School of Communication Professor Works to Understand the Role of Communication in the Opioid Crisis

March 14, 2024

In 2023, there were over 2500 suspected illicit drug deaths in British Columbia. Furthermore, it is estimated that roughly 100,000 people have an opioid disorder within the province. This opioid crisis has long been an issue within British Columbia and elsewhere, being named a public health emergency in 2016.

Since before joining the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in 2018, professor Ahmed Al-Rawi made it a goal of his to understand communication regarding the opioid crisis.

“We have a communication crisis before having an opioid crisis,” he says.

“The stigma associated with drugs has vilified drug users by politicians and sometimes the news media. The lack of empathy and understanding about the opioid crisis has led to viewing drug users as people that deserve what they got instead of looking at them as victims.”

Now, after years of trying to receive funding, Al-Rawi is receiving a SSHRC Insight Development Grant to conduct research on the role of communication within the opioid crisis. To do this, he and his team of researchers are looking at how the opioid crisis is discussed in the news, on social media and within parliament speeches.

They take a mixed-methods approach to conduct this research, using both qualitative and quantitative methods. For example, the team has used machine learning techniques like topic modelling, sentiment analysis and automated visual analysis that employs artificial intelligence to understand the images used on Twitter that discuss the opioid crisis and how this crisis is depicted.

Al-Rawi wants to understand when the opioid crisis first started being referred to as a crisis and who was referring to it as such.

“I saw that there was a lack of discussion about the opioid crisis as a crisis, when it should have been considered a crisis from the beginning,” he says. 

Al-Rawi believes that politicians have an important role in how the opioid crisis is discussed and in creating policies to help those in need. For example, discussing the opioid crisis as a security issue rather than as a health issue vilifies drug users. Comparatively, the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy was only recently launched by the federal government to help people struggling with an opioid disorder.

By understanding the discourse about the opioid crisis by journalists, politicians and the public, and being able to compare these divergent discourses, Al-Rawi hopes to be able to make policy recommendations to help improve the communication around this topic.

“I have a very limited capacity as a researcher, but I believe that it is important to advocate for issues like these,” he says.  

Along with this research, Al-Rawi also is conducting SSHRC funded research on the issues of racism and democracy from the perspective of racialized Canadian politicians, journalists, the online public and news content, partly to understand whether racism negatively influences democracy. He also regularly visits high schools to deliver workshops on misinformation, and its impact on society.