Markian Hawryluk
The Bulletin

Facebook is launching a series of community events to train health care groups and nonprofits how to better use social media in their efforts to combat the opioid crisis, starting with a test run this week in Redmond.

“What we’ve heard as we talk to leaders is how the tools and products are actually helping them, but then there are so many folks on the front lines that this isn’t what they do,” said Avra Siegel, policy programs manager at Facebook. “They don’t actually know how to maximize it.”

The company gathered about a dozen representatives from local health care providers, county health departments and other organizations working to reduce opioid overdoses for a hands-on training session at the Redmond fairgrounds Tuesday, walking them through the strategies for creating public awareness campaigns, fundraising efforts or connecting clients with resources using Facebook.

The company provided each organization attending with a $300 voucher to purchase ads on its platform.

“I feel like I learned a lot,” said Dr. Kim Swanson, a psychologist with Mosaic Medical and chair of the Central Oregon Pain Standards Task Force. “We generated a lot of ideas and now we just have to think about how to best use them.”

Siegel said Facebook is interested in helping with the opioid epidemic, but recognizes that the company is not an expert in addiction issues.

“After the training, we’ll have a conversation with the experts here to see what they are experiencing on the ground,” she said. “We’ll work with national organizations really learning from them, what are the pain points in this crisis? Where is there an opportunity for technology to play a role?”

Facebook has worked with a number of national groups on the opioids issue. Earlier this year, the company partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the nonprofit Facing Addiction to connect people to treatment. When Facebook users search for help on addiction or about wanting to buy or sell opioids, the search results start with links to referral lines and resources. The company said it prohibits buying, selling or trading illicit or pharmaceutical drugs on Facebook and removes such content when it becomes aware of it.

Facing Addiction also got help from Facebook to launch its Voice Project, which allowed those affected by the opioid epidemic to share their stories online in an effort to reduce the stigma associated with addiction. Within 10 months, the nonprofit signed up 15,000 new volunteers, grew their donations 30-fold and doubled their web traffic. As membership of the online community grew, 236 members, unprompted, began holding fundraisers for the nonprofit to celebrate their birthdays.

The company also worked with The Partnership for Drug Free Kids to help implement a help line using Facebook Messenger, which was ultimately used by 1,600 families in need.

Social media experts say such online tools have tremendous power to reach people struggling with addiction or in need of support, but that often public health efforts don’t know how to use such tools effectively.

“People think, here’s a technology already in use, here’s a technology that’s exciting, let’s use social media to get people to reduce their risk of addiction,” said Dr. Sean Young, executive director of the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology. “Just saying we’re going to use it for these things and then creating content specific to this area, isn’t going to get people to change.”

Young recently led a project that created a Facebook group for chronic pain patients encouraging them to share their stories and interact with peer role models, sharing their tips and successes and challenges in managing their own pain. They found such peer-driven sites were two to three times more effective at changing behavior than groups without peer role models.

Young said social media efforts around opioids must also distinguish between various groups. Chronic pain patients taking prescription opioids may have little in common with people facing a heroin addiction or those in recovery. Online forums or campaigns can be targeted to those specific groups creating an environment in which people feel comfortable engaging. The groups attending the Redmond training were taught to think about who their audience was

Swanson said one of the difficulties in outreach for the chronic pain task force has been the nuances around reducing prescription opioid use.

“We don’t want to continue down the same path of telling patients, this is good for you, we’re going to do this,” she said. “We need to have individualized compassionate care and I think that’s a hard message to kind of weave in there.”

Siegel said her team would reassess the program after the test run in Redmond and then hoped to recreate the training in other rural areas of the country.

“We know that the epidemic is hitting rural communities really hard, and we also know this community had done some fantastic work around it,” she said. “We’re excited to learn from this community as well.”

—Reporter: 541-633-2162,