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[ Opinion ]

Social media and the stigma

There are now reports circulating that opiate addiction is responsible for 78 deaths per day across the United States. This means that more people are now dying from opiate overdoses than car accidents. This is a frightening number that has only risen at an alarming rate the past few years. As of now, the death toll seems to be steadily growing.

As you may know, this crisis is now being referred to as an “epidemic.” There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t log on to Facebook only to see another obituary link and another friend that has been taken too soon. Every obituary starts with the same telltale sentence claiming they “died suddenly.” Hmm, I think. Suddenly? What does that even mean?

To me, this means one thing: that our loved ones are dying before their time. It is heartbreaking, and the angst that radiates through the bones of those left behind is unfathomable, unless experienced personally.

A few months ago, I was invited to attend a presentation given by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and a panel of health care providers at the Harvard Medical School, here in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Murthy’s message was clear: we need to spread knowledge, educate and create new resources regarding addiction. More specifically, addiction that is related to opiates such as prescription painkillers and heroin. He spoke of the NEED to break the stigma attached to addicts, as it creates a barrier so wide that it prevents them from receiving treatment.

Dr. Murthy even went as far as developing hashtags like #turnthetide. These are progressive ideas to harness the influence of social media that could potentially reach millions, ideas that could help destroy the negative stigma by using social media as a vehicle to promote unity and spread awareness.

Yet these days, it seems as though social media may be causing more damage than good when it comes to the stigma and stereotypes that individuals in the addiction community face. I worry that social media is being utilized to perpetrate the opposite of what Dr. Murthy had hoped that it would.

Like most of you, I log on Facebook every morning. My newsfeed is the first thing to pop up. Typically, its content consists of cheesy motivational quotes, selfies, cute babies and birthday wishes. However, recently as the opiate epidemic has gained steam, police and news sources are choosing to release viral videos and photos of addicts overdosing on heroin.

One photograph in particular has evoked many strong emotions and harsh opinions. It has made an intense and powerful impact on the public view of addiction. The picture depicts a man in the driver’s seat of a truck, a grandmother in the passenger side and her 4-year-old grandson sitting in the back, buckled into his car seat. The man and grandmother in front are slumped over, their eyes rolled back and mouths wide open. It is a haunting and devastating image. The grandmother didn’t even have the opportunity to remove the tourniquet off of her arm before she overdosed. The young boy in the picture sat stoic, as if he knew no differently. Helpless, he looked out the window when this infamous photo was snapped.

Naturally, a child being abused and or neglected is one of the most damning things someone could be accused of and charged with. In turn, there was an upheaval of outrage ignited in the public’s response. Comments crowded the allotted space beneath the photo. One of the most popular comments read, “These junkie scumbags should die.” There were many more variations on this theme, all of which encouraged acts of violence towards addicts. The content of other comments posted online in response to this video is too hateful to recount here. In the spirit of #turningthetide and the use of social media as Dr. Murthy intended, I choose not to provide an additional platform here for content that I believe to be dangerous and stigmatizing.

Don’t misunderstand – I too, found myself beaming with anger when I viewed these videos. I felt my face turn hot and red, as it usually does when my blood starts to boil. However, unlike my friends and fellow Facebook users, my anger was directed at those who made the decision to release the photo. It seemed so counter- productive. Aren’t we, as a community, trying to come together so that we can help addicts?

Isn’t this what the Surgeon General Murthy has passionately expressed in his speeches across the nation?

I am most angry with this insidious disease that makes good people capable of deplorable decisions that potentially endanger innocent lives with addiction-fueled, reckless behavior. For a number of days, I watched others press the “share” button on the photos only to perpetuate hateful messages. A few days later, another video was released. It was taken by a couple who watched on as a toddler frantically tried to wake her mother, who had apparently overdosed in a store. I cried as I watched. The heartbreaking three-minutes of sheer terror that the little girl experienced is something no child should have to endure.

Not once did the two individuals capturing the video on their cellphone run to the aid of the little girl or her mother. Instead, they continued filming as they witnessed the traumatic event. I wonder what the two bystanders would have done if this mother had epilepsy, and was instead experiencing a grand mal seizure? Something deep down inside tells me that they would not have stopped to pick up their cellphones and press the record button.

If I am being honest, these two incidents hit too close to home. I know that this very much could have been my reality. I had taken similiar risks in active addiction when my daughter was two-years-old. I used in front of her, many times. I’m not proud of this but keep it in the forefront of my mind. I think of it every time that I feel the urge to cast stones of judgment. I don’t want to forget that I, too, resided in the same glass house as these caretakers with active addiction do now. I am one of the lucky ones, as is my daughter. Her mom made it to the other side of addiction: the side where healing begins and recovery happens.

It is time we use social media in a way that will benefit our community and the future of our children. We need to stop spreading viral videos and photographs that continue to feed the problem and deter us from the solution.

Sites like Addiction Unscripted provide the opportunity to grow and work together. We addicts now have a voice and a forum to promote recovery so that we need not eulogize a whole generation of our loved ones. Perhaps with sites such as this, that are geared toward addiction and recovery, we can indeed #turnthetide, one wave at a time.