Substance use disorder campaign set to launch in November

The Public Good Project produces ‘behavior change’ documentary on Martha’s Vineyard.

Updated Oct. 31

Alcoholism is a standout problem on Martha’s Vineyard. It is the leading cause of death by substance use, with consumption rates surpassing the rest of the country, according to data gathered by the UMass Rural Scholars in 2016. Seasonality, geography, and social norms play a role in the incidence of alcoholism and substance use disorders (SUD) on the Island, and a group of concerned citizens formed the SUD Coalition in 2016 in response to the numbers. The coalition, in collaboration with Island’s public health committee, had a goal to implement a public health campaign “to develop and promote a model where responsible use of alcohol and drugs replaces the current permissive culture of alcohol and drug use,” according to public health committee chairman Charles Silberstein. After two years of meetings, discussion, and deliberation, the committee chose the Public Goods Project (PGP), a public health nonprofit, to help roll out an alcohol and drug use behavior-change campaign, set to touch down on the Island next month. 

On Monday, Nov. 11, PGP CEO Joe Smyser, health communications director Erika Bonnevie, and creative director Trevor Kane will arrive on the Island to begin their research on the ground. The campaign, fiscally sponsored by M.V. Community Services and funded by the Tower Foundation, will take about six months to complete, and result in a one-hour documentary, shot and filmed on the Island, slated to premiere in spring 2020. 

PGP conducted about two months of research from afar, and the national nonprofit will be the first to tell you the most formative data is attained on-location. “We want to be clear,” Bonnevie said in a phone conversation with The Times. “We are experts in what we do, but we are not experts on Martha’s Vineyard … We’re going there to listen to people, make relationships, understand the community, and then react.” 

PGP plans to conduct about 20 interviews with a mix of Islanders. “We’re hoping to cast a wide net,” Bonnevie said. “We’re not just looking at people who work in the field, but the average person who’s living on the Island — fact-finding with as many people as possible.” PGP hopes to engage youth, MVRHS graduates, the Brazilian population, and people who live with and are affected by substance use disorders. “Interviews will explore topics such as community social norms, local resources for both acquiring substances as well as treatment and recovery, community identity, and media habits,” according to a PGP release. Bonnevie and Smyser are both academically trained in human subjects ethics, and will conduct the majority of the interviews. 

“Our approach is not judgmental,” Silberstein, who’s also a local psychotherapist, said. “The goal is to get people thinking about their substance use … influencing behavioral change the way we do as psychotherapists: Take people where they are. No one uses a substance because they think it’s going to hurt them — there’s some way in which it helps them. In this project, our goal is to understand where people are at, and what works for them about substance use, and then to explore how those behaviors help them and hurt them.”

Interviews will be conducted in a variety of locations, and due to the sensitivity of the topic, Bonnevie said, there will be one central location where most interviews will take place. “It’s really just for confidentiality,” Bonnevie said. “We want to make sure we’re not putting people in positions where they feel uncomfortable. One thing about this topic is it’s sensitive. It can reference things that are not necessarily legal.”

PGP anticipates spending three to five days on the Island for their first visit. “During that time, we’re dedicated to getting information,” Bonnevie said. They’ll return two or three more times over the course of the winter, mostly for filming, Bonnevie said. 

The documentary will be designed to give the context of substance misuse in the community, including its history, its impact on individuals and the Island, and the need for community-led solutions. 

“We picked this [documentary] strategy because we felt it would be the most effective way to raise awareness,” Bonnevie said. “It also gives us time to explain the nuances of the issue … and it gives the community something to respond to, react to, and rally behind.”

The identity of the documentary will take shape after formative research and interviews are complete. 

“We’ll take all the information we collect, and pass it off to Trevor,” Bonnevie said. “It’s his job to create the identity of the documentary, the color scheme, and all the materials around that. But we want to finish the formative research phase first. We don’t want to assume we know everything.” 

And that’s one of the main reasons the Island chose PGP. 

“Other marketing firms came in with all kinds of assumptions about the Vineyard,” Silberstein said. “What’s good, what’s bad, and a strategy based on those presumptions. PGP doesn’t come in with anything like they. They ask questions, learn, and get really engaged with the community. It’s a very different approach.” 

“We want to make sure we’re producing something impactful and reflective of people’s experiences,” Bonnevie said. “My job is to change behavior. We are there to listen and to learn from whoever has something to say.”

Updated to clarify Charles Silberstein’s title.