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Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis: “The best thing we can do to reduce the stigma around opioid misuse is to talk about it” With Sean Howard of the National Opioid Action Coalition (NOAC)

As simple as this sounds, the best thing we can do to reduce the stigma around opioid misuse is to talk about it with friends, families, and co-workers. I can virtually guarantee you know somebody suffering, even if you aren’t aware of it. And, those who want or need to talk about it most don’t […]


As simple as this sounds, the best thing we can do to reduce the stigma around opioid misuse is to talk about it with friends, families, and co-workers. I can virtually guarantee you know somebody suffering, even if you aren’t aware of it. And, those who want or need to talk about it most don’t do so because no one else is, and the stigma.


As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Howard . Sean is the Global Managing Director for WPP’s Government & Public Sector Practice, where he works with government policymakers and communicators worldwide, helping them to better engage with their citizens. In response to opioid-related tragedies within WPP’s corporate family, Sean spearheaded the formation of the National Opioid Action Coalition (NOAC) — a corporate social responsibility initiative that helps federal, state, and private sector programs extend their reach in communities affected by the opioid crisis and achieve positive, measurable results in prevention, treatment, and recovery. NOAC was co-founded by WPP (a global creative transformation company), iHeartMedia, and the Fors Marsh Group.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Sean! Can you tell us a bit of your backstory?

Professionally, I have been in the marketing and advertising business my whole career. From early digital days of CD-ROM and early website design to now running the global WPP Government and Public Sector Practice which works with governments around the world to help better communicate and deliver effective policy to their citizens.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid and drug addiction?

Inspiration comes from many places, and for me it’s come through a series of moments experiences and interactions.

Hearing the harrowing experience of a talented and successful colleague who watched her 18-year-old son get sucked deeper and deeper into the world of fentanyl misuse. He overdosed twice and was rescued with Narcan both times. In a meeting with Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, and hearing him talk about the 10,000 people yearly in his state dying of the epidemic. I’m also on the board of a mental health organization called www.giveanhour.org and though a broader remit than just opioids, the links between opioids and mental health are undeniable.

Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?

There is no simple answer and I wish there was. There are combinations of socio-economic factors, mental health issues and the easy availability of opioid drugs that all combine to create complex situations that get tailored to each person suffering from opioid use disorder. The one thing that is common, however, is the stigma of shame that comes with the disorder. It affects those battling it directly and the friends and families of those affected. Stigma blocks us all from helping each other as much as we could.

Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?

Opioid misuse is a multi-faceted condition that can’t be solved by any single group or initiative. There are many terrific organizations and people out there trying to make a positive difference across many fronts — from safe prevention, and pill disposal, to legislation, law enforcement and more. As NOAC, we combine behavioral change communications expertise, public health research, and integrated media assets with celebrity influence to reduce stigma around the opioid epidemic. We work with the recovery community to bring the stories of recovery and possibility to those suffering. We provide tools for families and friends to have language appropriate conversations with those they suspect are in trouble.

Most recently, we launched #TalkToMe — a science-based public awareness initiative that unites the public and private sectors with pop culture influencers to reduce stigma as a barrier to opioid use disorder prevention, treatment and recovery. #TalkToMe is an invitation for people to initiate a conversation with a friend or loved one about opioid misuse; for people in recovery to share their stories; and for everyone to learn how to talk about opioid use disorder. The goal is to make it easier for families, communities and workplaces to have the kind of honest, compassionate conversations that will help reduce the stigma that prevents effective treatment and lasting recovery.

Opioid use disorder is often viewed as a moral failing or character flaw that affects ‘junkies’ and ‘addicts’ in an ally somewhere. That stigma has been perpetuated by dark, hopeless, and fearful portrayals in campaigns. VMLY&R, the WPP agency that created the creative elements of the #TalkToMe campaign made a point to breaks away from that stigma. Instead of alienating and shaming people, the campaign is designed to humanize the disorder and get people to start understanding and talking about it with compassion. It elicits a sense of hope that draws us all closer together, and opens the door to treatment and lasting recovery.

Wow! Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?

#TalkToMe just launched a few weeks back as part of National Recovery Month. So, regrettably I’ve yet to have seen the true impact on an individual. I think one person whom this has had an impact upon is Motley Crüe founder and bassist Nikki Sixx. Nikki and our team became acquainted over year ago and his story of addition and recovery is well known. He has been inspirational to us, and hopefully has felt inspiration from us in return. When we talked to him about the campaign, he wrote a new song called Talk To Me with his current band Sixx A.M. Together, NOAC and Nikki are working to get this campaign out and get the word out that recovery is possible, and the power of conversation and open dialogue can help remove the stigma that makes it so hard for so many to get the help they need.

