Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How to Reduce the Opioid Epidemic's Stigma

Framing is key. Empathy is not.

Macro of oxycodone opioid tablets
(Shutterstock)
I met Pennsylvania state Sen. Gene Yaw at a Governing roundtable on his state’s opioid crisis. Working with the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, he had heard 75 hours of testimony at 13 public hearings. He came away believing that the country faces an unprecedented drug addiction and overdose epidemic. He’s right. More than 40,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016. Deaths from opioids have contributed to a decline in average U.S. life expectancy.

As Yaw and the other state and local officials around the table pointed out, many of those addicted to opioids struggle with mental illness, and many have been jailed for violating drug laws. So they face a triple whammy of stigma -- against addicts, the mentally ill and the formerly incarcerated -- that’s a real barrier to public support for marshaling policies and resources. The stigma also blocks many people from seeking the assistance they need, and it stays with them even if they recover from addiction, making it hard for them to find a job or housing, among other things.

The experts certainly have policy solutions. In November, for example, the Trust for America’s Health partnered with the Well Being Trust to call for a “national resilience strategy” combining prevention and treatment. Their report cites more than 60 policies and programs that could have an impact. But I don’t think policies and programs are going to get a fair chance without a good plan for reducing the stigma. For that you need a different kind of expert.

Nat Kendall-Taylor is the CEO of the FrameWorks Institute, whose social scientists study how to frame issues to bridge the divide between public and expert understanding. Humans relate to the world in stories, and how those stories are framed can make all the difference. The FrameWorks Institute exposes research participants to different frames and measures their impact. “We no longer have to guess which stories work,” says Kendall-Taylor. “These are empirical questions with empirical answers.”

The FrameWorks Institute found some answers in the Canadian province of Alberta, where it tested three ways of framing messages about addiction. Framing stories around interdependence -- the idea that we all depend on one another to achieve our full potential -- increased support for addiction programs. The value of ingenuity -- that we as a community can come together to solve problems -- also increased support, but slightly less so. But using the value of empathy actually depressed support for those programs. That’s unfortunate, but it’s useful to know which kinds of stories might work and which probably won’t.

After all, the most powerful tool that political leaders have is the stories they tell. When I asked Pennsylvania’s Yaw what his most important takeaway about the opioid crisis was, he said that education was key but that he didn’t see how it could cut through the stigma. I think it can, but it has to involve the right kinds of stories. 

Mark Funkhouser, a former publisher of Governing and former mayor of Kansas City, is president of Funkhouse & Associates, an independent consulting firm. He can be reached at mark@mayorfunk.com.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
In recent years, local governments have been forced to adapt to a wildly changing world, especially as it pertains to sending bills and collecting payments.
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.
Sponsored
Service delivery and the individual experience within health and human services (HHS) is often very siloed and fragmented.
Sponsored
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Sponsored
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Sponsored
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?