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Op-Ed

Musicians with Substance-Use Disorders Deserve Empathy Not Hysteria

The reaction to Demi Lovato's hospitalisation this week shows how much further we in the media, and the general public, still have to go.

by El Hunt
26 July 2018, 2:05pm

Lead image via Wikipedia

Earlier this week, it was reported that Demi Lovato had been hospitalised after allegedly overdosing on an unspecified drug. The following day, a rep issued a statement to news outlets: “Demi is awake and with her family who want to express thanks to everyone for the love, prayers and support. Some of the information being reported is incorrect and they respectfully ask for privacy.”

So far, so simple. And yet it wasn’t simple, at all. As soon as the news broke on TMZ on Tuesday, a media flurry went into overdrive. Despite receiving no confirmation, TMZ ran with the claim that Lovato had overdosed on heroin specifically, with other mainstream publications – from the Telegraph to Sky News – quickly following suit. TMZ retracted their claim, but the damage had already been done.

Furthermore, as Lovato’s whereabouts at LA's Cedars Sinai Medical Center were made public, images shot outside the hospital started to surface, including photographs of her 16-year-old sister visiting. The recording of the 911 call was swiftly leaked and published alongside helicopter footage of her private home in the Hollywood Hills. Journalists and photographers are currently camping outside the hospital, waiting for the first glimpse of a woman who instead needs time, space and support to recover.

While reportage around Lovato’s hospitalisation hasn’t necessarily teetered into mocking territory – the unacceptable “druggy!” headlines of the early 00s haven’t yet appeared – the media haven’t always been kind to her over the years. One painful skit from The X Factor USA shows Demi Lovato glugging down endless glasses of “annoying juice” (the former show judge, then three years sober, can be seen mouthing “this is fucked up” as she watches the clip).

Over the last month in particular, sections of the press have followed Lovato in ways that make your insides churn. One heading, from The Sun, dismisses a concert cancellation with the phrase “Demi’s Downer”, while earlier this month, The Daily Mail published a story showing a recently-relapsed Lovato leaving a Hollywood nightclub alongside a series of unsolicited paparazzi shots, claiming the singer had “gone off the rails“. In another instance, they published a photo of the singer at LAX airport, and captioned it “Back to Black” in reference to Amy Winehouse’s final album. Whichever way you spin it, captioning a picture that alludes to a singer who died from alcohol poisoning is pretty tasteless.

It’s impossible to ignore the parallels between the coverage of Lovato over the years, and the treatment of other artists who have suffered from issues with addiction in the public eye. You can’t help but remember how Amy Winehouse was spoken about, with Frankie Boyle “joking“ in 2008 that she “looks like a campaign poster for neglected horses" during a packed stand-up show at the Hammersmith Apollo. Or else the mockery of Whitney Houston on American Dad in 2005: “First you sing, Whitney, and then you get your precious cocaine,” main character Stan Smith tells a gaunt likeness of the late singer, who had returned to rehab for the second time that very same year. These are just brief examples of a pattern we are all familiar with – in which addiction is treated as a running joke, rather than a mental health issue which is prevalent in the music industry, and should be treated responsibly, and with compassion.

"People who struggle with drug and alcohol problems deserve understanding and empathy,” Karen Tyrell, spokesperson for drug and alcohol charity Addaction tells me over the phone. “There's no doubt that we'll look back with horror in ten years about how people's problems are portrayed in parts of the media. Most journalists I work with want to tell these stories sensitively, but in general we've got a long way to go.” She continues: “It's still common to see words like 'junkie', 'addict' and 'zombie' splashed on a headline. These words shame and dehumanise people, and they make it harder for someone who's struggling to reach out for help.”

Many publications reporting on Lovato’s hospitalisation are notably quick to emphasise the sudden and tragic nature of her “shock relapse”, but the truth is, the extent of Lovato’s struggles were well known. The singer discussed them candidly in her 2017 documentary Demi Lovato: Simply Complicated, and before that, she’d been open about how she’d had to manage her bipolar disorder, drug addiction and self harming as a coping mechanism. Most recently, in last month’s song “Sober,” she sang: “Momma, I'm so sorry I'm not sober anymore / And daddy, please forgive me for the drinks spilled on the floor.” Those suffering with mental health issues are often advised to talk about their problems, and Lovato did talk bravely, openly and frequently. The issue is that nobody really listened to her.

Shifts are slowly taking place elsewhere. DIY communities are among those taking direct action to help musicians struggling with their mental health, and taking practical measures to save lives. To list a few random examples, over in the US, Chicago nonprofit Pure Joy is currently working to train its staff in administering Narcan (the same opioid antidote which was reportedly used to treat Lovato). Meanwhile, here in the UK, vital organisations like Help Musician UK are there to provide support to artists at times of crisis, bolstered by their recently launched 24/7 mental health service helpline for musicians.

Steps like these are all hugely encouraging, but until the mainstream media also takes responsibility for the way addiction is framed and reported, perspectives won’t change in a wider sense. Looking forward, we can only hope that Demi Lovato – and the many other musicians and people that suffer from similar struggles in their lives – will finally receive the support, respect and empathy that they need to get better.

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