Why We’re Not Showing You That Viral Heroin Video

Photographed by Jessica Nash.
By now you've probably seen the video posted to Facebook earlier this week by a young father named Brenden Bickerstaff-Clark: In it, he tells his 8-year-old son that his mom died of a heroin overdose. "MY SON HAS NO MOTHER BECAUSE OF HEROIN..." he writes. "PLEASE GET HELP SO OUR CHILDREN DONT HAVE TO SUFFER." Unfortunately, this isn't the first post like this that we've seen. Just last month, officials in East Liverpool, OH posted a graphic photo of two adults unconscious in a car after an overdose — with their child in the backseat. Of course, our hearts go out to Bickerstaff-Clark and his son after their tragic loss, and to anyone dealing with the very real fallout of the opioid epidemic. And while it's hard to deny that these posts are powerful and affecting, when it comes to the heroin epidemic, are they helpful or harmful? According to experts, rather than preventing people from using drugs or giving them some sort of motivation to stop, these posts fuel the harmful stereotypes and stigma we already associate with drug use. We spoke with two harm-reduction experts, Tessie Castillo of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition and Jag Davies of the Drug Policy Alliance, to find out why this well-intentioned post may have unintended negative consequences — and what we can do to really address the root causes of addiction.
What were your thoughts when watching the video?
Tessie Castillo: "One thing I do like about the video is that the father is honest about what happened. That’s something that we’re starting to see a little bit more, where people are admitting that it was a drug overdose. A few years ago, this was something that people were so loath to talk about that if someone died, people didn’t want to say what the cause of death was. I have horror stories of mothers going to grief groups where they were shamed by mothers whose children died in car accidents who would say things like, 'Well, my child didn't deserve to die.' So I’m encouraged when I see people being honest about what happened." So what are the major issues with the video?
TC: "Making a video and posting it all over the internet...we have seen that tactics like that don’t generally work, because what we’ve been doing all along as a society is hav[ing] this false mentality that if we can shame people enough, make them feel as terrible as possible, and make their lives as miserable as possible — throw them in prison, take away their jobs, make them homeless — that they’ll realize someday that this is wrong, and they'll stop. But that doesn’t work. In fact, it feeds the spiral of drug use, because drugs are often taken as a coping mechanism. And if you have a lot of issues going on in your life, and you need help coping, you’re more likely to use drugs. We’ve seen people who are empowered and given opportunities are more likely to stop using drugs." Jag Davies: "[The video is] very sad, and it’s hard not to be affected emotionally, but I think it doesn’t necessarily do anything to address the root causes of addiction. And shaming and stigmatizing people who are still alive and struggling with drug addiction is counterproductive. These pervasive media portrayals that demonize people who use drugs are what spawned policies that systematically discriminate against people who use drugs... In order to address the root causes of addiction, we need to end discrimination against people who use drugs and reduce the stigma associated with drug use and advocate for compassionate, judgement-free approaches."

Shaming and stigmatizing people who are still alive and struggling with drug addiction is counterproductive.

Jag Davies
Where do you think the urge to put these sorts of moments online is coming from?
TC: "I actually think it’s coming from a good place. Folks who are doing this don’t want other people to suffer through what they’re suffering through. They’re trying to raise awareness in the hopes that it will wake somebody else up. The intentions are good — they’re just misplaced and misguided." JD: "I don’t doubt the urge comes from a place of wanting to help people, but I think it can have a lot of unintended consequences. Back in the '80s and '90s, it was sensational media stories of people who used crack cocaine that led to the worst drug war policies that we’re still stuck with today. So we’re at a very contradictory moment when it comes to attitudes about drug use. On the one hand, there’s a political and scientific consensus that drug use and addiction are best treated as health issues. But at the same time, a lot of the myths about drug use that gave rise to the war on drugs are still omnipresent. And things like this show how far we still have to go in digging out the roots of the drug war mentality."

How do you think this contributes to our stereotypes about drug users?
TC: "Most of the videos I’ve seen have been people passed out in cars and that kind of thing. That definitely contributes to our stereotypes about what people who use drugs look like. Our stereotypes about people who use drugs have changed. It used to be seen as a minority issue and now we see a lot more white people who are shown as using drugs. But when you see videos like that, it’s almost always showing people who are almost helpless, doing something really dangerous, or people from low-income families. It just feeds into that narrative. But really, everybody uses drugs. You can’t really put a label on it."

This is being done without people's consent, and it's being used as a shaming tool rather than an empowering tool.

Tessie Castillo
What is a more effective way to share these messages?
TC: "The videos that we should be posting should be of people who want to tell their stories. It is important to raise awareness about the issue and to talk openly about what's happening and the people who are being taken by this. But they should be wanting to do that, they should be telling their recovery story, they should be out there saying 'Yes, my child died of a drug overdose, and this is my experience, and you’re not alone,' and offer resources to help...people going through it. The issue is this is being done without people's consent, and it's being used as a shaming tool rather than an empowering tool." JD: "Ultimately, the thing that would do the most to help people with addiction in this country is ending the criminalization of drug use and possession. One of the main reasons people who want to get treatment are unable to is because they’re scared of the criminal justice consequences and stigma associated with being labeled a problematic drug user. Most overdoses are preventable — that’s the really tragic thing about them. The number-one reason people cite for not calling for help when someone overdoses is fear of police involvement. If we could remove the criminal elements from this, it would help a lot."

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