Recognizing International Overdose Awareness Day

Recognizing International Overdose Awareness Day

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International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD) is a global event held on August 31st each year that aims to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of a drug-related death. It also acknowledges the grief felt by families and friends remembering those who have met with death or permanent injury as a result of drug overdose. IOAD spreads the message that the tragedy of overdose death is preventable. The first International Overdose Awareness Day was organized in 2001 by two harm reduction advocates in Melbourne, Australia. They organized a local event and give silver ribbons out for anyone who wished to commemorate a friend, partner or family member who had passed away. Any member of the community, even if not directly affected, could wear a ribbon to offer their condolences to those who had suffered an overdose. Since then, hundreds of other NGOs and human rights organizations have become involved in International Overdose Awareness Day. Though every participant approaches the day in their own way, the campaign is centered around the following goals:
  • To provide an opportunity for people to publicly mourn for loved ones, some for the first time, without feeling guilt or shame.
  • To include the greatest number of people in Overdose Awareness Day events, and encourage non-denominational involvement.
  • To give community members information about the issue of fatal and nonfatal overdose.
  • To send a strong message to current and former drug users that they are valued.
  • To stimulate discussion about overdose prevention and drug policy.
  • To provide basic information on the range of support services that exist in the local community.
  • To prevent and reduce drug-related harm by supporting evidence-based policy and practice.
  • To remind all of the risks of overdose.

Stories and Testimonials

KG When I was 18 years old I attended a music festival, which I did fairly often at the time as I was experimenting with drugs and raving. I arrived to the festival with a few friends and decided to take about 7 hits of LSD which was fine and dandy for the most part. Since I was heavily abusing psychedelics at the time, I had a massive tolerance (yes, you can abuse psychedelics). A few hours later, I decided to consume 2 “mollies”, which ended up giving positive results for MDPV, a potentially fatal cathinone or “bath salt”, using a DanceSafe reagent kit. 30 minutes following the consumption of the “mollies”, I began to lose my sense of self, entering a full-fledged drug induced psychosis. I ended up running away from my friends, I had felt like the world was ending and I had superhuman strength, much of the peak experience is a blur to me. I vaguely remember bowing and sitting in meditation pose in front of the paramedics to honor them for their work protecting the patrons of the festival. I eventually ran into a group of Law Enforcement Officers and I was “assisted” to the ground, ending up with my face on the sewer water seeping from the concrete sanitary sewer. I remember sitting in the back of the police car and something I said to the LEO made him punch me in the face, while I was handcuffed sitting in the back of the car. I ended up going to jail, instead of a hospital, still in a psychosis from which I slowly came down from. Following this experience; I caught my first felonies, lost some good friends, and I started to sink deeper into my depression and trauma elicited from the experience. In hindsight, It was one of the most dissociating, ego-shattering, and unfathomable experiences of my life. It serves as a reminder for myself about the importance of harm reduction and ending the war on drugs. This is completely preventable and nobody should have to go through this because they are curious about experimenting with drugs.     Anonymous 10 years ago I lost my cousin to a heroin overdose. No one in my family saw it coming. He wasn’t the stereotypical person the media might label a “junkie”. He was near the top of his class, had just accepted a scholarship to Brown University, and was an avid soccer player with dreams to one day try out for the national team. The thought that he would even be using heroin never crossed my 13 year old mind. Then one day, I came home from school and my Dad said he was gone. He died alone in his car after dosing in the parking lot of a grocery store, late at night when no one was there. He was 18. Had he not felt so stigmatized about his habit that he felt the need to go there in order to use, maybe he would have been in a position to receive help. Maybe if our society didn’t tell us that using heroin is something to be ashamed of, he might have felt empowered to seek help rather than just slip further and further into substance abuse. We can’t let people continue to be afraid of being honest about their drug use. End the stigma, and let’s get people the help they need. —–

