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U.S. substance abuse helpline largely unknown

(Reuters Health) – The U.S. government’s toll-free substance abuse helpline, which provides free referral services to those looking for treatment, gets little publicity, a new study finds.

By contrast, suicide helplines are regularly publicized, the research team points out.

When the researchers compared how often the addiction helpline was mentioned in news stories and social media after Demi Lovato’s overdose to how often the suicide helpline was noted after Anthony Bourdain killed himself, they found a huge disparity.

They hope their study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, will help change that.

“When I pick up a newspaper and read about another tragedy related to the drug epidemic, I want to see solutions mentioned in that reporting,” said lead author John Ayers, a professor and vice chief of Innovation in the Division of Infectious Disease & Global Public Health at the University of California, San Diego.

“Drug addiction is curable,” he said. “The first step towards that cure is to realize you need help and that you can find someone to help you by calling the helpline.”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) helpline, 800-662-HELP, is the only federally managed and endorsed addiction treatment referral service. “It’s a place where people can get social support,” Ayers said. “And it helps the public navigate around what are sometimes dubious addiction resources.”

Also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service, 800-662-HELP provides 24-hour free and confidential treatment referral and information in English and Spanish.

(In the UK, the National Health Service advises people seeking help finding drug treatment services to call 0300 123 6600).

To get a sense of how familiar the news media and the U.S. public are with SAMHSA’s helpline, Ayers and his colleagues searched Google News, Twitter and Google during the week after Demi Lovato’s July 24, 2018 hospitalization for overdose. The researchers obtained counts of all the articles, posts or searches that mentioned: Lovato, opioid or heroin, and 800-662-HELP.

The researchers performed a similar search for the week after Anthony Bourdain’s June 8, 2018 suicide. The key words used this time were: Bourdain, suicide, and 800-273-TALK (the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number).

For the week after Lovato’s overdose, Ayers and colleagues located 42,500 news stories, 972,500 tweets and 14.7 million searches referencing Lovato. Opioids or heroin were mentioned in 25,300 news stories, 342,200 tweets and 1.2 million searches. In contrast, just 216 news stories, 258 tweets and 8,000 searches mentioned the addiction helpline.

For comparison, after Bourdain’s suicide, the researchers found 4,940 news stories, 20,000 tweets and 29,000 searches that mentioned the suicide helpline. The number of total news articles was about half of those on Lovato at 22,400.

The disparity between mentions of the two helplines is striking: the suicide helpline was mentioned 22.9 times more often in news stories, 81 times more often in tweets and 3.6 times more often in searches.

It’s unfortunate that the news media hasn’t treated the addiction helpline in the same way it has the suicide line, said Dr. John Rozel, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, medical director of resolve Crisis Services and president of the American Association for Emergency Psychiatry.

“If someone sees a story about a famous person who thought they had things under control but overdosed, it might be a tipping point for them,” he said. “Or a person might think, ‘That’s just like my sister and that might be what’s going on with her.’ Having that resource available for those important opportunities when someone is ready to try to change their behavior is what we are looking for in emergency mental health.”

SOURCE: JAMA Internal Medicine, online January 14, 2019.

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