“Be Empowered”?

New York City Sends Wrong Message to Fentanyl Users

The New York City (NYC) Department of Health (DOH) recently launched a new ad campaign aimed at encouraging those who use fentanyl to “be empowered” in their drug use.

In one ad, a woman by the name of Florence appeals to users, “Don’t be ashamed you are using, be empowered that you are using safely.”

The ad continues: “Prevent overdose. Avoid using alone and take turns. Start with a small dose and go slowly. Have naloxone on hand. Avoid mixing drugs. Test your drugs using fentanyl test strips.”

Take turns? Go slowly? They might as well suggest you take your time driving off that cliff or let your friend have the first sip of poison.

According to the nonprofit organization Families Against Fentanyl, fentanyl overdose was the number one cause of death in 18- to 45-year-olds in 2020. The statistic has been corroborated by several fact-checking sites. Those behind NYC’s ad campaign are no doubt aware of this sobering statistic and have good intentions. They seek to lower the skyrocketing overdose rate associated with the drug and, in so doing, save lives.

Not Helpful

But they have fallen into a common trap: the belief that if we tell people what they’re doing is wrong or harmful — if we “shame” them — they won’t ask for the help they need. So, instead, we tell them that the problem is not what they’re doing but how they’re doing it.

The approach, similar to those who promote teaching teens about birth control instead of teaching them not to have premarital sex, is a prime example of the either/or fallacy, also known as the false dilemma. It is a logical error that presents only two possible options or answers to a question when there are actually more.

In the case of NYC, the message implicit in the fentanyl campaign is that users are either going to 1) use safely, or 2) use unsafely, so the city needs to help them do the first. But in reality, there is a third option: users could receive help to stop using. Unfortunately, that message is nowhere to be found, and its absence severely compromises the seriousness of this campaign.

In addition, there is another unhelpful message implicit in the city’s fentanyl campaign: Shame is bad, and no one should have to experience it. I understand the temptation to see shame as a negative. But the goodness or badness of the concept of shame depends on how the term is defined. Yes, if shame means “I am a worthless person, undeserving of help,” the ad campaign is correct. That kind of shame is false and harmful, and no one should be encouraged to feel that way.  

But if shame is the bad feeling that means “I did something I should not have done,” the ad campaign is wrong in its anti-shame stance. Shame that comes from an awareness of one’s harmful behavior is worthwhile because it’s the first step toward changing that behavior. Of course, those behind this campaign are not interested in the subtle differences in the definition of shame, so all shame is lumped together as bad.

A Better Empowerment   

It is true that shame imposed by others — the result not of having done anything wrong but of being devalued and told that you are worthless  — is deeply damaging. For someone who is in an abusive or toxic situation, it’s a message that can breed hopelessness.

But shame that stems from the painful realization you have done something wrong is healthy. For Christians, it is the first step toward repentance: Do a bad thing. Feel guilty. Repent and ask God for forgiveness. Receive His forgiveness, resolve to do better, and move forward with a clear conscience.

Even for those who are not Christian, shame can be the first step toward changing a destructive behavior. It is the little voice inside a person that says, “I shouldn’t have done that.” That voice comes from the knowledge of right and wrong instilled in all of us by our Creator, whether we acknowledge Him as our Creator or not. But for those who are not in Christ, there is an enormous problem. Without a Savior, there is no solution for shame, no way to get beyond it. This is why NYC’s fentanyl campaign seeks to avoid the issue altogether and also why the campaign’s approach is bound to fall short.

What drug abusers — and all of us — need most of all is the assurance of God’s love, a love that led to His sacrifice of His own Son on the cross for the sin of the whole world. It is that sacrifice that provides an answer to all our shame. The DOH can’t share that message, and it can’t solve the problem of shame.

But what the DOH could do is not pretend that there is any safe way to use a drug like fentanyl. The message is a disservice to those who need real, lasting help to address their addiction.

And instead of telling users to “be empowered” in their drug abuse, the DOH could be honest about all the ways drug abuse harms people and makes them weak, dependent, and in danger of losing everything that matters. Then it could provide avenues for assistance in safely getting and staying off drugs. That would be true empowerment.

is managing editor of Reporter, the official newspaper of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. She has written for a variety of publications, including The Federalist, Touchstone and The Lutheran Witness, and is a contributor to the book He Restores My Soul from Emmanuel Press. She has degrees in English and music and enjoys playing piano in her spare time.

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