During the pandemic, TV and movie streaming services became even more popular than they already were as people had to find ways to pass time at home. Some of those shows, like the popular HBO show Euphoria, which released its second season in early January, have confronted uncomfortable topics like drug use.
Euphoria follows the life of 17-year-old Rue and her high school friends as they grapple with identity, trauma, drug use, love, and sex. The show is different than many others about the topic in that it stars a young Black girl set in suburbia.
“[Drug abuse] still portrayed at this fringe thing. This is not a fringe thing anymore,” said Steve Carleton, executive director of Gallus Medical Detox Center.
Carleton says the one thing Euphoria does that others do not is it removes the stigma that drug use is only happening among certain demographics— mainly poor, young men in the streets. Numbers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show between 2004 and 2013, the number of women who used heroin doubled, whereas use in men increased at a slower clip of 50%.
Heroin use in people with private insurance also increased by 63% during that same time and use in those who made more than $50,000 a year by 60%.
The point: suburban America, once portrayed as widely immune to the effects of drug abuse, is confronting these harsh realities more than it ever has before
“When this happens in families, especially middle class and in suburbia like we’re seeing on a scale now, there’s lots and lots of shame and that keeps it so hidden from view,” said Carleton.
“It’s crucial that we speak about drugs because otherwise, it becomes a secret, a mystery,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, executive director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Dr. Volkow says what these shows do is act as a catalyst to speak more openly about drug use and confront its effects.
Euphoria follows the life of a high school student. One of the show’s main criticisms is the discomfort of seeing such visceral behavior in such a young population. The thing is, to a large degree, it is accurate.
In August 2021, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said outside of the rise in fentanyl, the fastest-growing drug problem in the US was not heroin, or cocaine, or methamphetamine; it was prescription drugs, which are profoundly affecting young teens.
Even though overall teen drug use is down significantly, trends from the Monitoring the Future survey, which is part of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, suggest younger generations are trying illicit drugs at a slightly higher rate than before, and the rate of overdose has risen dramatically due to fentanyl.
“We tend to polarize the way that we pass information, either glamourizing it or demonizing it, and the reality is drugs are complex,” said Dr. Volkow.
While, by nature, these shows are dramatized, their topics are not entirely as they offer a way to discuss a potent problem, and in a way that works to strip the stigmas surrounding it.
“If we want to understand and start tackling this issue people have to educate themselves about what we’re talking about,” said Carleton.