The Portrayal of Addiction in Media: Helpful or Harmful?

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TV | Addiction | The Hills

In this post, we’ll explore the romanticization of drug use and abuse in popular media. We’ll cover several recent hit shows and will examine how those shows may glamorize substance abuse and addiction. This article will also highlight several others that are making an effort to show addiction in a more realistic light.

Along the way, we’ll reveal a few startling statistics that underscore just how normalized substance abuse is in our society.

We’ll wrap up by debunking several myths surrounding the rehabilitation process. Learn how these myths may be perpetuating harmful stereotypes and how the accurate portrayal of addiction and recovery may lead more people to seek recovery in a safe, secure environment.

Addiction in Media

As we’ll see, drugs and alcohol have often been romanticized in media. Indeed, one might be tempted to wonder whether society as a whole is in denial about the potential effects of these compounds. What’s more, addiction tends to be portrayed in media in one of two forms, either watered down to the point of being a non-issue or else it is exaggerated. This may leave impressionable individuals perplexed as to the exact nature of this complex medical disorder.

Often, in television and movies, we see issues related to addiction wrapped up in a neat bow in 30-minute story arcs. But what are the effects of romanticizing addiction in this manner? After all, in reality, those who cope best with addiction tend to come to the realization early on that addiction is a chronic condition with which they will struggle their entire lives. Indeed, coping with addiction requires an ongoing effort on the part of the patient. It is not typically episodic—it is chronic, which means ongoing hard work.

Television and movie directors like to portray drunken characters as ‘quirky’ or ‘bombastic,’ or even charming. But in reality, drug and alcohol overconsumption often leads to events that are embarrassing, distressing or outright harmful.

But at the end of the day, viewers aren’t tuning in to be educated. They’re watching to be entertained.

Yet, according to Professor Ellis Cashmore, of Staffordshire University, the mere inclusion of drug use and drug paraphernalia in a show or movie creates intrigue. The professor made his case in several interviews after the hit show Breaking Bad saw its final season—a final season that happened to coincide with a massive hike in drug use in Europe.

Says Cashmore, “Although the show does not go out to glamorize the drug, its very inclusion promotes interest in that substance.” Indeed, Breaking Bad is often quite frank in its portrayal of the potential side effects of drug use and the societal effects of organized crime. But the program also shows an otherwise ordinary man of modest means rise from mediocrity to become a budding crime lord, swimming in cash.

To find earlier examples of the glamorization of drug use, we need look no further than the so-called Rat Pack. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, and Peter Lawford were cool, and they could smoke and drink with the best of them. Their various movies, plays and TV shows did little to accurately portray the harsh realities of addiction, but they did redefine ‘cool’ for an entire generation.

The message was clear: Don’t smoke? Don’t drink? Then you’re square.

It could be argued that the modern-day equivalent of the Rat Pack is the Oceans movies, the Fast And The Furious series and similar franchises. These movies show cool, clever, action heroes casually using drugs, alcohol and other substances with no ill effects, at the same time minimizing or leaving out altogether the side effects of over-indulgence. The possible exception to this being, of course, the stereotypical hangover that is forgotten in the next scene.

It’s Not All Bad News

None of this is to say, of course, that drugs and alcohol shouldn’t be enjoyed responsibly by consenting adults. But what of our responsibility as a society to accurately portray the potential side effects of drug use and over-indulgence? If children are being exposed to endless messages about drug use from media—that may or may not be accurate—then where is the balance?

Fortunately, there is some indication that things are changing. For instance, there are a handful of shows that make an effort to portray drug use as the double-edged sword it is. A few of these, in no particular order, are:

  • House. Starring Hugh Laurie, this show demonstrated through its main character, Dr. Gregory House, how addiction can be a grueling experience to live through.
  • Mom. Starring Anna Farris, this show puts a spotlight on life in recovery, illustrating how addiction recovery must a pro-active process. The show’s central thesis is that it’s better to never reach the point at which rehab becomes necessary.
  • Intervention. This docu-series hopes to reduce the stigmas associated with addiction by showing the realities of people coping with it.

Collectively, shows like these teach young people that addiction never impacts just one person. In particular, the docu-series Intervention demonstrates that addiction has wide-reaching effects on family members and other loved ones as well.

A Few Alarming Numbers

While these shows are a step in the right direction, there is much work to be done yet. Alcohol manufacturers spend a collective $25-billion per year on TV, radio and Internet ads. These ads have one goal: to normalize alcohol consumption, and if possible, to make it ‘cool.’ Of course, the issue isn’t that people are drinking alcohol—alcohol has always been with us and always will be. The issue is that impressionable children and young adults view these ads in staggering numbers.

Additionally, 90 percent of R rated movies contain at least one scene in which a character is shown smoking. Meanwhile, programs like Breaking Bad show people manufacturing and selling hard drugs to vulnerable individuals and profiting from it.

It remains to be seen what effect such romanticization will have on our youth.

Cultural Attitudes Are Shifting

Over the last few decades, attitudes toward addicting and addiction treatment have evolved. Fortunately, this has begun to leech into our media as well. While shows like Breaking Bad may romanticize addiction, drug sales, and organized crime—depending on who you ask—the portrayal of addiction in media is becoming more honest overall.

More and more, people are coming to understand that addiction is not a moral failing, but is, instead, a chronic disorder. Part of this shift comes down to the emergence of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. These services are not beholden to networks and do not rely on prime time viewers, and can, therefore, exhibit more flexibility in the types of programs they create. For instance, Netflix recently released two shows—Flaked and Love—which feature addiction in frank and sometimes startling ways. But more than that, these shows take pains to portray the struggle that is addiction accurately.

