If you happen to have been following the wondrous world of social media over the past few days, you’ve likely heard about Demi Lovato’s hospitalisation following an overdose. The news has triggered an outpour of public support for the singer, and this is a wonderful thing. We’ve evolvedas a society to the point where we can humanise substance abuse far more than would have been allowed in the era of public scare campaigns like those seen in the 90s. But, at the end of the day,do we allow this same sympathy for the members of our own communities?
Drug use has always been somewhat glamourised as an aspect of celebrity culture, which is damaging in itself. Addiction is never something that should be glorified. But neither should it be condemned as the fault of the individual. This kind of stigmatisation only furthers the negative impacts of substance abuse.
Take for example Portugal’s drug problem in the 80s - drug use and drug-related crime were at an all time high, and no degree of legal crackdown or scare campaigns designed to create shame amongst drug users seemed to be helping. Then, in 2001, the country completely changed itsapproach, decriminalising all drugs and diverting its efforts into rehabilitation facilities. Now, drug
use and crime is down in Portugal, and the country stands today as a massive success story.
Portugal’s recovery wasn’t just on account of legal changes; it was just as much a matter of culturalperspective. As reported in The Guardian, ‘“Those who had been referred to sneeringly asdrogados (junkies) – became known more broadly, more sympathetically, and more accurately, as “people who use drugs”’.
This is the change that really matters, and in Australia and the US, we aren’t quite there yet. "Druggo”, “crackhead” and “alcoholic” are all thrown around as insults with no acknowledgement of the struggle those words denote. The language we use reflects how we as a society tend to see addiction as a personal choice, and a personal failing. We equate “substance abuser” with “threat”,
increasing the stigma already felt by the most isolated in our communities.
Stories like Demi’s aren’t unique to celebrities, but they are the ones most publicised, sensationalised, and humanised. Being in the public eye, Demi has chosen to share her struggles with eating disorders, bipolar disorder and previous addictions, and so we barrack behind her when she celebrates a milestone of sobriety, and rally around her when she relapses. We don’t get that kind of background when it’s a nameless person in our community, but it’s important to understand that everyone has struggles, and a lack of notoriety doesn’t invalidate them.
Not all celebrities get this treatment - just a few years ago Lindsay Lohan broke down in an interview with Oprah, emotionally overwhelmed that she’d just been encouraged to celebrate being 1 year sober after years of being the punchline in jokes about washed up child stars. Oprah’s treatment of the issue is the kind of humility we should be offering everyone, celebrities and regular
folk alike. The only way to tackle addiction as a society is to break through the stigma and replace it with empathy, humility, and hope for the future.