Helping drug abusers, with just 10 numbers

John W. Ayers, a UC San Diego researcher, uses online data for public health research. (John Gibbins)

Journalists can help readers overcome drug abuse by including a national help line that offers free resources, just like they do with stories on suicide. That’s the conclusion of a recent study led by UCSD researcher John Ayers.

Including the help line number, 1-800-662-HELP, requires virtually no effort, but can make a significant difference for public health, Ayers said. He specializes in gleaning public health information from online data.

The study compared online news coverage and discussion about the drug overdose of singer/actress Demi Lovato in July 2018 with that of the suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain the previous month.

Researchers found that the latter had more mentions of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (1-800-273-TALK) than the former had of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) national helpline, 1-800-662-HELP.

The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine last month. It can be found at

Ayers said the coincidence that these two events occurred so close together enabled him and fellow researchers to use them as a natural experiment in how effectively media coverage provides resources to its readers.

The SAMSHA helpline is a free, federally managed and endorsed resource for those seeking help, Ayers said. He urged reporters to include the number in pertinent stories, media companies to advertise it, and the federal government promote its use.

The study said World Health Organization guidelines for suicide reporting, which include giving the number of suicide lifelines, appears to be helpful. So the same approach should be used for drug abuse reporting.

For their online search, the scientists examined stories that appeared on Google News, along with Google searches and posts on Twitter. They did this by using keywords to identify items pertaining to Lovato’s overdose and Bourdain’s suicide.

Not only numerically, but proportionally, mentions of the suicide helpline exceeded that of drug abuse helpline, the study found. Google News found in the week after Bourdain’s sucide that 22,400 stories mentioned Bourdain and 120,000 mentioned suicide. Of those, 4,940 gave the suicide lifeline number. That equates to 1 out of every 29 stories.

For Demi Lovato in the week after her overdose; 42,500 mentioned Lovato, and 25,300 mentioned either opioid or heroin. Just 216 mentioned the SAMSHA helpline number. That’s about 1 mention in every 313 stories.

The study also found fewer mentions of the helpline number in Twitter discussions, compared to the suicide lifeline number.

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San Diego Union-Tribune
Theodore L. Caputi
Theodore L. Caputi
Economics & Health Researcher

My research interests include public health, health innovation, and health care.