Dr-John W. Ayers

Reporters Covering Drugs Should Include 1-800-662-HELP In Their Stories

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Dr-John W. Ayers

Dr. Ayers

John W. Ayers, PhD MA
Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health
Department of Medicine, University of California
San Diego, La Jolla

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? 

Response: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national helpline (1-800-662-HELP) is the only free, federally managed and endorsed US drug treatment referral service, helping callers find the best local services that match their needs. Are millions suffering simply because they are not aware that lifesaving help is a phone call away?

In our new study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, Mark Dredze, Alicia Nobles and I delved into Americans’ engagement with 1-800-662-HELP following singer Demi Lovato’s July 24, 2018 hospitalization for a reported overdose that on-the-scene investigators originally linked to heroin. Lovato has since recovered.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: While the public engaged with Lovato’s overdose in record numbers, as reporters shared news of her potential overdose and the public talked about opioids or heroin on Twitter 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 comparison, after Bourdain’s suicide the team found 4,940 news stories, 20,900 tweets, and 29,000 searches for the National Suicide Lifeline, reflecting 22.9, 81.0, and 3.6 times greater volume. It is in this disparity a public health lesson lies.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: 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.

The World Health Organization created guidelines for covering suicide in the media decades ago, such as having news reporters include suicide helpline numbers in their stories. These methods are working as we saw around Bourdain’s suicide. Similar methods must be swiftly applied to 1-800-662-HELP.

First, reporters covering drugs should include 1-800-662-HELP in their stories. We must do this so when focussing events like Lovato’s overdose happen the public is made aware of 1-800-662-HELP.

Second, media companies should create space for showcasing 1-800-662-HELP. 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. It is important that media companies recognize the value behind 1-800-662-HELP and create similar spaces for drug related searches or social media content.

Last, the nation should invest in promotional strategies to increase awareness of 1-800-662-HELP. We invest tremendously in raising awareness of other similar resources, such as the Tips From Former Smokers campaign that promoted smoking cessation helplines.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: The problem our study uncovered doesn’t require billions of dollars or years waiting for more studies to act. Simply applying our free strategies will mean more of those who need help know of 1-800-662-HELP, and tragedies, like that besetting Lovato, could have a positive effect on public health, and lives will be saved.


Ayers JW, Nobles AL, Dredze M. Media Trends for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 800-662-HELP Addiction Treatment Referral Services After a Celebrity Overdose. JAMA Intern Med.Published online January 14, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.6562

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Jan 15, 2019 @ 12:16 am

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