August 31st – just a few days from now – will mark 20 years of International Overdose Awareness Day.
From humble origins in St Kilda in 2001, it has grown into the world’s largest annual campaign to end overdose and acknowledge without stigma those personally affected.
In 2001, 1,313 Australians lost their lives to drug-related causes. By 2019, more than 2,000 Australians had died of drug-related causes for the sixth year running. Road traffic deaths, meanwhile, declined by and have now been much lower than the overdose toll for years.
More recently still, COVID-19 has dramatically escalated the overdose crisis in North America, with preliminary data indicating the United States suffered more than 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020 – the highest number on record.
Although it’s difficult to identify all the factors which have contributed to this dramatic increase, says John Ryan, CEO of Penington Institute, key issues stand out.
“If you were to identify the main factors contributing to increased overdose deaths, what stands out is: lack of access to affordable and evidence-based interventions to reduce harm and dependence treatment including pharmacotherapy, the increasing potency of illicit drugs and new substances such as fentanyl, and not enough attention to the fundamental drivers of drug use such as trauma and lack of opportunity. The dominance of law enforcement to manage drug use issues has not been successful but continues”, John says.
“There’s been progress made on some fronts, such as improved access to and community knowledge of naloxone. But it hasn’t been enough to make a real dent in the numbers yet.”
According to John, the fact that these challenges remain and are relevant across the world makes International Overdose Awareness Day even more important.
“It isn’t easy to convince people that drug use is a health issue and not a law-and-order issue. But as more people realise the scale of the crisis and the War on Drugs consensus begins to weaken, IOAD is a vital part of moving the conversation forward.”
Hundreds of IOAD events are held around the world. They range in size from small morning teas to large community actions, but they all have overdose awareness and prevention at their heart.
Last year, Musicians for Overdose Prevention teamed up with the National Harm Reduction Coalition to stage an online concert featuring 25 artists playing sets from noon to 10pm. An even larger event is planned for 2021.
In Myanmar, Médecins du Monde held a series of overdose awareness and response workshops across three sites.
Closer to home, the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Council in Tasmania invited members, other community organisations and members of the public to fold a crane to remember those lost to overdose and wish for a world free from overdose harm. They also created a stunning #EndOverdose mosaic representing the 10,035 cranes folded through 2019 and 2020.
As we approach International Overdose Awareness Day 2021, hundreds of events are already planned. Candles will be lit, lost loved ones will be remembered, iconic landmarks will be lit purple, policymakers will be lobbied, and community members will be educated about the scale of this global health crisis.
In Cairns, Youthlink will invite clients to light a candle for their loved one and find closure by saying a prayer or sharing a story about them. They are also intending to administer naloxone to the community on the day.
In South Australia, Rotary Mount Gambier West and The Limestone Coast Drug Action Team will host a vigil to remember those who have lost their lives to overdose and the families who have lost a loved one to overdose and light local landmarks purple.
Sally Finn, who founded IOAD when working at an NSP in St Kilda, will never forget the campaign’s early years.
“I still remember when one mother described the life and death of her son, who’d moved to the Northern Territory to get away from his drug use – and died on his own in the outback six weeks later.
“The most pertinent issues during the first years were the lack of empathy and understanding for families who had lost loved ones.
“In 2002, when the launch was held on the St Kilda Pier, one woman came from a ward at the Melbourne clinic, where she had been admitted because of a depressive episode she’d had after her son died of an overdose.
“The fact that she’d heard me speak on ABC Radio National about the day meant that she’d gotten herself out of the hospital and down to the pier to attend the event.
“She became more involved in IOAD over the years. But her recovery, in part, was due to feeling that others understood that what had happened to her son was a tragedy – a death she had a right to grieve over.”
Although awareness is still an important goal, John is clear that the ultimate goal is overdose prevention which can only be enabled by more evidence-based drug policies.
“As a direct result of events held on August 31st, thousands of people have been trained in the use of naloxone who wouldn’t otherwise have been.
“In Afghanistan, the head of the national AIDS and hepatitis control program announced that ‘drug use is not a crime’ and asked all hospitals and service providers to stock naloxone.
“South Africa’s National Department of Social Development has formally recognised International Overdose Awareness Day and named the South African Network of People Who Use Drugs a strategic partner.
“While in Lebanon, their Director-General of the Ministry of Public Health issued a directive in 2016 for hospitals not to report overdose patients to law enforcement.
“The real credit goes to the organisations and communities who make these things happen. But by helping to give them a voice and amplify their message, IOAD is a vehicle for sensible change.”
International Overdose Awareness Day is observed on August 31st each year.
Get involved in 2021
Even though there’s just few days until International Overdose Awareness Day, there are still many ways to get involved if you haven’t already.
Engage with our resources: the IOAD website has a wide range of educational resources including overdose factsheets and posters. Download them, print them out and display them at your service.
Order merchandise: show your support for the goals of IOAD by ordering some merchandise. Wristbands, lanyards and lapel pins can be purchase from the campaign website.