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Overdose Awareness Day: tackling stigma

Overdose Awareness Day was held on Sunday, August 31st, 2014.  In 2001 The Salvation Army launched the Overdose Awareness Day (OAD) in Melbourne; the annual international event has since been commemorated by people in Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, India, Lithuania , Russia, Scotland, the Slovak Republic, the UK and the US.

Event founder, Salvation Army worker Sally Finn, was inspired to start the day after counselling a person who’d lost 17 friends to overdoses: she says the day has since helped many people ‘remove the great stigma attached to drug-related deaths’.

‘For mums and dads, who haven’t had much to do with the drug scene,’ she adds, ‘this day is an non-threatening opportunity to speak the truth about what has happened to their families… The people who come to events often say the commemoration helped them experience a sense of peace.’


As well as granting bereaved people a chance to bear witness to their lost loved ones, the OAD allows churches, community organisations, government and non-government organisations such as hospitals, community health centres and user groups to educate people about the dangers of overdoses and substance misuse.

Salvation Army territorial Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) unit director, Kathryn Wright, attributes the longevity and success of OAD to the Australia Southern Territory’s harm minimisation model.

‘Other models, such as a zero tolerance model, still gravitate to a moral, legalistic view of drug deaths that says “these were bad people”,’ she explains. ‘We look at the circumstances of addiction, the society in which it flourishes, the background and reasons for use, and say, “Isn’t this a tragedy? Society could be so much better.”’


Her colleague Debra Little suggests Australians need to be aware that ‘the stigma against drug users is still there – there is a negative stereotype, where if someone fatally overdoses the response may come that it was “just a junkie”.’

‘In our Salvation Army community, in our workplace, that’s not the case, thanks to our non-discriminatory services and events such as the OAD. The whole grief process is honoured,’ Debra adds.


The bigotry that sees the life of a person who dies from an overdose as 'less important' than the life of someone who dies in other circumstances can deeply wound families; they may feel such shame and depression that they tell some other story about how they lost their child. That’s why the OAD is such a vital day: it commemorates lives lived and lost and allows people to be educated about the inherent dangers of substance misuse.

Since 2012 the OAD has been organised by the Penington Institute, a non-profit Australian public health body, which took over from Salvation Army Crisis Services in St Kilda.

More information:

Campaign resources

Click on a poster below to download

Do you recognise the signs of overdose?

Infographic on overdoses

How many medications have you had today?

You just took drugs