The Power of Reddit as a Public Health Advocacy Tool

Writing for Backchannel, Andrew McMillen recently profiled a woman named Tracey Helton. Helton—a former heroin addict who now works as a public health advocate—has taken to Reddit to advocate harm reduction strategies among addicts and to distribute the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. Dubbed the “mother of r/opiates,” Helton’s program “illustrates the unexpected good that can emerge from darker corners of the internet.” But what makes the online forum so well-suited for outreach to addicts?

“There’s an anonymity involved with Reddit that I appreciate, because I know it’s really hard for people to come out if they’re involved with drugs,” she says. She has been open about her own past and identity because she wants her online companions to see her as living proof that recovery is possible. “I used my name so people could Google me and see I’m the same person,” she says. “I thought that, by being a semi-public figure willing to share my own experience, it would help people open up in a different way around their using.”

As her profile grew in this community of social outsiders and outcasts — many of whom feel stigmatized by the poor public perception of intravenous drug use — Tracey realized that her experience in running public health programs in San Francisco could offer another avenue of assistance on Reddit.“People were contacting me saying they had no access to naloxone, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s something I guess I could do.’” She mailed her first care package in August 2013. “I assumed a long time ago that somebody else would take over. I didn’t expect to be doing it for this long.”

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