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We’re reporting on substance use in the Midwest – and we need your help

A group of people sit on chairs in a circle. A woman in a yellow sweater leans forward, listening.
Graphic by Brittani Howell
Side Effects Public Media
Side Effects Public Media will be hosting four more virtual listening sessions on substance use, addiction and recovery. They will be held at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. EST on both Tuesday, Dec. 6, and Thursday, Dec. 8.

At Side Effects Public Media, reporters work with community engagement specialists to ensure the stories we tell reflect the needs of the communities we serve.

Brittani Howell leads community engagement work for the Side Effects team, which is based at WFYI in Indianapolis and includes reporters at KBIA in Missouri, Iowa Public Radio and WFPL in Kentucky.

Community engagement can involve attending events and asking community members about their concerns. It can also include listening sessions: background conversations reporters have with community members about a topic that informs our journalism. These conversations allow people to express themselves honestly without feeling pressure that what they say could be published in a story.

Brittani has hosted listening sessions on rural hospital closures, housing and eviction issues, and how people with disabilities navigate employment. In March and April, she also organized listening sessions on addiction and substance use.

Substance use is an immediate concern in communities across the nation, and our reporters, who span the Midwest and surrounding areas, are interested in reporting on the issue in meaningful ways.

Twenty-five people from 12 Midwest organizations participated in the virtual listening sessions. Most participants worked with people with substance use disorders. They were peer recovery coaches, public health department employees, and worked with incarcerated people. Many of the listening session participants were in long-term recovery themselves and began working in the field because they had lived experience with addiction.

Seven reporters from Side Effects’ partner stations sat in on the listening sessions. Here’s what we learned:

Substance use stigma is real and harmful

Listening session attendees told us the effects of stigma are a huge problem in addressing substance use. Stigma can keep people from admitting they have a problem with substance use or acknowledging that substance use is an issue in their communities. People often feel they must hide that they are struggling with substance use, or that a loved one is in treatment for or has died from a substance use disorder.

Shame is also tied to stigma. Participants told us that parents of people living with addiction, in particular, internalize shame, and can blame themselves when their child struggles with their condition.

This stigma made many of the people we spoke with feel helpless, and like there was nothing they could do to combat substance use in their families and communities.

It’s important to meet people where they are

Substance use is often treated as a moral issue rather than a public health issue, participants told us. When people think about addiction, it’s seen as someone’s choice and fault rather than a disease. Listening session participants said this makes it harder for people struggling with substance use to start and be successful in their recovery journey.

It’s more effective to meet people where they are. This involves harm reduction efforts, like providing resources for people to use substances safely until they are ready to stop, and not requiring individuals to stop using drugs completely before they can enter treatment.

Getting treatment is difficult 

Finding substance use treatment is a challenge in the Midwest, the listening session participants said. Treatment is expensive, and many insurance providers won’t cover the costs or will only partially pay for services. In-patient treatment can take weeks, which means working parents would have to find long-term child care. Transportation is another barrier – facilities are often far outside of rural areas.

The recovery community is resilient 

Listening session participants talked a lot about the people who helped them in their recovery journeys. They said substance use can be isolating, and it’s important for people in recovery to have networks they can rely on for support during difficult times.

Living with substance use? 
We want to hear your story. Virtual listening sessions will be held:
Dec. 6, 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Dec. 8, 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

RSVP through the Google form embedded in this story.

Turning what we learned into journalism

Since conducting this first round of listening sessions on substance, Side Effects reporters have been following up on the topics and concerns participants shared.

Iowa Public Radio’s Natalie Krebs reported on new data showing the impact of the pandemic on binge drinking. Alcohol use soared after the start of the pandemic: Among adults under 65, more people died from alcohol-related deaths than from COVID in 2020. Listening session participants told us alcohol use is not as stigmatized as other substance use – but that the normalization of alcohol in society can also prevent people from seeking help or acknowledging when their alcohol consumption has become problematic.

WFYI’s Darian Benson reported on solutions states like Indiana are experimenting with to reduce transportation barriers. A partnership with ride-sharing service Lyft provides free rides to treatment. She also reported on how pregnant people struggling with addiction fear mistreatment from health care providers and worry about the possibility that they’ll lose custody of their baby – and how peer recovery coaches who are trained to work as doulas can help them access prenatal care, addiction treatment and help them advocate for themselves in medical settings.

What comes next?

Side Effects Public Media will be hosting four more virtual listening sessions on substance use, addiction and recovery. They will be held at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. EST on both Tuesday, Dec. 6, and Thursday, Dec. 8.

This time, we’re actively seeking people of color and also people in rural areas who have lived experience with addiction and recovery. We know their experiences can be very different than those of White people and people in urban areas, and we want to make sure we understand the diversity of experiences people have in order to tell these stories more fully and with greater representation of those affected by this issue.

We are also inviting people who are at a more chaotic stage of using substances – people who haven’t been in recovery for long or who aren’t in recovery at all.

If you have a story to share, you can RSVP to the listening sessions here or reach out to Brittani Howell via email, at

Contact digital editor Lauren Bavis at Follow on Twitter: @lauren_bavis.

Side Effects Public Media is a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. We partner with NPR stations across the Midwest and surrounding areas — including KBIA in Missouri, Iowa Public Radio and WFPL in Kentucky.

Lauren is the digital editor for Side Effects Public Media and WFYI in Indianapolis. She was previously an investigative reporter and is the co-host of the podcast Sick. She can be reached at