The founder of Overdose Awareness Day, Sally Finn, says she regards the day first and foremost as an opportunity for friends and families to grieve for loved ones lost to overdose.

A social worker and family therapist, Finn came up with the idea in 2001 after starting work with a needle and syringe program in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda.

Speaking on Sunday morning at a session of the Melbourne Writers Festival convened to commemorate 2014 International Overdose Awareness Day, Finn said there was stigma and shame attached to overdose deaths.

“I saw a lot of families really struggling with the grief that was complicated by the nature of the death after somebody died of an accidental overdose,” Finn said.

“I realised that stigma and illegality were conspiring not only to not stop these deaths, but to actually stop people from grieving for the people they’d lost.”

“Some people I’d met in the exchange had lost up to 17 friends, and there was no acknowledgement that they had the right to grieve for these people.”

“So I just wanted to create a day in the calendar which raised awareness around how many people had died, the fact that most of these deaths were preventable, and that it came at a huge cost, individually, to their families and to the community as well.”

Finn warned the issue of criminality and drugs was distracting the community from the dangers of legal medications.

“The reality is that most people who are dying at the moment are dying from legal prescription drugs along with alcohol and other medications,” Finn said.

“We’ve lost the opportunity to educate people about that because we are concentrating on this demonized group of drugs.”

“We’re saying these drugs are sanctioned and these (other) drugs are outlawed when in fact they share the same properties.”

Author and fellow panel member at the Melbourne Writers Festival session, Kate Holden, said writing had been a useful way of coming to terms with her own drug use.

“We like to think that addicts are ‘other’, they’re not us,” said Holden.

“They’re always going to be somebody who’s poorer or stuffed up or has a worse family … and that is patently not true.”

“I think the war on drugs has been a humungous folly, an absolutely expensive thing and all that money could have gone into rehabilitation and helping people instead.”

“It’s now 13 years since I last had heroin, and yet here I still am talking about it,” she said.

“I’m not a perpetual ex-addict, I’m not always going to be a heroin addict who’s just not using, I don’t think like that.”

“At the same time, writing a book was very much a process of explaining to myself why I did this.”

“The thing I didn’t expect was having told my story, I have people telling me theirs … sending me letters and coming up to speak to me about their problems.”

“I find it really humbling that if you start cracking open that stigma and silence and shaming then people are not ‘other’, they’re right here next to us.”