Life Unites Us introduces innovative tools to address opioid use disorder in Pa.

The Life Unites Us campaign is a Pollock Center collaboration with local, state and national agencies and organizations

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Continuing its Life Unites Us campaign to end the stigma around opioid use disorder, the Douglas W. Pollock Center for Addiction Outreach and Research at Penn State Harrisburg, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs and national nonprofit organizations The Public Good Projects and Shatterproof, has partnered with researchers and staff from the Institute of State and Regional Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg to create a data dashboard that sheds light on opioid and substance use disorder stigma in Pennsylvania.

Weston Kensinger, Pollock Center director, said that challenging and changing established beliefs and reducing stigma is a key factor in removing barriers to treatment and opportunity, as stigma often hinders individuals from seeking and receiving needed treatment and support.

He added that stigma reduction campaigns generally work to address this by sharing stories; however, they often do not provide the needed information, resources or tools for their target audience to understand the many types of stigma that exist or address the specific types and levels of stigma held to influence behaviors. That is where the dashboard comes in.

“Through the use of our web portal and data dashboard, including our web-based trainings and maps, users can better understand the types of stigma that exist, uncover the levels of stigma held by specific target audiences and within user-defined demographics, and gain the resources needed to effectively confront stigma in their local communities,” said Kensinger.

The dashboard includes access to multiple data sets, results of the campaign’s reoccurring statewide stigma reduction survey, and resources such as webinars and ArcGIS maps that researchers, community organizations, medical professionals, lawmakers and the public can use to address stigma. Through various filters, organizations can take a deep look at opioid-related stigma and its effects based on age, race, gender, population density, location and other demographics. Further, the dashboard includes information on advocacy, locating resources and addressing structural barriers.

“This is the first evidence-based substance use disorder stigma reduction behavior change campaign in the nation,” Kensinger said. “It is much more than a typical campaign that only shares people's stories and gives a few weblinks to general resources. The dashboard component of the campaign allows users to better understand stigma and make data-driven decisions to guide programming, policy and future research initiatives.” Kensinger said he hopes it will prove to be a model for other states.

The data dashboard was designed and developed with a variety of user groups in mind, such as the general public, government officials, single-county authority and community-based organization personnel, and health care professionals involved with substance use disorder prevention, treatment and recovery. The launch of the dashboard is a critical addition to the campaign, which has already reached many people. Between the campaign launch in late September 2020 and February 2021, more than 2.1 million content impressions have been made, and the campaign is now reaching an average of 12,500 individuals per day.

Övgü Kaynak, assistant professor of psychology, outlined the different ways the dashboard can be used.

“Members of the public who want to gain a better understanding of stigma related to substance use disorders can use the health indicators portion of the dashboard to delve into relevant data,” Kaynak said. “Users can explore data related to criminal justice, first responders, institutions, medical providers and social networks. Further, using the maps on the dashboards, they can locate recovery-oriented community-based organizations in their local communities and across the state.” 

Erica Saylor, Pollock Center research associate, added that advocates, policymakers, and state and local government officials who want to get a better idea of how stigma is seen in their regions or by specific populations can use survey results within the dashboard.

“They can access findings from our representative statewide stigma survey to better understand how constituents feel, identify areas of need when developing programming or seeking grant funding, or to take a data-driven approach to advocacy and policy change,” said Saylor.

Christopher Whipple, assistant professor of psychology, explained how the dashboard fits into the overall stigma reduction campaign.

“The media outreach portion of the campaign focuses on raising awareness and support, providing stories of hope, and encouraging those with disorders to seek and receive treatment,” Whipple said. “The dashboard complements the media outreach by providing needed information and tools for persons across the commonwealth to better understand stigma so that they can make data-informed decisions and take an evidenced-based approach for driving change within their communities. By equipping and educating the public, policymakers and health care professionals with these targeted data and resources, they can better develop programs and policies that help to reduce stigma and ultimately save lives.”

The campaign will continue its social media efforts, provide additional resources and data, reach out to more community organizations, talk to politicians, and run ads and op-eds.

Kensinger said overcoming stigma is only one part of addressing substance use disorder. Ensuring equitable access to long-term treatment and recovery options, strengthening government programs, and reforming the criminal justice system also are important.

Overcoming and reducing stigma “is only one part of helping people recover; there is still so much more work to do,” he said.