How the ‘SNL’ heroin skit can start a community conversation

April 20, 2016 | by David Lott, M.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

The fake TV commercials on “Saturday Night Live” often are fan favorites. I’ve enjoyed the comedians on “SNL” for years, but I was alarmed by the April 16, 2016, skit promoting “Heroin A.M.” – a pretend product to help people remain productive while using heroin.

Heroin and other opioid abuse is a national epidemic, killing Americans in every demographic and age group every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of heroin deaths nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013 in the United States. It’s in our backyard, too. In 2014, 711 heroin deaths were reported in Illinois.

SNL heroin am smaller

"Saturday Night Live," via youtube 

Millions of people saw the “SNL” skit live and later online. Unfortunately, making light of addiction simply adds to the stigma felt by those who struggle with it, as well as their families.

While I was disappointed in the skit, it provides an opportunity to have a conversation about the fight against heroin, how we think about addiction, and how it’s portrayed in our newspapers, on our televisions, and in our movie theaters.

Depictions of addiction in the media

Comedy sketches often create humor at someone’s expense. While it’s easy to say, “Take it easy, it’s only a joke,” this type of humor can be especially harmful when aimed at something the person has no control over. We wouldn’t expect to see a skit poking fun at someone with physical or mental disabilities, but many people don’t see addiction in the same light.

As we’ve learned more about addiction over the years, we know that it’s a disease, not a simple choice or behavior. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says addiction is a “chronic, often relapsing brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences to the addicted individual and to those around him or her.” People lose control over their drug use as the disease progresses.

The media too often gives a distorted view of drug and alcohol use. We see glamorous people on TV shows or in movies drinking or using drugs, and we see the fun they have doing it. But it is not often enough that we see the many negative consequences. And although youth are more susceptible to these messages, adults are not immune to it.

The “SNL” skit did get one thing right, though: it tested our stereotype of a “drug user.” The reality that many people don’t know or don’t want to talk about is that heroin is in their homes, social groups, and communities. Addiction can just as easily strike the mom next door or your child’s teacher as it can a stereotypical guy on the street.

Where do we go from here in talking about addiction?

First, we all need to recognize addiction as a disease and treat it as such. Perpetuating the stigma that addiction is a simple choice or a personality flaw only adds to the already enormous shame suffered by those who struggle with addiction, as well as their families.

My patients see these negative portrayals in the media and overhear people talking about it in the grocery store. They worry about this judgment and criticism, and it can keep them from getting help for fear people will find out they have a problem. It’s a big secret, and much of it is because of the shame from this stigma.

I urge you not to shy away from discussing addiction. Talk about it with your family members, friends, and co-workers. Share public service messages when appropriate – perhaps at health fairs or community events. If you’re a public figure, use your status to start an honest dialogue about addiction and its effect on your community.

I urge the media – writers, producers, actors, etc. – to accurately represent the negative parts of drug abuse so the whole picture doesn’t end up distorted. Audiences also need to remember that when they see a depiction of drug use, they need to think about all the facets of it, not just what may be shown. For example, James Dean may look cool smoking in those old movies, but don’t forget about all the people dying each year from tobacco-induced illnesses such as lung cancer and emphysema.

Addiction is a serious problem. It’s not a joke, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. We shouldn’t be making fun of how people look when they’re intoxicated or how they’re hooked on a substance and can’t stop. That’s targeting behavioral patterns that people can’t control.

There may be ways to use humor to target the stigma of addiction and barriers to prevention and treatment. For instance, many states (including Illinois) have laws protecting drug users from prosecution when they make a 911 call because someone overdosed. While this subject may ruffle some feathers, it could perhaps be the topic of a humorous sketch highlighting the need for more states to have these laws. In this case, we’re focusing on a problem, and not making someone who can’t help what they do look foolish.

I’m grateful that “SNL” did not present heroin in a more glamorized fashion, and that they showed a different demographic using heroin than most portrayals do. But this type of humor needlessly adds to the suffering of addicted individuals and their families.

I hope “SNL” and other media groups will be more careful in the future about how they treat the topic of addiction. And I urge our community to beat back the stigma surrounding addiction. We shouldn’t keep this problem in the shadows. Instead, we should talk about it in an honest, open way.

Recovery is possible. Learn more about Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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