As the opioid crisis continues to claim lives daily across the US and Canada, media outlets are increasingly publishing reductive stories about people who have struggled with addiction and those who have lost loved ones. If you've been following along, you probably saw the viral photo of the Ohio couple overdosing in a vehicle with a small child sitting in the backseat that police released. But this week, a man in Ohio posted a video on Facebook of him telling his 8-year-old son that his mother has died from a drug overdose. His post has been shared over 700,000 times and has been picked up by numerous major media outlets.
It's tempting to police how individual people mourn the death of someone close to them, and this father's decision to share this seems questionable in some ways. But we should concern ourselves with the images we are choosing to focus on about addiction—and the resulting response by our audiences—to see if it is really helping anyone. Images like this video could be here to help people try to understand addiction and think of ways they can take action, but the other sad reality is that some are just here to gawk and look for material to support the stereotypes we as a society have about people who are addicted to drugs.
Yes, it is undeniably tragic that a child will be growing up without his mother. But what about this woman and who she was as a person? What about her future that was lost? And what do we really know about her struggle? Do we know why she used drugs in the first place? Do we know if she tried to get off of them and did not have the proper support or resources? I've known people who have died from drug overdoses, and they were certainly more than just the people they left behind.
We are left with an image the audience can understand universally and grieve for: a crying child. But that's not even close to grazing the complexity of the issue at hand. We are pandering to a stereotype about drug-addicted people being poor parents, and by proxy, immoral, disgusting humans. This sentiment is at very root of the stereotype society has set for people suffering from addiction since the War on Drugs came to fruition. And we are doing all of this in, as one expert put it, in the middle of the "worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history."
"Mommy died last night, OK?," Brenden Bickerstaff-Clark, the father, says in the video.
"What do you mean, my mom? How?" the boy asks.
"From drugs," Bickerstaff-Clark answers.
What media outlets fail to realize when publishing this video and other images like the couple overdosed in a car is that they are aiding in reinforcing the stigma of people who are addicted to drugs. Those who watch it initially are left without knowledge of what happened in the mother's life that led up to her dying from a drug OD, some predictably assuming she must be selfish for dying.
Let's look at some comments posted on a major media outlet in Canada's Facebook in response to the video to see who exactly this is helping puzzle out the complexities of addiction:
While a big portion of the comments were criticizing the father, who identified himself as recovering from drug addiction, for posting the video in the first place, it took me less than a minute to scroll down and see comments like those above. But what some who are consuming this content are failing to realize is that drug addiction—and notably the instances of opioid addiction from which Ohio, Alberta, and British Columbia are reeling from at the moment—is a medical condition that someone cannot just will themselves out of. When it comes to a physical addiction to opioids, medication is often needed to safely come off of drugs like heroin or fentanyl.
How many people will contact their government leaders after watching this video? How many will join harm reduction efforts? How many, the next time they see someone suffering from drug addiction, will take any move to help instead of judge? These are actions that are so needed in the middle of the opioid crisis, but undoubtedly, some will simply gawk and shake their heads at the death of a woman they never knew. And as they gawk, people will continue to die.
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