Substance Use Disorder stigma tracking in PA shows signs of growth around opioid epidemic

02 February 2024- The Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), in partnership with Penn State Harrisburg’s Douglas W. Pollock Center for Addiction Outreach and Research, The Public Good Projects (PGP), and Shatterproof, announced findings from the third year of the Life Unites Us campaign, an evidence-based approach to reducing the stigma of substance use disorder (SUD).

“We must flip the script on stigma because it is very much still a barrier when it comes to individuals seeking treatment for, or even talking about, substance use disorder,” said DDAP Secretary Dr. Latika Davis-Jones. “It is encouraging to see that through the Life Unites Us campaign, attitudes are improving toward medications for opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment, harm reduction, and overall views of individuals struggling with the disease of addiction.”

Life Unites Us launched in September 2020 and utilizes social media to spread stories of individuals and their family members living with SUD, hosts webinars sharing tools and information to effectively reduce stigma, and maintains an interactive data dashboard detailing the campaign’s progress.

During its third year, the campaign reached more than four million Pennsylvanians to deliver information and messaging to encourage stigma reduction. More than 300 individuals in recovery, as well as their family members, recorded testimonials that were shared on the campaign’s website and social media channels. In addition, the campaign hosted six webinars across numerous topics related to stigma reduction with more than 700 attendees. The team also formed and sustained relationships with more than 180 community partner organizations.

“The Life Unites Us campaign is now considered a model nationwide due to its ability to shift knowledge and attitudes to remove the stigma that surrounds a substance use disorder through open, honest discussions and science-based content that tell the true stories about this treatable disease,” said Gary Mendell, founder and CEO of Shatterproof. “Life Unites Us is part of the Shatterproof National Stigma Initiative, a multi-sectoral movement to address the stigma experienced by people with substance use disorders. Our team is grateful to our many state partners and is looking forward to continuing this important life-saving work to improve the quality of care and needed resources and ultimately, save lives.”

“The public health community is looking at Pennsylvania and what’s being done here, and it’s changing things. Not just for Pennsylvanians but Americans everywhere who have been living through this drug crisis. I think a big reason it’s working is because people are decent. People and organizations show up every day to help. If you give them good information they’ll put it to use and change will happen,” said Dr. Joe Smyser, PhD, MSPH, Chief Executive Officer of PGP.

A survey of Pennsylvanians conducted three years into the campaign found several trends, including greater willingness to live with someone and continue a relationship with a friend struggling with OUD. Pennsylvanians also indicated higher willingness to provide naloxone to friends and family of people with OUD, and openness to having opioid treatment centers located near their homes. Some additional findings from the three-year follow-up survey include:

● 89% of respondents who viewed the campaign agreed that there are effective treatments for people who are addicted to opioids, compared to 76% of respondents who did not view the campaign.

● 85% of respondents who viewed the campaign had at least heard of fentanyl test strips and knew something about them, compared to 60% of respondents who did not view the campaign.

● 72% of respondents who viewed the campaign agreed that, if needed, they would know how to get help for a family member or friend who has a problem with opioids, compared to 58% of respondents who did not view the campaign.

“The campaign has far exceeded expectations in terms of reach, exposure, and partner engagement over the past three years as we have successfully reached millions of Pennsylvanians with our message to reduce substance use disorder stigma,” said Douglas W. Pollock Center for Addiction Outreach and Research Director Dr. Weston Kensinger. “The Life Unites Us campaign is now considered a model program nationwide as other states have recognized the effectiveness of our campaign and have started implementing our strategies and approach in their stigma reduction efforts. As we continue our important work, we look forward to engaging more partners statewide to provide the necessary resources and ultimately save lives.”

Throughout year four, Life Unites Us will elevate additional community voices to ensure experiences and perspectives from all corners and communities in the state are represented, as well as expand messaging to include timely and evolving topics such as harm reduction tools like fentanyl and xylazine test strips.

The statewide campaign is funded by federal grant funding and is part of DDAP’s ongoing efforts to reduce the stigma of SUD.