The public-service spots are jarringly brief, just 15 seconds long. Each one is a series of video clips of young people, full of excitement, love and promise. All cut off abruptly, midsentence, followed by the message: “Don’t let opioids cut your story short.”
The ads, created by HealthPartners and released in September in time for National Recovery Month, are part of a new campaign called “Cut Short” that the health care organization has created to address the still-growing problem of opioid-related deaths among young Minnesotans.
The campaign’s jarring approach is intentional, explained Melissa Schoenherr, HealthPartners vice president of marketing.
Her staff was presented with the task of creating spots designed largely for social media that communicated the message that too many young people’s lives are being cut short by opioid addiction. The target market was young people ages 16-28 — and their parents and grandparents.
Schoenherr explained that the idea for the campaign came from inside the organization: “One of our foundation leaders said, ‘We have so much energy around opioids. We’d like to take a stab at an awareness campaign around this’. I said, ‘It has to be within the context of what we typically do. We also need to be scrappy, because we don’t have a bundle of money to pay for it.’”
With those parameters in mind, members of HealthPartners’ creative team began researching the problem.
“We had a lot of different angles we could take,” Schoenherr explained, “but we were most interested in the fact that there has been a rise in young people getting addicted to opioids after using them recreationally, often after taking some of their parents’ prescriptions. Too many young people still don’t understand how easy it is to get addicted. And too many are dying because of that fact.”
Schoenherr and her team decided that the most impactful approach for the campaign would be to depict typical scenarios, like young people going off to school, to summer break or starting an important chapter in their lives and chronicling the event on social media. Then those messages would be abruptly cut short. This approach, the team decided, would illustrate the deadly impact that opioid addiction has on young people — and on those who love them.
The campaign depicts, Schoenherr said, “Young people sending texts and selfie stories, saying things like, ‘Hey, Mom. I got to school’ — and it cuts to black. It’s a really hard message. It’s people talking to friends or parents and then we cut their story short. It’s pretty powerful.”
By placing the spots on online platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Facebook and airing online radio ads on Spotify and Pandora, HealthPartners is aiming to reach the campaign’s key audience. There will also be limited print advertising presence in high school sports programs and college newspapers and on bus shelters near college campuses.
Though news about the impact of opioid addiction already claims a lot of air space, HealthPartners believes that this campaign’s approach will help gain the attention of the very people that need to hear its message.
“There is already so much out there,” Schoenherr said. “We can’t provide information that has already been provided, but we do have a captive audience in our members and the community. We decided, ‘Everyone’s life is an open book these days. Let’s be disruptive and bold — if we get young people where they are at, maybe we will break through.’”
Right on target
Because they felt it was so important that the campaign’s message have lasting impact, HealthPartners creative staff included in the planning process families and individuals whose loved ones’ lives had been cut short by opioid addiction. They held early planning conversations and then tested ad concepts and finished spots with members of HealthPartners’ Opioid Advisory Board.
“The Opioid Advisory Board includes active people in the community,” Schoenherr explained, “people who work on our foundation, clinicians, people who lost children or family members to opioids. We wanted their input, so they were an active part of our creative process.”
Board members’ response to the campaign was, Schoenherr said, “very powerful, to say the least. It touched the hearts of a lot of people. I think it hits the right chord.”
Lori Lewis is a nurse and mother of four whose son Ryan Lewis died of a heroin overdose in July 2014 at age 23. Lewis volunteered to write blog posts for the Cut Short campaign aimed at parents of young adults. Her first post lists four of the lessons she learned from Ryan’s battle with opioids that she wants other parents to take to heart.
Though talking about Ryan’s short life is hard, Lewis said that she and her husband are committed to speaking out so other parents won’t end up in their shoes.
“If any family can learn from this, we are in,” Lewis said. “It is an epidemic, and if there is any way that anybody can hear from me and do something to save a life, I will do anything to help.”
Lewis said that she now believes Ryan became addicted to opioids after stealing some of the pain medication she had been prescribed after undergoing back surgery years earlier. As a nurse, she had been trained to see pain as the “fifth vital sign,” and that opioids were an important part of pain management.
“We did not keep them locked up at all,” she said of her prescription pain meds. “I was told that opioids weren’t dangerous, that they weren’t addictive. Why lock them up?”
When Lewis re-injured her back and decided to take some of the meds that were left over from her surgery, she discovered that the pills had been replaced with Tylenol.
“We sat all the kids down and said, ‘Somebody took these. Was it one of you guys or was it somebody coming into our home?’” she recalled. “Ryan admitted that he did take them. He said that he and his friend wanted to experiment with them. That was pretty much it. We did not think we had a serious problem.”
But Lewis now believes that Ryan’s problems escalated from that incident. When his mother’s supply of pills ran out, he began buying opioids off the street. He eventually became addicted to heroin, something that Lewis discovered after Ryan’s girlfriend called her one day in a panic.
“She said he was depressed and uncommunicative,” Lewis said of her son. “I wasn’t sure if he was a harm to himself, so we took him to the ER.”
At the hospital, doctors discovered that Ryan had benzodiazepine in his system. “That didn’t surprise me,” Lewis said. “He had social anxiety.” But Ryan also had opioids in his system.
