AUSTIN — A new public access TV show is opening up a candid conversation about drugs on the West Side and the people who use them.
Presented by the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force, the Word Out West is a weekly TV talk show that airs on the CAN-TV’s channel 21.
The task force is State Rep. La Shawn Ford’s answer to the abundance of opioid overdoses in the area. More than 20 percent of all opioid hospitalizations in the entire state happen on the West Side, according to a 2016 report.
To prevent overdose deaths, the task force supports street outreach teams, addiction resources and is working to expand access for the lifesaving overdose reversal drug Narcan by partnering with local groups to distribute the medication and train people on how to use it.
But to move the needle on overdoses on the West Side, the task force needs to raise awareness and change the narrative about addiction, officials said. And one of the toughest but most important demographics to bring into the conversation is millennials ages 22-37.
“We wanted to penetrate an audience that was very vital to the opioid crisis, but one that we hadn’t really gotten to. And that’s millennials,” said Vee L. Harrison, the show’s creator and host.
According to Harrison, millennials are crucial because they are a connector between older generations and teens who might be impacted by opioid addiction, but lack access to treatment options.
The show also aims to reduce the stigma around opioids by starting an honest conversation around drug use on the West Side.
“We want people to understand that this is a very complex issue. But also a very human issue… We know that people who use drugs are highly stigmatized,” said co-host John Werning a harm reduction coordinator with Healthcare Alternative Systems, a nonprofit that helps people with substance abuse and mental health issues.
The shame associated with using opioids also ends up stopping people from seeking treatment, or even from carrying Narcan, which can save a life by reversing an overdose in seconds.
“Because of the way we have stigmatized people who use drugs, we know people of color are disproportionately affected by that,” Werning said.
To break down that stigma, the show will hosts guests who are trusted members of the community to share their own experiences with opioids.
“We’re trying to have a lot of local community members on the TV show to spread the word about what they do to increase access and resources to people who watch the show,” said co-host Maggie Carter, also a harm reduction coordinator at Healthcare Alternative Systems.
How to identify an overdose and how to use Narcan will be among the topics covered on the show. The show will also explore the politics that surround heroin and opioids, like the impact of the War on Drugs on Black communities and the unequal policing of marijuana-related offenses in Black neighborhoods.
But according to the hosts, the most important part of the show is using storytelling to humanize the issue.
“We don’t envision just having industry professionals talk about administering Narcan and what opioids can do to the body,” Harrison said. “We also are planning to have survivors who have survived the opioid crisis. We are planning on having pregnant mothers who have been addicted to opioids.”
Harrison hopes the TV program will show people who use drugs are complex, nuanced individuals deserving of dignity, support and redemption. Viewers are invited to dial in during the show to share their own journeys of recovery so that they can inspire others to get treatment.
“When you tell a story, I think that it gives people an option to relate,” Harrison said. “The power of storytelling is real, and it makes people move. Once it inspires you, I think it makes you want to do something.”
Word Out West airs at 5 p.m. Monday on channel 21, CAN TV, and can be streamed live here.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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