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The Glamourization of Substance Abuse Disorders

Necessary representation or problematic sensationalization?

CW: This article discusses topics of mental illness, schizophrenia, drug use and substance abuse disorders which could be distressing to some readers

glamourization of drugs pills

Why does mental health need representation?

Studies have shown there is a relationship between tv shows and societal views, tv media is clearly influential on our thinking and identity, then, more open discussions of mental health have led to more representation being shown through the media. Television media specifically has a large influence and sparked discussions on this topic. Mental health involves our emotional and psychological well-being, some people may have problems with this in their lives and others may have more severe mental health disorders, defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as:

“a clinically significant disturbance in an individual's cognition, emotional regulation, or behaviour. “

Representation of this is incredibly important for people in todays society as it suggests a level of acceptance for those with mental health problems. As well as providing representation for the family and friends of people with mental health problems, allowing them not to feel so alone.

Are substance abuse disorders a mental health problem?

Substance abuse disorders (SAD), otherwise known as substance use disorder (SUD), is a mental health condition which affects brain activity and behaviour creating difficulty controlling substance use. Though SAD is not always seen as a mental health issue itself as it often co-occurs with other mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, anxiety or schizophrenia. As substance use can lead to developments of other mental disorders, like schizophrenia, those with genetic predispositions can trigger schizophrenia through excessive drug use, such as with marijuana. Co-occurrence happens too with mental disorders leading to SUD as people may self-medicate with alcohol or drugs to help with symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety, though this only provides short term help.

The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) present that around 1 in 11 adults, between the ages of 16 and 59, had used drugs in the last year. Although, this doesn’t account for the hidden figures, which are those instances of drug use not presented to the CSEW, it does show that substance use is a prevalent issue.

Problematic depictions of substance abuse disorders?

SAD is a mental health disorder that is now more commonly being portrayed on television, with shows such as Euphoria, the Umbrella Academy, Skins and Shameless. However, there is debate as to whether these depictions are constructive. With the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (D.A.R.E) stating that the portrayal of drug use and addiction shown in Euphoria is misguidedly glorifying. Further to this, it’s suggested that such representation of substance use normalizes this behaviour, creating the idea that using is acceptable in society, almost acting as passive peer pressure towards viewers, while typically neglecting to show the life destruction caused by substance abuse.

Additionally, for those with substance use issues, depictions of substance use on tv can be triggering. Though it may be easy to suggest people who struggle with this should avoid watching such shows, this can be punishing as these shows can often be topics of discussions among friends and wider society, to avoid watching can be isolating for some. Also, individuals may not be fully aware of their triggers and could still watch, especially if they have already become invested in the characters after watching previous episodes or series where triggers did not occur.

Necessary representation or problematic sensationalization?

Therefore, it’s questionable whether this representation from tv media is more positive or negative. We need to acknowledge that this depiction on tv allows people with mental health problems to be represented and provides a level of acceptance to those with or who are affected by SAD, such as friends or family. This can be majorly effective in helping people through their or their loved ones recovery journey. However, sensationalizing substance use can be problematic as it can encourage people to use drugs or drink alcohol, being normalized through the media, viewers become desensitized to this issue. Additionally, substance use in shows can trigger those who are recovering, which is incredibly problematic and can cause relapses, encouraging the problem of SUD.

It’s then difficult to determine if mental health representation, especially that of SAD on tv, is necessary. This also raises the question: is it up to us as a society to come to a unanimous decision on this topic or is consumption of such representation the decision of individuals and the concern of family and friends to set and respect boundaries? Maybe these topics need to be discussed in shows as long as precautions such as trigger warnings are clearly presented. In the past the UK watershed allowed some essence of control over the tv media consumed by children and young people, but the provision of streaming services has since made this redundant.

It is important to remember that if you do decide to watch these shows, they are largely for entertainment purposes and rarely show the severity of the effects. If you are struggling with substance or alcohol use, helplines and websites are provided below, please reach out for help:

‘Frank’ supplies you with all your options for finding help and can be contacted on 0300 123 6600

Beating addictions provides information on addictive behaviors and treatments.

Alcoholics anonymous can also be contacted on 0800 9177 650

Narcotics anonymous can be contacted on 0300 999 1212

Mind provide more support services and contacts.


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