Prime Time Viewing: How Today’s Top Television Shows Portray Addiction and Substance Use
In addition to making the headlines of major newspapers from across the country, addiction is also gaining traction on the silver screen. This season, many of our favorite TV shows are addressing substance use disorders and risky drinking or drug use. However, they often sacrifice precision for plot points. Here, we’ve provided some suggested reading to accompany three of television’s most talked about shows and help set the record straight.
If you’re watching THIS IS US…
… you should read, “A FAMILY THERAPIST WEIGHS IN: WHAT TO SAY IF YOU DISCOVER YOUR CHILD IS USING DRUGS”
In season 2, episode 12, America’s favorite family sat down for a family therapy session to address character Kevin Pearson’s addiction (played by Justin Hartley). The session begins tensely as the therapist interrogates Kevin’s mother (played by Mandy Moore) and it escalates into a full-blown confrontation between brothers Kevin and Randall Pearson (played by Sterling K. Brown).
While there are many flaws in how the dramatic scene portrayed family therapy, our expert, Aaron Hogue, Ph.D., Director of Adolescent and Family Research, did note that, “the fact that This Is Us is taking us inside of a treatment session and trying to be respectful to the goal of this session is tremendous. I think the execution of the session went for dramatic effect, rather than accuracy, but the issues are very real and the investment by these family members is very real.”
There’s no doubt, after viewing this episode, that family therapy is a powerful tool for addressing addiction among family members of all ages.
If you’re watching GROWN-ISH…
… you should read, “DO WE HAVE AN AMPHETAMINE PROBLEM ON COLLEGE CAMPUSES?”
Despite having just started its first season, the Black-ish spinoff set on a college campus has already acknowledged many of the important issues faced by today’s co-eds, such as binge drinking and recreational drug use, in its own, comedic way. In season 1, episode 2, Zoey Johnson (played by Yara Shahidi), who is struggling to balance her social life and academic commitments, is introduced to the pervasive “study drug,” Adderall. The episode follows Zoey through the ups, and mostly downs, of amphetamine misuse but leaves viewers with a cliffhanger when our protagonist pops another pill in the final scene, despite having sworn off the drugs for good.
It remains to be seen how this issue continues to unfold throughout the season but we commend Grown-ish for acknowledging that the consequences of drug misuse and addiction can rarely be wrapped up into a single episode.
If you’re watching 13 REASONS WHY…
… you should read, “ADDRESSING SEXUAL ASSAULT AND IGNORING BINGE DRINKING”
This Netflix Original also tackles many substantial issues faced by today’s teens and young adults, including drinking, drug use, sexual assault, rape and suicide. Following its debut in March of 2017, national conversations ensued about this show’s portrayal of such sensitive topics. As we prepare for the show’s second season to premiere later this year, it’s timely to reflect on the correlation between binge drinking and sexual assault. As noted in the blog linked to above, “drinking does not cause sexual assault, [but] there is evidence that alcohol use creates an environment in which sexual assaults are more likely to occur.”
Television shows and pop-culture give us all the opportunity to step outside of our own experiences and educate ourselves about topics we may not be well informed about or feel comfortable discussing. It’s our hope that these shows and the resources we’ve provided help you and your family begin important conversations about addiction and substance use, both as they are portrayed in the programs you’re watching and in the real world. For additional guidance, check out, “Preventing Teen Drug Use: How to Talk with Your Teen,” from Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
In the comments below, let us know what you’re watching and share any questions you have about how addiction or substance use is being portrayed -- we may address them in a future post or on Twitter and Facebook.
Hannah Freedman is a communications and digital associate at Center on Addiction