By Joanna Mechlinski.
Recently the hit TV show This is Us embarked on a story arc regarding Kevin’s (Justin Hartley) use of opioid painkillers following knee surgery. Kevin continues to pursue prescription refills beyond what he has been allowed, to the point where he is obsessed with getting more pills and embarrasses his girlfriend at a social event. What’s more, he is shown heavily drinking alcohol alongside the pills he takes.
Yes, the United States has declared an opioid crisis. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), opioid overdoses resulted in over 33,000 deaths in 2015 – a figure that’s quadrupled since 1999. Some 100 people die from opioid misuse daily. However, as the CDC also states, the majority of these deaths result from the use of opioids that were not prescribed to the user (many users report obtaining painkillers from friends or family, or on the street).
What’s more, “opioid” is an umbrella term for drugs ranging from Vicodin and Tramadol – which can be obtained legally via a doctor’s prescription – to street drugs such as heroin. Needless, people suffering from chronic pain conditions who merely desire a return to functionality greatly dislike being lumped with people seeking a high. These patients are currently being shamed and stigmatized in the news and media, by medical professionals and by much of society in general simply because they need some help functioning. Everywhere we turn, we hear statistics about how many people are dying and what we need to do to stop the drug use.
Yet legitimate patients are not the problem. With every depiction like the one on This is Us – a show which garners some 10.5M viewers each week, largely among the prized 18- to 49-year-old category – we are hurting people who are already living with chronic pain. Some 100 million Americans live with a chronic pain condition and constitute the vast majority of individuals using prescription opioids. Most users do not become addicted to painkillers; they do not seek more than they absolutely need, and they certainly do not abuse alcohol while doing so. A situation like Kevin’s on This is Us is the exception, not the rule. Yet unless viewers understand the facts, it’s easy for them to misunderstand and believe that everyone who uses painkillers becomes addicted.
Television is powerful. No matter what people may say, the fact is that what we see and hear is stored within the brain, even if subconsciously. We already know that opioid abuse can lead to addiction or death; now it’s time to provide viewers with a glimpse of the other side of the coin, the daily reality of a person who just wants relief from pain and to be a productive member of society? No doubt the reason the show wants to chime in on the opioid crisis isn’t entirely to spread awareness; ratings are likely just as much a goal. Let’s face it, drug addiction creates drama in the character’s life and is more “exciting” viewing than someone quietly taking a painkiller when needed and going about his regular business. But sometimes it’s more important to do the right thing for those who are suffering than the right thing for your career.
Tell NBC and This is Us to stop hurting chronic pain patients…