The Opioid Epidemic: A Human Perspective

A glimpse into human-centered reporting through the lens of one man’s story of how the opioid epidemic has deeply impacted his community and the people that he loves

Often times these days, when I turn on the news, I oddly feel more and more disconnected from the world around me. Another mass shooting, another politician saying something brash, another issue to get enraged by or depressed about. I often ask myself, “Is the world getting worse, or has it always been this way, and I am I just getting older, and realizing it more?” The truth is it can be hard to watch the news sometimes…or most times. It often feels like the negative parts are taken and blown up so that they are all that we can see. We see names flash across the screen, we see faces, but the whole thing feels very…inhumane.

But what if there was a way to tell the news, or to shed light on an issue, that didn’t totally dehumanize the subject and drive people away from forming the emotional connection required to empathize, and frankly, to care?

I recently had the privilege of attending a documentary screening of a project called Runnin’, spearheaded by STAT journalist, Alex Hogan. Alex grew up in Somerville, a community on the outskirts of Boston that has been shaken to the core by the opioid epidemic over the past two decades. As the program of the documentary screening told us, this film would focus on Alex’s connection to the opioid epidemic, and how he and his community at large were impacted by the loss of so many friends to opioids.

In reporting on the opioid epidemic from the inside out, Alex was able to avoid falling into the overwrought forms of addiction storytelling that we are often presented with: either the all-out recovery story, where the subjects overcome addiction and leave us feeling inspired, feeling that “addicts” can overcome that label and the limitations it imposes upon them. Or the hopeless story of despair, which paints a bleak image of a disease, and implies that there is no hope for overcoming it.

Alex was determined to tell the real story, his story, and that story did not fall into either of those two frameworks. As Matthew Orr, Deputy Director of Multimedia and Creative at STAT, said, the creation of this film was both cathartic and important for Alex. At times, he said, he struggled with how to push Alex journalistically while still honoring the emotional delicacy of the topic and its connection to Alex. But push him he did, and Runnin’ was the result.

As Alex stated after the screening, he felt that this story was important to tell, but he was often worried about honoring the lives and stories of his friends in the truest way possible. Still, he said, he feels simply that issues like the opioid epidemic need to be reported on more- and preferably by people who have been directly impacted. With the opioid crisis in particular, he hopes that more reporting in the future focuses on the community aspect. Addiction is not an individual disease- it is a family disease, it is a community disease, it is something that impacts us all. And yet, in a cruel way, addiction has a way of making all impacted feel totally isolated. This is exactly why it is so crucial to speak up about it.

This became evident when we heard from Maureen and Michael Foster, parents of Alex Foster, a young man featured in the film who lost his life after struggling with opioid usage. As they said, they were not prepared to recognize the problems that led to his addiction, or the signs that he was addicted. And they were nowhere near prepared to know what to do about it. It just wasn’t something that was discussed. As Maureen said, “People don’t think they need to know about it. Until they need to know about it. And then it’s too late.”

People who have been directly impacted by something have a unique power to bring real, human stories to the center of the conversation- and these stories really need to be told. While it can be helpful and informative to present facts and statistics about an issue or an epidemic in bland, journalistic terms, it removes the human aspect from it. This makes it easier for the general population to push it aside and say “Well, that is tragic, but it doesn’t apply to me.” While, logically, we know that someone somewhere is dealing with the real, harsh effects, to us the issues become numbers flashed on a screen that we can turn on and off as we please.

In fact, the dehumanization of the people at the center of these stories is a big barrier in removing the stigma around drug addiction and the opioid epidemic in particular. In many instances, the people themselves are removed and replaced with a label that diminishes them- they are just an “addict”, who “abuses” drugs. With more widely accepted diseases, we don’t use stigmatized words like this. But with addiction, it is easy to apply these labels, which only serve to perpetuate stereotypes, leading to further stigmatization.

This is why people like Alex telling their stories is so important- they can become role models for the rest of us as we report on important issues. Alex would never have thought to say that the project he was working on was about a group of “addicts” or “drug abusers”, because these people were his friends, and they were so much more than that. Instead, the film is described as “an intimate look at a group of friends in Somerville, Mass. as they grapple with the opioid epidemic.”

The reality is that the people that are impacted by issues like opioid addiction are not outliers- they are regular people, just like you and me. By dehumanizing them and removing the personal element to the reporting of the issues, we make it easy for people to consider the problem to be an isolated one, something that would never impact them. And that’s exactly the problem. By infusing more humanity into the stories we tell about the opioid epidemic, we force people to remember that they too might be affected one day. We also break down barriers of communication and stigmatization, making it easier to talk about these difficult topics, so that people who are impacted by these issues in the future have something to work with when armed with the difficult task of trying to deal with said issues, and of trying to prevent this tragic problem from being perpetuated.

I feel privileged to have been in attendance for the premiere of this documentary, and I hope that this project from Alex is just one of many future instances of storytelling on issues from the inside out. This could mean that more people see the importance of telling the story of their own community, and will speak up. It could also mean that people and journalists in general, will see the value of putting the voices of the people directly impacted by the causes and issues they are reporting on at the center of the conversation and the story. Both scenarios are a positive step forward in a great direction to a society that is more connected, that takes the time to listen, and has the courage to speak.

To learn more about Runnin’, check out the link below: