Reports of Demi Lovato overdose failed to highlight drug hotline

The suicide of chef Anthony Bourdain contrasts sharply to singer Demi Lovato’s reported drug overdose in the exposure that toll-free helplines received in news coverage and social media postings, according to new research.

“Exactly when people need free, lifesaving resources like 1-800-662-HELP, people don’t know they exist.”

The difference may stem, at least in part, from the existence of formal guidelines that advise the media on how to highlight suicide prevention resources, including a telephone hotline, in coverage of high-profile suicide deaths like Bourdain’s.

The research team suggests similar guidelines for high-profile cases of overdose, including promotion of a free national helpline that could provide lifesaving resources to those seeking to get off opioids and other dangerous drugs of abuse.

Knowledge gap

“Only 10 percent of Americans who need substance abuse treatment resources receive it,” says Mark Dredze, an associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University and a coauthor of the study, which appears in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“Exactly when people need free, lifesaving resources like 1-800-662-HELP, people don’t know they exist. That’s a problem we must fix now,” says first author, John Ayers, vice chief of innovation at the infectious disease and global public health division at the University of California, San Diego.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 1-800-662-HELP is the only free, federally managed and endorsed drug-treatment referral service in the United States, helping callers find local services that best match their needs.

Lovato is a popular singer, songwriter, and actor who has been candid with the public about mental health issues and struggles with substance abuse. The researchers found that Americans tweeted in high volumes and searched for topics relating to Lovato and drugs after her hospitalization for a reported overdose in the summer of 2018. Relatively few of those engagements mentioned the free national helpline.

Diving into the numbers

After the June 8 suicide of chef and television personality Bourdain, the researchers found 4,940 news stories about, 20,900 tweets referencing, and 29,000 searches for the National Suicide Lifeline. Those numbers reflected 22.9, 81.0, and 3.6 times greater volume than engagement referring to 1-800-662-HELP following Lovato’s overdose.

For the study, researchers counted news reports, tweets, and Google searches mentioning “Lovato,” “opioid,” or “heroin,” and 1-800-662-HELP and its various spellings during the week following Lovato’s hospitalization (July 24 through July 30, 2018).

Because internet searchers may not have known the helpline number, all searches for opioid or heroin and helpline or help were included.

The team replicated this process for the week after Bourdain’s suicide on June 8, substituting Bourdain, suicide, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) where appropriate, for comparison.

While the public engaged with Lovato’s overdose in record numbers, there was little to no discussion on how to address this crisis using 1-800-662-HELP.

For instance, only 216 of 42,500 news reports archived on Google News mentioning Lovato and 25,300 news reports mentioning opioids or heroin cited 1-800-662-HELP. The pattern was similar on Twitter where nearly a million posts were made about Lovato and just 258 of them mentioned 1-800-662-HELP.

In 1999, the World Health Organization created guidelines for covering suicide in the media. The WHO’s advice recommended news reporters mention suicide helpline numbers in their stories.

The research team suggests similar methods be applied to 1-800-662-HELP and drug overdose cases:

  1. Reporters covering drugs should include 1-800-662-HELP in their stories.
  2. Media companies should create space for highlighting 1-800-662-HELP.
  3. The nation should invest in promotional strategies to increase awareness of 1-800-662-HELP, akin to past efforts on smoking cessation helplines such as the Tips from Former Smokers campaign.

“If you search for suicidal ideation terms, the top link is to the suicide lifeline and you can start a chat online or by phone. But if you search for ‘how to stop using drugs,’ no such link exists. We must change that,” Dredze adds.

The research appears in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Source: Johns Hopkins University