After the ER visit, Ryan and his girlfriend moved in with Lewis and her husband. “They asked if they could stay with us until they got themselves stable,” she said. “Soon after, we started seeing signs that something was wrong. Ryan was often sick with flulike symptoms. He was really moody, really irritable. It was hard to talk to him. He was isolated, depressed. We got him doctor’s appointments and got him on antidepressants and into counseling.”
Despite these efforts, Ryan’s behavior still felt off, Lewis said. “He’d be sick in the morning. Then I’d get home from work and he was fine and ready to go out. I couldn’t put all the pieces together. I didn’t know all the symptoms.” But there were more clues that Ryan’s drug use was accelerating: “All the spoons were missing,” Lewis said. “I’d find pieces of tinfoil all over the house. And he’d always wear long-sleeved shirts.”
From then on, Ryan’s life was a series of setbacks and fragile recoveries. He moved in and out of his family’s home and went to inpatient treatment programs, but each time he was released he’d eventually start using again.
Ryan was out of treatment and living in a sober house in St. Paul when Lewis got a call on her lunch break.
“It was a police sergeant,” she said. “He asked if he can come and talk to me at my work.” Fearing the worst, Lewis recalls, “I asked, ‘Can you just tell me now?’ He said that Ryan had overdosed and he had died.” The police officer picked Lewis up and drove her home.
“We started making funeral arrangements,” Lewis said. “It’s unbelievable. You don’t plan for something like that. He was just 23 years old.”
The impact of the opioid crisis cuts across social political and social lines, Lewis said.
“We are a normal, everyday family, We had four children. We were very involved in sports, community events. We had strong family values. We were always involved with our kids. We always knew where they were going. We still can’t understand how this happened to us, but it did. It is happening to everyone.”
The campaign spots, Lewis believes, do a good job of portraying the sudden loss that families like hers have faced.
“It’s just devastating,” she said. “To lose your child throws your world into a tailspin. It’s so sudden and cruel. The ads do a really good job of showing that.”
She believes that the parent-education aspect of the Cut Short campaign is equally important as the spots aimed at a younger audience. Along with a helpline number for people struggling with opioid addiction, the campaign includes information about pharmacy take-back locations, where individuals can bring unused opioid prescriptions for safe disposal.
This is a key element, Lewis believes. She hopes that this information will keep other parents from making the same mistake that she did.
Lewis knows that she’s not the only person who’s left unused opioid prescriptions in a medicine cabinet where they are easily accessible to anyone in the home. Parents and grandparents need to know just how important it is to lock up or dispose of their unfinished medications.
Leaving opioids unlocked is, Lewis said, “just as irresponsible as leaving a loaded gun unlocked. Why are you keeping these medications just sitting around? They are truly dangerous.”
As chief medical officer at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Bret Haake, M.D., has a front-row seat to the opioid crisis. He’s seen the impact that these highly addictive medications can have on individuals, and he believes that they are actually not all that helpful for most pain.
“In my book there are very few true indications for opioid pain medications,” Haake said. “For what it’s worth, those indications are end-of-life and major tissue injury, like serious burns.”
The way that opioids work creates a cycle of addiction, Haake explained.
“When a person takes an opioid pill, they get an immediate pain relief that lasts for 4-6 hours. When the relief comes down to baseline they actually hurt more than they did before.” For most people, that cycle lasts for three or four days. What many individuals don’t understand, Haake said, is that “with each additional pill they take, it is harder to stop. That cycle creates a person who says, ‘I can’t live without my opioids.’ But if they’d never been given that medication in the first place, if they’d used other pain relievers like ibuprofen or Tylenol, they wouldn’t need the opioids.”
For over a decade, Haake has been speaking out about the dangers of opioid-based medication.
“I’ve been a thought leader on opioids and pain,” he said. “I started raising the red flag back in 2007.” While public opinion on opioids has shifted, Haake said he still sees too many physicians prescribing the medications for conditions that are not well indicated for their use.
“I think we should give 90 percent less opioids,” he said. “We still have a long way to go. I just saw some numbers that suggested that HealthPartners is prescribing 50 percent less opioids than they were in the past.” While he thinks that’s a good sign, Haake still sees room for improvement — at HealthPartners, and around the country: “I think that we have another 40 points to go to be at 90 percent less than where we were — and we’re ahead of the market.”
Even though more Americans are aware of the potential danger of opioids, they are still being prescribed, Haake said. The problem is not going away: “Five percent of every man, woman and child in the U.S. are on opioids every day. We haven’t turned a corner on this problem yet.”
Haake was a key consultant on the planning of the Cut Short campaign. He said that he supports the ads’ bold approach.
“We were looking for a way to have community impact and do strong emotional marketing,” he said. “When we thought about different ways to make inroads into the community, it was difficult to figure out how to be narrow, be effective, and to make a splash that is memorable. This is the approach we chose. And I think it is quite impactful.”
From Haake’s perspective, the ads can’t be jarring enough: He’s seen far too many deaths from opioid overdose. “Everybody knows somebody who lost a kid,” Haake said. “That is by far and away how people get connected to the importance of this work. I don’t have a week that goes by that someone doesn’t come up to me and show me a picture of their kid or their nephew or niece who was lost to opioids. The number of opioid-related deaths is actually still increasing in the U.S. We all need to put energy into this effort in any way we can.”