Background

Scant research has examined the influence of overdoses occurring in social networks (i.e., knowing someone who has overdosed) on individual overdose risk. We sought to characterize drug use behaviors of individuals following the overdose of someone in their social network.

Methods

We conducted semi-structured interviews with 25 people who use drugs and knew someone who overdosed in the prior 90 days. All interviews were conducted in person in Rhode Island from July to October 2021. Data were stratified by drug use behaviors following the overdose of a network member (i.e., risk behaviors, protective behaviors, no change; selected a priori) and analyzed using a thematic analysis variation to identify salient themes.

Results

We identified variation in the effect of knowing someone who overdosed on subsequent drug use behaviors and emotional affect. Several participants described increasing their drug use or using more types of drugs than usual to manage feelings of bereavement and trauma, and a subset of these participants described increased drug use with suicidal intention and increased suicidal ideations following the overdose event. Other participants described reducing their drug use and engaging in protective behaviors in response to heightened perceived overdose risk, protection motivation (i.e., increased motivation to protect oneself), and concern for others. Additionally, some participants reported no change in drug use behaviors, and these participants described already engaging in harm reduction practices, feeling desensitized due to frequent or repeated exposure to overdose, and ambivalence about living.

Conclusions

Findings suggest a need for enhanced investment in network-based overdose prevention interventions, as well as more robust integration of bereavement support and mental health services in settings that serve people who use drugs. The findings also suggest a need for future research to identify mediators of the effect of overdose occurring in social networks on individual overdose risk.