Telling overdose prevention stories through comics: a conversation with the artist

Comic strip. Panel 1: a woman talks about how she started to take pills from her mom's medicine cabinet when she was 13. Panel 2: she is shown as a girl taking pills from other people's medicine cabinets. Panel 3: She is shown as a grown woman again, looking at photos of her family. She talks about how her pill use created a lot of pain for herself and her family. Panel 4: She is looking at awards she won as a youth hanging on the wall. She says, "Some teens thin medicines are safe to experiment with. So any kid might try them. No one suspected me." Panel 5: A man is shown putting pill bottles in a locked case. The text gives advice to keep medicine locked up. Panel 6: The woman is shown putting pill bottles into a blue medicine return box in a pharmacy. She says, "If you have any meds you aren't taking or they are expired, get rid of them at a local take-back box. You're keeping the people around you safe."

We are launching a series of DON’T HANG ON TO MEDS comic strips as part of International Overdose Awareness Day, sharing reasons why it’s important to get rid of unused medications in the home, told from the perspectives of parents, grandparents, people who have experienced addiction, and healthcare providers. I worked with Seattle comics artist Tatiana Gill in developing these comics and recently, we sat down to talk about why we chose this storytelling approach.

Meredith Li-Vollmer: Tatiana, you’ve done comics for People’s Harm Reduction Alliance on things like how to use Narcan and for the Health Stories Project to encourage people with HIV or mental health issues to share their own stories. How did you end up using comics to talk about health, and particularly topics that may carry stigma?

Tatiana Gill:  I’ve done a lot of comics about my own healthcare journey with addition recovery and mental health. I think that has been a passion of mine because it took me a long time to figure out how I could take better care of my own health or improve my life by taking steps for my health. I think doctors were trying to tell me but I just wasn’t listening!

So I think that comics are just a wonderful, accessible way to share health information for so many of us, even for people with short attention spans or who have English as a second language. Just a really great way to spread the word and tell those stories.

MLV: I first became aware of your work at a Pecha Kucha talk you gave about your comics. You were very open and honest about your own past with addiction. How did you get started writing your own story?

TG: That’s something I did as a kid. I’d notice different perspectives. I remember having this argument with my mom when I was 10 years old. I divided up a piece of paper so I’d have my side of the story and her side of the story, two different perspectives on it.  And I’d draw journal comics and things like that. So I’ve always had this drive to tell my point of view and do it visually.

Tatiana Gill self portrait
Tatiana Gill’s self-portrait

MLV: So interesting! When I was asked to help promote Secure Medicine Return, I was also thinking about how we could share more personal perspectives on it.

A lot of people don’t know that we have sites throughout our County to get rid of unused medicines. And they might not know why it’s important to get rid of meds, so they may not feel compelled to do it. But I thought that maybe we could motivate people if we could tell short stories about the good reasons to use medicine return from the voices of various community members. And I immediately thought of you because I think your comics feel very personal.

TG: Aw, thanks!

MLV: How does your experience telling your own stories feed into projects like these comics for Secure Medicine Return?

TG: I think a big part was having struggled with addiction and recovery myself, I see these things from a very personal and compassionate level. It’s not an “othering” thing. It’s something that happened to me, could happen to me, could happen to loved ones. It feels personal, so it’s easier to make the comics relatable.

MLV: That’s what I really hope will come out in this comics campaign. You know, I lost my brother-in-law to heroin overdose, and the more I talk with people, the more I realize how many of us have experienced loss due to addiction and overdose. It impacts lots of different people from all walks of life. So I was hoping that it would come out in the comics and I think it did.

TG: Oh good!

MLV: Is there anything you’re hoping will come out of this project?

TG: I hope that it’s effective! If it will help reduce the number of overdoses or the full series of events that would lead someone to get addicted, that would be amazing. It’s important to have more conversation about it, to reduce stigma, especially talking about it in this non-othering way. This is something that can happen to people in our community.

More comics from the DON’T HANG ON TO MEDS campaign:

Comic strip. Panel 1: A grandfather talks about how he doesn't like wasting things, so he used to save leftover pills. Panel 2: A small child and dog looking at pill bottles on the countertop. Text: "But it turns out that it's risky to keep ununsed medication around. My grandkids or pets could get into them. Pills might look like candy." Panel 3: A hand is reaching towards pills in a medicine cabinet. Text: "What also worries me is that medicine could be stolen by a visitor and I would never even know it." Panel 4: Grandfather is putting medication bottles into a blue medicine take-back box in a pharmacy. Text: "So now I lock up the medicine I use and I get rid of what I'm not using. It's free, and I can just drop it off at a nearby take-back location."

Don't Hang on to Meds: A Dad's Story

Don't Hang on to Meds: A Healthcare Provider's Story

 For more information on King County’s free Secure Medicine Return program and where you can find a dropbox near you:

Originally posted on August 31, 2018.

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.

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