Prescription Drugs, Public Engagement, Making a Difference
In April 2010, a 46-year-old Santa Maria man died while in restraints at a Santa Barbara County psychiatric health facility. Noozhawk has been a lone voice reporting on local mental health issues and was quickly tipped about the story.
During Noozhawk's own investigation of the death, we scrutinized county Coroner's Bureau data on alcohol- and drug-related deaths from 2008-2009 and discovered several common threads unrelated to our original story. In addition to alcohol and marijuana, the reports revealed a preponderance of prescription drugs, all used to treat anxiety or as painkillers. The information was as fascinating as it was sobering, but we have a small staff and determined that resources weren't available to pursue the prescription drugs story at that time. We had an intern put the death data into a spreadsheet and shelved it.
We applied for an Annenberg School health journalism fellowship to reopen that story and help us determine how serious a problem this is for our community. 2010 coroner's data will be available later this month and, if national trends are any guide, the statistics will show another alarming increase in the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs. In the wake of an explosion of marijuana on Santa Barbara's high school campuses, we expect the topic to be of keen - if uncomfortable - interest to readers who have made K-12 education Noozhawk's most heavily read category and medical marijuana a hot-button draw on our site. To date, the prescription drugs issue has been largely ignored.
We plan to review, sort and research available data to determine whether there are identifiable trends and indicators; which age, racial groups and gender are most at-risk or already using and abusing; the extent, scope and effects of the drugs' availability; how the drugs are controlled and whether such controls are sufficient; detection, prevention, addiction, treatment and disposal; associated crime and law enforcement effects; schools', seniors' and legislative remedies; polypharmacy tendencies; any connection to suicide; and the cost to society - including the challenge of funding an effective response in an era of severe budget distress. Of course, in a small community, personal stories put faces to the names and bring an emotional overlay to our story-telling.
Social media-related elements will include Facebook, Twitter and video components; reader surveys to gauge public knowledge; a Webcast public forum with experts discussing abuse, misuse, polypharmacy and prevention; and guest bloggers who have personal stories to tell.
As Noozhawks are entrepreneurial raptors, we'll be leveraging our Annenberg stipend to raise additional funding so we can make an otherwise 100-hour project far more extensive and thorough. As we often do, we'll be writing a separate business proposal and recruiting sponsors from among our affiliated business partners and community foundations. We also plan to ask for the collaboration and support of nonprofit organizations and foundations operating in health care, social services, addiction and education. By doing so, we can cover for our primary reporters, Lara Cooper and Giana Magnoli, as they take on the bulk of this project; allocate funding for any necessary Web development; provide dollars for a marketing campaign; establish a community council for advice, perspective and networking support; and engage our community in a professionally led conversation to further awareness and education.
We also expect to employ the lessons learned and tools used in a major public-engagement project we're launching Sunday on the city of Santa Barbara's budget. That project, the Santa Barbara Challenge, is a joint partnership with the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine Universtiy's School of Public Policy.
Noozhawk's reporters will be outlining Santa Barbara's financial circumstances and budget process to provide context. Afterward, with UserVoice.com, another Davenport Institute affiliate, we'll be launching an interactive and easy-to-use online survey through which Noozhawk readers can recommend ways Santa Barbara can fix its budget or spend our money more wisely. Our intention is to involve our readers in a spirited conversation and authentic debate so that, at our project's conclusion, elected officials and professional municipal staff will be able to make budgeting decisions with a greater understanding of our community's priorities and values.
The Santa Barbara Challenge is an unprecedented opportunity to use technology to empower the democratic process. We don't know how yet, but we think it will have a relevant application to our Annenberg project. We're very excited to have this opportunity.