Facts About Overdose

  • According to the 2016 World Drug Report, there were 207,400 drug-related worldwide deaths in 2014. Overdose accounted for up to a half of all deaths, and opioids were involved in most cases.
    • When averaging out data from previous world drug reports, approximately 187,000 people die each year from overdose, meaning that in 2014 the number of deaths was significantly higher than the average.
  • In the United States, more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any other year on record. Deaths from drug overdose are up among both men and women, all races, and adults of nearly all ages. (Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention)
    • Accidental drug overdose is the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States for people between the ages of 35-54 and the second leading cause of injury-related death for young people. Drug overdose deaths now exceed those attributable to firearms, homicides or HIV/AIDS.
    • 2014 saw a 6.5% increase from the number of drug-related deaths in 2013.
    • Driven largely by an increase in addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin, deaths from drug overdoses have jumped in nearly every county across the United States.
    • The largest concentrations of overdose in the United States occur in Appalachia and the Southwest.
    • Deaths from overdose are reaching similar levels to the HIV epidemic during its peak.
    • Though historically metropolitan areas have had higher rates of overdose, rural areas now outpace that rate.

How is Overdose Preventable?

As drug-related overdoses continue to increase around the world, it is imperative that we find medical, educational, and policy solutions that will help save lives. An approach to overdose grounded in harm reduction and scientific evidence is the best way to reduce the amounts of preventable deaths in the United States and the rest of the world.


Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is a low-cost overdose reversal drug that was first approved by the FDA in 1971. It is an opioid antagonist that blocks the brain cell receptors activated by heroin and other opioids, temporarily restoring normal breathing within two to three minutes of administration and buys the victim of an overdose more time until medical assistance arrives. It is important to remember that Naloxone alone does not save ves, and to always call 911 when you administer naloxone to someone so they can get the medical attention they need.
  • Though the number of overdoses in the United States is on the rise, the increasing availability of naloxone has resulted in over 26,000 lives saved through drug overdose reversal between 1996 and 2014. (Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention)
    • Naloxone distribution for laypersons is currently available in 42 states and the District of Columbia.
    • Most laypersons who reported using the kits to reverse an overdose were persons who use drugs, and many of the reported reversals involved heroin overdoses.
    • According to a 2013 cost-benefit analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, one life could be saved for every 164 naloxone kits that are distributed. Currently, there are 650 naloxone distribution locations throughout the United States.

911 Good Samaritan Policies

Also known as Medical Amnesty Policies, these are life-saving measures that enable people to make responsible decisions by shielding them from punishment when they call for medical help during an emergency relating to alcohol or other drugs. Since the threat of punitive policies can often cause hesitation during confusing and stressful situations, the existence of a Call 911 Good Samaritan Policy is essential to ensuring that people are able to stay alive and receive help when they are in trouble.
  • According to SSDP’s research, there are currently over 200 college campuses with some form of a Good Samaritan Policy on the books.
  • Most overdose deaths actually occur one to three hours after the victim has initially ingested or injected drugs. The chances of surviving an overdose usually depends on how quickly someone received medical attention.
  • 31 states and the District of Columbia currently have Good Samaritan Policies on the books.

Evidence-Based Drug Education

Providing practical, life-saving information to people who use opioids can dramatically reduce the likelihood of fatal overdose. For example, a major factor in opioid overdoses is the mixing of different drugs such as alcohol or cocaine when using opioids. New Mexico has undertaken an outreach and education initiative to inform people who use drugs about the risks of using multiple substances simultaneously. The results have been a small decrease in drug-related deaths among young people. It is important that when educating young people about the causes of overdose, we take an approach that rejects the zero tolerance model and embraces harm reduction education.
  • SSDP’s Just Say Know Peer Education program seeks to empower students in our network to analyze the relationship between drug policy and drug use by providing evidence-based drug information, teaching students to recognize and address dangerous behaviors and unhealthy attitudes, and promoting prosocial and harm reduction oriented behaviors and attitudes. Check out the training curriculum to see how you can become a SSDP-certified peer educator on your campus.
  • It’s not just people who use drugs who need to be educated about overdose. Doctors and caregivers must become more aware about the effects opioid painkillers can have on patients, and ensure that they are providing patients with all the information they need to be safe when using the drugs.

Resources about Overdose and Prevention

SSDP Just Say Know Peer Education Program Harm Reduction Coalition – Overdose Prevention Harm Reduction International IOAD Links and Resources Overdose Prevention Alliance SAMHSA Opioid Treatment Program Directory Comprehensive Guide to Naloxone Around the World