October 26, 2010

Harm Reduction Panel (photo by Martin Dornbaum)

Those who were in attendance at CHMP’s inaugural event on harm reduction were inspired by stories from Fiona Gold and Juanita Maginley, who represented the Vancouver Street Nurses, as well as insights from a distinguished panel and audience members. “Media, Policy and Harm Reduction” brought together CHMP’s visiting scholars Gold and Maginley with Dr. Daliah Heller, Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Alcohol, Drug Use Prevention, Care and Treatment for New York City; Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, an MD practicing at a community health care center in the Bronx with a needle exchange program; Allen Kwabena Frimpong of the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York, an advocate with extensive background in international issues of harm reduction, especially among youth; and Maxine King, outreach coordinator for WORTH (Women On The Rise Telling HerStory), a substance abuse counselor and social worker who has experienced the heath care system both as an addict and as a healer. The panel was moderated by CHMP Co-Director Barbara Glickstein and included comments from the Joan Hansen Grabe Dean of the Hunter School of Nursing, Dr. Kristine Gebbie, and CMHP Co-Director, the Rudin Professor of Nursing Dr. Diana Mason and was held at Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. Over the next week, CHMP’s Blog will feature posts regarding important themes of the evening.  This first post will cover one of the major themes: humanizing drug addiction in the media.

Ms. Maginley began with the idea of media as a tool for education.  She spoke specifically about creation of the film “Bevel Up: Drugs Users and Outreach Nursing”.  She showed a 12-minute clip, which provided a story of a mother and daughter—both living with drug addiction—and their struggle on the streets of Vancouver.  The powerful clip offered poignant perspective on those living with addiction and the caring nature of others working to help them through harm reduction.

Daliah Heller spoke about specific media campaigns she believed unfairly represented New York State harm reduction efforts.  One such recent article appeared in the New York Daily News, entitled “States picking ex-cons’ poison, hopes new drug Suboxone will keep inmates off heroin”.  She pointed out that the irresponsible narratives supplied by the media may inhibit the rollout of the new harm reduction program to be adopted by some New York State prisons, which is hoped to significantly decrease the high number of overdoses among the recently incarcerated population, who were not receiving methadone maintenance in prison, but were living with drug addiction prior to incarceration.  A similarly misinformed portrayal of New York City’s progressive harm reduction program made international news last January, which Ms. Heller says hindered the harm reduction agenda in New York City.

Importantly, Ms. Gold brought to light another issue concerning language the media, medical community and law enforcement use when referencing drug users.  Words such as “drug abusers” immediately vilifies and disempowers people living with drug addiction.  In an effort to reach out to the media, Ms. Gold recounted a trip the Vancouver Street Nurses took to a European city’s harm reduction program, which included a safe injection sight.  With them they brought a member of the media in Vancouver. Ms. Gold explained that after this trip, she no longer had to call the media to beg for an accurate representation of Vancouver’s harm reduction strategies, but instead, members of the media began reaching out to her for quotes and stories.  Audience member and health care journalist, Irene Wielawski, also believed stronger media partnerships are important for effective media portrayals of these issues.

Allen Kwabena Frimpong also delivered an important message.  His point was that current PSAs are not only vilifying drug users, but are also not reaching the appropriate groups of interest.  A clip was shown of a PSA produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime that targeted young Americans, though the clip featured people who were actors and models that were not representative of the population of actual users in this country.  He said that we need to be targeting those who have little to no access to resources to help them avoid drug use or to gain treatment for addiction.  Panelists and audience members alike agreed that the current media portrayal of harm reduction and people living with addiction in this county is a misguided and irresponsible one.  Changing the media portrayal of these issues will be key to a future of acceptance, compassion, and empowerment of those who are struggling with addiction and others working with the drug-addicted community.

Jen Busse, RN, MPH, is an intern at the CHMP, and currently pursuing an MS in nursing as a Family Practice Nurse Practitioner at Columbia University.