Why We Care About Celebrity Drug Overdoses

When Fox’s Glee debuted it’s season premiere last fall, Cory Monteith was noticeably absent. At the Oscars earlier this month, Philip Seymour Hoffman, an Academy Award Winner for Best Actor, was memorialized rather than nominated. Both men passed away from a heroin overdose this past year and took their talent with them.

The world lost  “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation” with the unexpected passing of Hoffman last month, according to the New York Times. And the death of Monteith  last July left millions of millennials wondering if they had chosen the wrong role model.

Still, many young people could identify with Monteith because of his TV role that resembled thousands of high school and college men. According to Sociology Professor James Kitts, his death made millennials realize that mortality can come at any age.

“I can see young people identifying with Cory Monteith because they want to be like his character,” said Kitts. “If someone is a fan of band and that person is the same age of the band members and then one of the band members dies, you might suddenly realize your own mortality, I can see that being impacting.”

Over four million Americans aged 12 or older have used heroin at least once in their lives. But if one of these four million die from a heroin overdose, the media rarely reports it, unless they’re celebrities like Hoffman or Monteith.

In 2010, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that over 38,329 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. Drug overdoses were also the leading causes of death in 2010, higher than the number of people who died from firearms or traffic accidents.

The CDC also found that people aged 45-49 had the highest death rates due to drug overdoses in 2010, and Hoffman was 46 when he died. In 2011, males accounted for 56 percent of people admitted to emergency departments to treat the misuse or abuse of drugs. And an estimated 23.9 million Americans used illicit drugs in the past month in 2012, a 1.9 percent increase since 2002.

Both men kept their addictions under control in recent years and received rehab treatment. But that wasn’t enough to convince young people to not use drugs, according to Sally Linowski, assistant dean of students at UMass who is also the director of the Center for Alcohol and other Drug Abuse Prevention (CADAP) and an adjunct lecturer in the Community Health Studies program.

“We know from research that having a recovering addict speak to kids does not deter use.  It actually increases kids use of drugs. Why? Because the former drug users are an incorrect model for kids and the message is on the dangers of drug use,” said Linowski. “But the most important determinants of starting drug use are decision-making skills, skills to resist peer pressure and self-efficacy.”

The unexpected deaths of Hollywood actors usually bring health or lifestyle issues to the forefront that might not otherwise get discussed because they aren’t as visible. Celebrities have a platform to start a conversation about something and sometimes it takes their own demise to get the discussion started.

Some Americans, however, may view celebrities’ downfalls as things that couldn’t happen to them if a celebrity seems far-removed from mainstream society.

“It can also have a counterproductive message in that most lay people cannot relate to the lifestyle, so they assume that this could never happen to them,” said Linowski, “But I do think that deaths heighten our attention as humans and can lead to good knowledge and empathy.”

Drug overdose deaths have been steadily increasing over the past decade, with a 102 percent increase between 1999 and 2010. Aaron Sorkin, who is a recovering addict, wrote in a piece for Time after Hoffman’s death that Hoffman told him on the set of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t.”



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