GPB’s Ellen Eldridge reports on the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse’s work to reduce stigma associated with substance use disorder. The Georgia Recovers campaign places billboards across the state with faces of local community members in recovery.

Recovery billboard says "I recover everyday" with a person in a purple shirt holding a dog.

A billboard from the Georgia Recovers campaign with Laarni McCarver. More billboards will go up around Georgia after SAMSA awarded the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse grant money.

Credit: Georgia Council on Substance Abuse

After a successful campaign, the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse plans to use federal grant money to bring back billboards showing the faces of people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

While the traditional 12-step program touts anonymity, the billboard campaign screams out against stigma.

The campaign's inaugural run shattered its initial projections of reaching maybe 100,000 people via billboard impressions across the state, according to GCSA's Jeff Breedlove.

"We reached 183 million impressions statewide," Breedlove said.

GCSA Executive Director Neil Campbell said the aim of the approach is to normalize recovery.

The result: changed lives, including that of a woman from a small south Georgia community who appeared on a billboard in 2019.

"Everybody saw; everybody knew her," Campbell said. "And that's part of the whole social norms thing."

People saw the faces of their neighbors and knew recovery from active addiction is possible, Campbell said.

"We can elevate them," she said.

Georgia Recovers billboard
Credit: Georgia Council on Substance Abuse

Part of the council's program focuses on prevention and recovery, especially after the surge in new cases of substance use disorder during the pandemic and the resultant recent rise in overdose deaths, Breedlove said.

MORE: CDC Reports Highest Number Of Drug Overdose Deaths Ever In A Year

The message is that everyone can recover and thrive.

"We are preventing people in recovery from having setbacks, especially after the trauma of COVID," Breedlove said. "That's part of the beauty of this program, is that it covers the full spectrum of recovery."

Some may think the last thing people recovering from substance use disorder want is their face on a billboard, but hundreds of people volunteered in 2018, Breedlove said.

One of those people was Laarni McCarver, who was featured on a billboard holding a small dog and sharing her positive message that she recovers every day.

The Athens native now works in a recovery center in Jesup. 

Her goal is to show that people with substance use disorder do get better.

"These billboards don't use scare tactics," Campbell said. "They're just promoting healthy behaviors. It doesn't have a moralistic message. It simply presents healthy norms that are already happening in this group, and it builds on the assets in the community."

A total of $597,000 will be distributed over the next three years in partnership with Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald and her team at the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities through the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Association’s Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act: Building Communities of Recovery grant program.

They're doing billboards again because the feedback was phenomenal in the previous campaign that ended April 2020, Breedlove said.

"It broke that stigma and it said, 'Hey, recovery is real,'" Breedlove said. "And people embraced the hope of recovery when they saw a picture of a person on a billboard who looks like they're not a celebrity, but a real Georgian."