“Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference.” – Jane Goodall
August 31, 2023, marks the 22nd International Overdose Awareness Day. This annual day of awareness aims to spread the message of the tragedy of drug overdose deaths and that drug overdoses are preventable. It creates a safe space for public mourning, provides information about drug use, overdoses and care, and communicates that current and former drug users are valued. International Overdose Awareness Day unites events all over the world to make sure these goals are spread as widely as possible. The 2023 theme is “Recognizing those people who go unseen,” calling out specifically to those whose lives have been changed by drug overdoses.
Knowing that in the US in 2021, there were an estimated 107,622 drug overdose deaths, a 15% increase from the year before, I was struck deeply by the day’s message and approach. I grew up in a family that has its fair share of mental illness and struggles, but I was lucky enough to be raised by the generation that was working to break the cycles of shame and hiding that had been in place for decades before that. I’ve seen the long-term effects that the overuse of drugs and alcohol can have, and I’ve also seen the effects of feeling isolated and ashamed in the face of struggles around mental health and substance use.
It is incredible what being seen can do. There is so much power in listening to someone, walking with them, approaching their experience with curiosity instead of judgment, and truly caring. That power reaches even further when care and connection with one person leads to advocacy and a fight for change on a larger scale. The process is not always easy, but it can transform the world.
On International Overdose Awareness Day, there are a few things you can do to make a big difference in your community:
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about drug use and overdosing. Stereotypes of drug users and harm reduction practices get in the way of the care that is needed to stop overdoses. The International Overdose Awareness Day website has a number of educational materials on overdoses and how to prevent them, as well as fact sheets to read and share with specific steps to help those in need. They also have a collection of links for organizations and resources all over the world to learn more and get support.
Just as there are many different kinds of people, there are different ways that you can prepare to prevent overdoses. Education is huge, but there are more opportunities to be prepared to make a difference. One major opportunity is to learn more about and be trained around Naloxone or Narcan. Naloxone is a medication that is widely available and can very quickly and easily reverse an opioid overdose. The CDC has a great primer on what Naloxone is, and organizations offer local and online training on how to recognize opioid overdose and administer Naloxone, like this one from Overdose Lifeline. It’s not hard to learn, and can be the opportunity for someone in your life to have a second chance.
You can make a huge difference in your community, but lending your voice to the larger fight for harm reduction resources and the end to overdose can make a huge difference in the world. Whether it’s attending one of the International Overdose Awareness Day events, writing to your politicians in support of harm reduction policies, or advocating for awareness and action in your state, your voice can make a world of difference.
We can work together to make the world a better, safer, healthier place for everyone. We just need to be willing to take the first step.
If you or a loved one in the US are struggling with substance abuse, reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). The hotline is confidential, free, available 24/7 in English and Spanish, and can connect you or a loved one with resources in your area. You are not alone, and your life matters.