Can you share something about your work makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

The leader in our company I mentioned earlier who has a son who is now successfully over two years in recovery has been incredibly uplifting for me. To have seen in only a small part what she has had to endure, and to see her reaction to the work and the idea of Talk To Me, and the good it can do, is truly inspiring. I am so excited to spread the word of Talk To Me. To have engagement by the pubic and for conversations to happen. For companies to adopt the campaign, it’s free to use, and to begin the conversations that need to happen to allow recovery to begin.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this problem? Can you give some examples?

As simple as this sounds, the best thing we can do to reduce the stigma around opioid misuse is to talk about it with friends, families, and co-workers. I can virtually guarantee you know somebody suffering, even if you aren’t aware of it. And, those who want or need to talk about it most don’t do so because no one else is, and the stigma.

The second thing is to educate yourself, your family, and your community on the facts of this condition, and importantly, on how to talk about it. When it comes to opioid misuse, words matter. Biased language like “addict”, “abuse”, and “drug abuser” perpetuate the stigma and often keep people from seeking out the help and support they need. When people start to learn about opioid misuse and get a better understanding of the condition, common myths and untruths are often dispelled. For example, it’s popular to say with opioids you have to wait until you hit rock bottom to start recovery. But, if we understood that opioid misuse is a health condition, we might start to think about it the way we think about the stages of cancer. Using a cancer analogy, if you wait until stage 4 cancer to start treatment, you will most likely lose most of your patients. Opioid misuse, if caught and dealt with early enough, will provide that user a much higher chance of a successful recovery until waiting to have that conversation and offer help.

The last point is critically important, and has saved millions of lives in the U.S. Carry Naloxone. Also known as NarcanTM, Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, namely slowed or stopped breathing. In response to increasing opioid-related deaths, many state governments allow local pharmacies to dispense Naloxone without a written prescription. This makes it easier for caregivers, concerned loved ones, first responders and those with opioid misuse disorder to get Naloxone and be equipped to potentially save a life. There are two FDA-approved Naloxone products for community use that are available by prescription, but too few community members are aware of the important role they can play to save lives.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

Currently, co-prescribing Naloxone with every opioid prescription is required in Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington state. I’d like to see more states adopting that co-prescription.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

The dedication and energy from my partners in NOAC keep me going on a daily basis. Incredible people and the collective spirit of what we are trying to achieve motivates us all. Hearing stories of recovery is incredibly powerful. Men and women who are living bright, happy lives after coming through hell, and who are not ashamed to tell their stories are inspirations to us all. I truly want our work to have the impact that makes it safe and acceptable for people to talk about their struggles and successes. Nobody who talks about beating cancer ever feels ashamed about having done so. Beating opioids should be no different.

Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?

Absolutely and without doubt. This epidemic not only affects the individuals on the drugs, but it has ripple effects through society. Husbands, wives, parents, children, other family members, friends, co-workers. We are all affected and connected to someone struggling with this disorder. And, we as a global society of caring human beings will all benefit richly when this cause of death is defeated.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as the courage to move forward, preserver and inspire others to join you in defining the path forward. The best leaders encourage collaboration, conversation and the building of new ideas.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Honestly, as committed as I am to this opioid crisis work, I believe if we could remove the stigma around mental health in general, we would help so many people. People should not have to feel shame in seeking help to ensure their mental health is as highly functioning as their physical health. I’d love to see a world where we could let all our fellow human beings know that it’s ok to struggle and it’s also OK to seek professional help as well as the help from people we know that surround us daily — friends, families, co-workers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Mark Twain said, “If I had more time, I’d write you a shorter letter.” I love this quote because simplicity can be at the heart of so many solutions and revolutionary idea, if we could just give ourselves the time up front do things right. Special Forces have a similar saying when conducing missions “Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast”. Different contextual application, but same idea.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Living person, I would say Barack Obama. I may not always agree with every policy, but he is a man of intellect, integrity and compassion. Something I feel is missing in our current national rhetoric. I’d love to talk with him about his inspirations, how he continued to function on the days of inevitable self-doubt, and how he found fun and beauty in a job that could bring so much personal scorn and rhetoric against him.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Through the NOAC and #TalkToMe Twitter handle (@TalkToMeNOAC), and the WPP Government & Public Sector practice Twitter handle (@WPP_Govt) and LinkedIn page.

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