Why The Public Shaming Of Drug Users Must Stop

About a year ago, my friend Adrienne* was found near-dead in her apartment after an overdose of fentanyl and other opiates. She had been fired from her job the day before, after her employers had uncovered her drug abuse. Adrienne had wanted to get caught; she didn’t know how to stop her addiction on her own. But finally being caught didn’t give Adrienne the tools she needed to get clean.

Though we have been close friends for over 10 years, I had slowly lost touch with Adrienne when I moved five years ago. Her relative silence in the months leading up to her overdose scared me; I knew she had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, which had previously included fen-phen, a weight loss drug banned in the U.S. that she used as an energy booster. When Adrienne was ready to wean off fen-phen, she’d come to me about it, but I’d known nothing about the addiction until she decided to make a change — even though she’d been on it since before we met.

When I moved away, Adrienne was beginning to show signs of alcohol dependency. I felt helpless being so far from her, and I worried that her alcohol abuse would spiral out of control; I wouldn’t know about her fentanyl addiction or her near-death experience until after she was out of court-mandated rehab. But she did come to me as she put her life back together, sharing what she felt to be a shameful secret. While I’m neither someone in recovery from an addiction nor trained in drug abuse treatment, Adrienne opened up to me because she knew I wouldn’t judge her. She knew I would provide shame-free support, which is sadly — and dangerously — a rarity in our addiction-stigmatizing society.

On September 8, 2016, the East Liverpool, Ohio police department shared two photos on the City’s Facebook page. The images depicted a woman, Rhonda Pasek, and her boyfriend, James Acord, slumped over in a suspected heroin and fentanyl overdose while Pasek’s 4-year-old grandson sat helplessly in the backseat of the car. The fact that the boy is looking straight at the camera while the adults lie completely incapacitated, their eyes wide open, likely led the officers to believe these upsetting images would resonate strongly with the public. The police say they released the photos as a deterrent against drug use: “We are well aware that some may be offended by these images and for that we are truly sorry, but it is time that the non drug using public sees what we are now dealing with on a daily basis.”

“Enough already,” added East Liverpool Chief John Lane. “People need to know what is happening. This picture is graphic, it’s disturbing. I need people to get upset and help us take back the streets. I need the presidential candidates to look at this and tell me what they will do to fix it.”

The images of Pasek and Acord certainly didn’t have the police department’s intended effect on me, and I suspect they didn’t on many others as well. The public’s response was a mixture of an outcry against the two caregivers for their irresponsible behavior and against the police department for its breach of confidentiality. The department wanted individuals who viewed the photos to think twice before taking drugs, but I would be surprised if anyone sees these pictures and then decides to lead a sober life. In fact, the shaming and stigmatizing of addiction is not only ineffective in preventing further drug use, but can drive dangerous — and even deadly — relapses and overdoses. For those caught in cycles of drug abuse, public shaming like the East Liverpool pictures is profoundly harmful.

“Research has shown us time and again that shame and addiction are a potentially lethal combination,” says Carrie Wilkens, co-founder and clinical director of the Center for Motivation and Change, a drug use recovery program. According to psychological scientists Jessica Tracy and Daniel Randles of the University of British Columbia, given that shame makes people want to run away or hide, it can drive relapses and overdoses — people drink or use drugs to escape shameful feelings, feel shame about their drinking or drug abuse, and then, consequently, use again. In a study the two researchers conducted for Clinical Psychological Science, they found “how much shame participants displayed strongly predicted not only whether they relapsed, but how bad that relapse was.”

Many, many Americans have family and friends who struggle with addiction. According to a 2012 Columbia report, “40 million Americans age 12 and over meet the clinical criteria for addiction involving nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs. That is more than the number of people with heart conditions, diabetes or cancer. Meanwhile, another 80 million Americans fall into the category of risky substance users, defined as those who are not addicted, but use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs in ways that threaten public health and safety.”

