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Though the April 21 death of Prince ripped a painful hole in our cultural landscape, it has brought one unexpected, potentially positive development: shoving opiate abuse into the news. Though autopsy results are not yet available, initial reports suggest that prescription painkillers were a factor. Only a week before his death, Prince had his private jet make an emergency landing in Moline, Ill., where he reportedly received an injection of Narcan. This powerful antidote instantly knocks opiates off the corresponding receptors in the brain. People who overdose from opiates can stop breathing. But if Narcan is administered in time, patients who have stopped breathing literally awaken, alive and sobered up.
As a pediatrician — and a television writer and producer on such shows as ER and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit — I’ve seen the devastating effects of opiates on patients, colleagues, friends, loved ones and the public. And I have personally been wracked with despair when coping with a family member’s struggle, fortunately to come through it with more insight, empathy and honesty. The problem is getting worse: According to the National Institutes of Health, prescriptions for opiates increased from 76 million in 1991 to 207 million in 2013. And now 2.1 million Americans are addicted to prescription pain relievers and another 467,000 are hooked on heroin.
Fortunately, TV can be part of the solution. America is paying a terrible price for the scourge of opiate addiction, but stories can open our eyes to this epidemic better than facts and figures ever can.
Opiates relieve pain — but they’re addictive because they trigger intense biochemical changes that flood the brain with feelings of pleasure and well-being. And even worse, the brain often needs more of these drugs to sustain those sensations. Prescription opiates like Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin are expensive, so in order to sustain the dependence, many people turn to heroin.
Opiate overdoses have taken such beloved actors and musicians as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger. The impact has reached epidemic proportions. The Centers for Disease Control reports that a staggering 165,000 people died of opiate overdoses between 1999 and 2014. And each day, more than 1,000 people are treated for prescription opiate overdoses in ERs across the country. For the first time, middle-aged white Americans’ life expectancy, unlike any other ethnic group, has declined because of increased rates of suicide, alcohol and opiate abuse.
The media gathered outside Prince’s Paisley Park estate in Chanhassen, Minn., on April 21.
I’m not advocating banning opiates: Carefully managed by a physician, they can be a godsend for patients in pain. But their overprescription is a story waiting to be told — especially on TV. We must tell stories to destigmatize what it means to be dependent on these drugs.
Back in the late 1990s, I spoke to Alan Leshner, then-director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He told me that if there was one thing I could do to impact the growing drug abuse problem, I should have a character say these words: “Drug addiction is a brain disease.” So we did just that on ER, and I believe we were the first show to say those words when Noah Wyle’s character, Dr. John Carter, became addicted to narcotics.
Yet there still is stigma and fear associated with drug dependency. It’s “dirty” and “shameful” or shows “weakness of character.” We can fight those stereotypes with compelling stories that connect with an audience emotionally. When viewers are moved and engaged, they reflect on their friends, colleagues and loved ones who might be struggling with addiction. They reimagine the problem — not as something to hide but something to confront.
Consider how the power of TV helped “normalize” gay relationships. Programs like Will & Grace and Modern Family advanced the fight for the freedom to marry. These shows presented another way of thinking about people whose stories hadn’t been told.
Today, the Freeform network is presenting Recovery Road, tackling stories of addiction in an open and realistic way. And Nurse Jackie showed a woman’s struggle at home and in the workplace. But we need more stories — across all income and ethnic groups — because millions of Americans are battling the issue.
Simply put, drug addiction is a brain disease that can be treated. I’m not calling for candy-coated versions of addiction — the road to sobriety is rugged — and we must tell a range of tough, honest stories that dig deep into what it means to be human.
This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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