In September of 2016, a viral video depicted a 36-year-old mother lying unconscious on the floor of a Massachusetts supermarket as her toddler attempted to wake her. The mother had sniffed fentanyl.
In October, millions of Facebook users viewed a video of a middle-aged Memphis couple passing out at a bus stop, high on heroin.
In another incident, police officers in East Liverpool, Ohio released photos of a couple passed out in a car after overdosing on heroin. From the backseat, the woman’s four-year-old grandson looks directly at the camera.
This photo, in particular, drew a massive response on social media. In well over 5,000 comments, Facebook users debated the ethics of shaming drug addicts on social media platforms.
Addict-Shaming as Drug Prevention
The East Liverpool Police Department stood by their actions, saying the intention was to raise awareness about the heroin epidemic. “It is time that the non-drug using public sees what we are now dealing with on a daily basis,” reads the Facebook caption. Officers hoped that those who viewed the disturbing photos would think twice before taking drugs, or before using drugs in the presence of children.
In some cases, it seems, sharing incidents like these on social media can lead to positive outcomes. The October video of a couple passing out at a bus stop was filmed by Courtland Garner, who expressed a wish that kids would see the video and think, “I don’t want to look stupid like that. I don’t want to do those drugs.”
While it’s unclear how this video affected others, it did change the lives of the couple, Ronald and Carla Hiers. Ronald’s daughter saw the video and urged the pair to seek help. Ronald, who called the video “the lowest point” in his life, and Carla, who said it was “a wakeup call,” agreed. The pair told CNN that they are optimistic about their recovery.
The Danger of Shaming Drug Addicts
However, many experts say that in most cases, shaming drug addicts is more harmful than helpful.
Carrie Wilkens, co-founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change, a drug use recovery program, says, “Research has shown us time and time again that shame and addiction are a potentially lethal combination.”
A study by psychological scientists Jessica Tracy and Daniel Randles found that “how much shame participants displayed strongly predicted not only whether they relapsed, but how bad that relapse was.”
Shame and recovery from addiction actually have an inverse relationship: the more shame an addict feels about his condition, the less likely he is to make a full recovery. While guilt about one’s actions can sometimes be motivational, shame about one’s self has the opposite effect.
Shame is an emotion that makes people want to run, hide, and escape. For addicts, this can mean drinking or using drugs, or seeking the company of other users who won’t judge them for their addictions.
When addicts feel shame, it isolates them from the social support that is a necessary component of recovery. They want to avoid friends or family members who may express disappointment, disgust, or judgement.
Worse, shame may deter addicts from seeking much-needed help. When drug addiction is stigmatized, drug addicts want to hide their disease, not ask for help. Treating people struggling with drug addiction with compassion, respect, and dignity is far more effective.
Scare Tactics Not Helpful for Addicts
In addition to being potentially dangerous, shaming and other scare tactics are not proven to be effective in rehabilitating drug users.
Addiction is a compulsive behavior that continues despite consequences like fractured relationships, arrest, financial ruin, and more. A picture or video of someone overdosing will not cause many drug addicts to stop using.
A 2007 study on the use of confrontation in addiction treatment found that these practices are “generally ineffective, potentially harmful, and professionally inappropriate.”
Confrontation strategies include character denunciations, ridicule, and intentional humiliation, a category that the public release of photos and videos depicting overdose could certainly fit into.
We wouldn’t disrespect or shame people with heart disease, Parkinson’s, or cancer. Drug addiction is a disease as well, and it should be treated as such.
Although the East Liverpool Police Department and others may have had the right intentions, public shaming is not the right method.