Unsurprisingly, the photos of Pasek and Acord made me think of Adrienne. I’d stepped away from the computer and resolved to go about my day, but the images stayed with me. I found myself becoming increasingly upset. Is that what Adrienne looked like when she was found? What if she’d had to worry about her picture getting splashed across the internet? If so, would she have tried harder to hide her addiction? Would she have thought twice about reaching out for help?

The images also brought to mind an unpleasant memory of my absent father from when I was in middle school. Though he for the most part didn’t drink when I came to visit, this particular day was one of the exceptions. I found him passed out on the bed with his eyes open, much like Pasek and Acord. And just like the little boy in the backseat, I didn’t know why my dad couldn’t move. But unlike the boy, the incident remained between him and me. The boy, on the other hand, will most likely be forever known as the juvenile whose grandmother’s near-dead image went viral.

Sarah Gainor*, records specialist for a police department outside of Seattle, says the East Liverpool officers likely acted in violation of governmental codes by posting the images: “The state codes [in Ohio] might not be the same, but there are common rules for public disclosure, one of them being that you don’t show juveniles and you don’t list the person’s name [who is associated with the juvenile].” The officers later blurred out the boy’s face, but in the initial photos — including the one that still remains on the City’s Facebook page — this wasn’t the case.

The officers insisted that the photos are public record, but Gainor’s department has strict policies regarding how records are released: “1. There is a difference between releasing to one person asking for a record and releasing it on the internet. 2. You still need to protect the identifications of the people, since the incident is connected to a juvenile. Put a black box across the eyes, don’t name the people in the pictures, and take out the license plate. Then you can release the picture while still protecting the people involved.”

The director of the Criminal Justice Program at Duquesne University School of Law, Wes Oliver, likens the photos to successful anti-smoking campaigns, saying “I like the approach about trying to get the public from ever starting using these drugs rather than thinking about how to lock them up once they’ve started.” But while anti-smoking campaigns that use “intense” graphic images — such as cancer-riddled smokers — have led to a decrease in tobacco usage, the real-life videos, including those by the iconic and now deceased Terri Hall, were made with the participants’ permission. By contrast, Pasek and Acord were publicly shamed without consent. This takes the power away from the source and instead places it in the hands of officials.

Further, Gainor points out about the police department, “It’s making you look like a bunch of country bumpkins, like ‘We’re a small town and we’re going to use small town shame.’ If you put that on the internet, it does not stay within the bounds of your town. Public shaming by picture is not going to help your cause.”

There’s no doubt that it is hard for the officers to try to address an illegal drug epidemic on a daily basis. Ohio has seen a dramatic increase in drug overdoses, with 3,000 unintentional overdoses in the past year alone — one-third of which were due to fentanyl. But while this may be the case, there are other, more effective and ethical methods to deal with drug-related health issues. Gainor suggests:

“Start a D.A.R.E program where you have officers go and talk about drugs in schools, or have a ‘turn in your drugs’ day, where if you show up with narcotics, you can turn them in anonymously and you won’t get in trouble. Or you can get more community support, or crisis lines, so you can call and say, ‘I need help because I overdosed’ and you don’t get in trouble for having the drugs, you just get the medical help you need.”

My friend Adrienne still hasn’t told many about her drug addiction or why she has changed careers. She purposefully hasn’t reached out to those she fears might judge her, even if they would likely welcome her with open arms. In truth, she’s scared not so much of their judgment, but of letting them down — of not being the person she feels she was supposed to be. So she keeps her struggle mostly to herself, keenly aware that many think it’s hard to become addicted and easy to quit.

If police had arrived at the scene instead of Adrienne’s family member, and if they had snapped a photo to preserve the scene before a medical crew arrived but then posted that photo in a public forum, I and other friends and family would have been devastated. And if the same had happened to my father as he lay intoxicated on the bed with his eyes open, the image that I try to forget daily would be crystal clear, and visible not only to me, but to the world at large — for as long as the internet exists.

Who are we serving when we make private struggles public? Who are we helping when we turn an individual’s challenges into an example without his or her permission? It’s time officers and the public start working together to conquer health issues related to addiction.

“Scarlett A’s” have no place in true community awareness.

*Names and other identifying details have been changed for confidentiality and safety purposes.

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