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Breaking the Stigma That Exacerbates the U.S. Overdose Crisis

Vital Strategies
Nicole was featured in a mass media campaign, sharing a personal testimony about how harm reduction saved her life.

In recent years we have watched overdose deaths break records, and then break them again. In the U.S. alone, nearly 300 people died each day from a drug overdose in 2021—a statistic rendered all the more tragic because each of these deaths could have been prevented.

We have the tools to keep people who use drugs safer. Syringe service programs, fentanyl test strips, improving access to naloxone to reverse overdose—these are among the pillars of harm reduction. Strategies that are not only intended to keep people who use drugs alive, but also keep them informed, healthy and safer. To broadcast the importance of harm reduction, earlier this year Vital Strategies launched a high-profile media campaign to counter stigma and boost support for harm reduction, with a full-page ad in the New York Times featuring people on the front lines of the overdose crisis, and 30-second videos that aired on CNN, MSNBC, BET, YouTube and Hulu, and across digital platforms. The campaign was seen more than 44 million times.

At Vital Strategies, we are encouraged by the growing recognition—especially at the highest levels of government—that substance use disorder should be addressed with health and social support rather than with punishment. The overdose crisis is a public health crisis and requires care and compassion, not stigma and discrimination. We need health strategies that meet people who use drugs where they are, anchored in love and dignity.

On International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31, we recognize the harms of stigma—that it not only heightens the risk of drug use, but also mars the memory of those lost to overdose.

Started in 2001 in Melbourne, Australia, International Overdose Awareness Day is a global campaign to end overdose, remember those who have died, and acknowledge the grief of family and friends left behind.

Earlier this year, Vital Strategies launched an online memorial to honor those whose lives have been lost. The memorial aims to increase awareness of the urgent need to scale up harm reduction to protect people who use drugs from overdose. The interactive site includes moving portraits uploaded by loved ones, forming a patchwork quilt. Each tells the story of the person—sister, son, parent, friend or colleague—who is loved and deeply missed. Placed together, the stories are intended to inspire action and support for harm reduction.

This year, Vital Strategies is marking the day by unveiling the Overdose Memorial at the Newark Public Library, with remarks by New Jersey government officials including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. In the past decade, New Jersey has seen overdose deaths soar by 230%, disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities. The interactive digital display will continue its travel to other U.S. states hard hit by the overdose crisis, putting the human toll of these preventable losses front and center.

As one of the entries of the memorial reads: “People don’t die from heroin. They die of stigma.”

For more information about Vital Strategies’ overdose prevention work across seven U.S. states, visit: Overdose Prevention—Vital Strategies.

Expert Focus

Learn more from our experts about crucial aspects of the response to the U.S. overdose crisis.