less likely to seek medical help or professional support when we criminalise the issue, due to the fear of police involvement or being judged.

The domino effect is that these communities become further marginalised and cycles of poverty and trauma are perpetuated.

To transform as a society, we need to move away from shunning individuals with drug or alcohol problems and instead help them improve their health outcomes.

We will see real change when we start investing in community-led interventions to provide social support, effective evidence-based treatment and promote harm reduction.

Tips on how to prevent and recognise an overdose

According to The Penington Institute, overdose happens when more drugs are consumed than the body can handle – this can be too much of one drug or a combination of different types.

It is important to acknowledge that all drugs can cause an overdose, from prescription medications to ones that are over-the-counter. 

Any overdose is potentially life-threatening and immediate medical attention to help individuals at risk.

To appropriately assist when someone overdoses, it is important to know the various signs and symptoms to look out for including:

  • Seizures
  • Severe headaches or migraines
  • Pains in other parts of the body including the chest
  • Difficulties with breathing
  • Paranoia, agitation and/or confusion

By driving more awareness around overdose and tearing down the stigmas associated with it, we help eliminate the shame, isolation and critically, tragedy that can come as a result.

From there, people will be able to access effective, non-discriminatory treatment to improve their health outcomes and create a better path for themselves.

Society as a whole will benefit.

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