Yet its HBO that may have started this trend toward accuracy years ago with its hit show Girls, which dealt with the hardships associated with addiction in several episodes. In Vinyl, another HBO original, the protagonist struggles with addiction in a realistic, down to earth way while struggling to maintain strained relationships.

Looking even further back, Showtime original Nurse Jackie, which first aired in 2009, featured addiction as the primary driver of its narrative.

It’s worth noting that each of these shows, while dealing with addiction in a more realistic manner than what we’ve seen in the past, nevertheless deals with the subject in different ways. Some were dark comedies. Others were tragedies. Still, others were meant to be inspirational.

Though the experiences and struggles of those dealing with addiction are still being dramatized, they are nevertheless dealt with more realistically than ever before. This may help to counter some of the normalization of drug use coming from other media sources. Meanwhile, the idea of addiction as a condition one struggles with is being normalized. We are seeing:

  • The dating experiences of individuals struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism being explored
  • Their day to day struggles being explored
  • Their struggles with temptation
  • The conversations they have at meetings being explored openly and honestly
  • The reluctance of an individual to admit that they’re in recovery being explored

All of these experiences are being brought into the light.

Antiquated Ideas About Addiction Recovery

Movies have historically portrayed addiction as a bottomless pit from which recovery is impossible. This goes all the way back to the birth of cinema, with movies like 1945’s The Lost Weekend. More recently, the cult classic Requiem For A Dream portrayed its addict as a lost cause who should just embrace the worst case scenario.

While it might be argued that these movies have done some good as deterrents, they may do harm by promoting the idea of addiction as a moral failing rather than as a medical disorder.

But here again, things may be changing. In more recent times, movies like 28 Days and Clean And Sober show that recovery is possible. This change in our media tracks with changes in society at large. While the U.S. still aggressively attempts to counter the sale and distribution of controlled substances, non-violent offenders are now often offered the opportunity to enter rehab facilities instead of doing jail time.

Just a few decades ago, this was certainly not the case.

A Balancing Act

Many of today’s shows that aim to touch on the realities of addiction are doing so frankly, boldly and without the filter of stigma. These shows and movies underscore the importance of recognizing the signs and symptoms of chemical dependency early and the value of recovery options such as rehabilitation facilities.

However,  other shows and movies that portray addiction as a black hole from which there is no return likely do more harm than good.

Similarly, any program that shows characters shrugging off a hard night of booze and drugs only to go on to solve their problems in 90 minutes may leave impressionable children and young adults with the erroneous idea that drug use can be safely managed by all. When, in fact, there are individuals who are simply more prone to problematic drug use than others. For these individuals, any amount of drug use can be a slippery slope.

Recovery Myths

Movies and TV shows are created by men and women, just like any other product. The depiction of addiction, then, will be burdened by stereotype and misinformation if writers, producers, and directors are uninformed about the realities of addiction and recovery. Unfortunately, there are several common beliefs about addiction that are simply untrue. In this section, we would like to take a moment to tackle a few of these.

Myth #1: Rehab Cures Addiction

The Reality

Addiction is a chronic health condition characterized by dependency and tolerance. Through pro-active measures, an individual struggling with addiction can see it go into remission. However, relapse is always possible. For all intents and purposes, addiction cannot be cured.

To put this another way, no matter how long someone stays clean and sober, there is always the chance of relapse.

This is why individuals who have been through a rehabilitation program and who are no longer abusing their substance of choice are said to be ‘in recovery.’ They’re not said to have ‘recovered.’

Myth #2: A Person Must Hit Rock Bottom Before They’re Ready to Accept Help

The Reality

While it is true that many addicts don’t seek help until their lives fall apart around them, this need not be the case. If an individual understands the machinations of addiction and sees the signs of dependency in themselves, there is no reason they cannot seek help immediately. In fact, as with many conditions, the earlier they seek treatment, the better their outlook will be.

Indeed, perpetuating the idea that a substance abuser need hit some arbitrary ‘rock bottom’ point before they seek help may enable vulnerable individuals to justify careless or dangerous behavior.

Myth #3 If a Substance Abuser Doesn’t Really Want to Be in Rehab, Rehab Won’t Work

The Reality

Detox is a physiological process that has benefits all on its own. Supported by a healthy diet—provided by the rehab facility—detox can help an individual begin to come to terms with their addiction. Additionally, detox can help improve the symptoms of any co-existing mental illness that may be present.

What’s more, drug rehabilitation counselors are quite proficient in helping substance abusers work through the denial that often keeps them chained to the substance of their choice, and this process works whether an individual came into the facility on their own free will or not.

Myth #4: Seeking Help to Overcome Addiction Is a Sign of Weakness

The Reality

Potentially the most harmful misconception on this list, this idea seems to be rooted in macho culture popularized by the aforementioned Rat Pack and other personalities of the 1960s and beyond.

The truth is, seeking help for addiction is not a sign of weakness and is indeed a sign of wisdom and maturity.

Drinking | Addiction | The Hills

Drinking | Addiction | The Hills

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, the time to seek help is now. How do you know if you might need help?

Look for these signs:

  • Do you find yourself thinking about drugs often, even at inappropriate times?
  • Do you drive or operate machinery under the influence of drugs or alcohol?
  • Do you feel as if you can’t fit into social situations without drugs or alcohol?
  • Do you notice the need to do more and more of a drug to get the same high?
  • Do you combine drugs just to see what they would do to you?
  • Have family or loved ones told you that your drug or alcohol use makes you difficult to be around?
  • Have you ever taken items or money that didn’t belong to you to pay for drugs?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, it may be time to seek help at a facility like The Hills. Reach out today to find out how our facility can help you along the path to recovery!

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