New Castle County tries out new approaches to stem opioid epidemic

    The opening screen of New Castle County's anti-drug online game

    The opening screen of New Castle County's anti-drug online game

    New Castle County in Delaware is trying out new programs aimed at reversing the opioid epidemic, including a new program called Hero Help.

    Last year, the county tried out a public education campaign that used a controversial, fear-based approach.

    New Castle County unveiled a public education program aimed at keeping teens away from heroin in March. It’s a choose your own adventure-style video game that gives you a few options if you choose to use heroin … but all roads lead to prison or death.

    The goal was to reach young people who live more and more online, said New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon.

    “They’re going to go to a party one day and someone’s going to offer them a bag of heroin and they’re gonna take it, not knowing what it is, and be hooked for life,” he said.

    It’s still too soon to tell what impact, if any, the game has had. But do scare tactics like these really work? Jody Heavelin, who’s worked in the field of prevention for more than 16 years, and now works at the Illinois group Prevention First, said not in her experience.

    “Showing those fear appeals can increase that sense of defensiveness with youth, and it can undermine your credibility, so usually youth go the opposite direction and say, ‘Well that just can’t happen to me,'” she said.

    The kinds of techniques the campaign used were more prevalent in the 1990s than they are today — think of the old “this is your brain on drugs” message.

    University of Pennsylvania professor of psychiatry Daniel Langleben, who studies prevention campaigns, is not a fan of fear appeals. But he’s found und that they can be effective. The main weakness in the Delaware campaign is that the game is too simple, he said.

    “One approach that could be very potentially useful,” he said, would be “this kind of game, with many many more options, that could actually identify the profile of each person who’s using it.”

    County Executive Tom Gordon said the video game is just one in a bundle of strategies New Castle County is using, and that he believes the approach to be a good one.

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