The Key to Accurately Depicting Addictions On-Screen

By Dominic Nicosia – October 28, 2021

Representation matters, and accurate representation matters even more. Whether we realize it or not, so many of us use television and film for social cues, information gathering and even the cultivation of our values. While some may argue that what we see on screen is an extension of what we experience in reality, we’ve existed so long on a steady diet of TV and movies that, in many cases, the opposite has become true. Rather, we internalize the actions, attitudes and aesthetics of the characters we see—it’s just the way things are. 

When it comes to issues like addiction and recovery, it’s incredibly important that these factors are considered when examples of substance use, treatment and recovery are depicted on screen. Here are some things to keep in mind as both producers and consumers of addiction-related content in TV and movies.  

Addiction Has No “Type” 

 While there are certain behaviors that are indicative of substance use, there is no one type of addict. People fall into addiction through a practically endless variety of circumstances, whether it’s the child who experienced trauma, the factory worker who got hurt on the job, the executive who thought they needed coke or pills to keep up. It’s the mother, the son, the athlete, the transient, the White, the Black, the Hispanic/Latinx, the rich, the poor, the young, the old, male, female, and non-binary. When telling or internalizing the stories of addiction on screen, both creator and viewer should be careful to contextualize the diverse and complicated stories of how addiction forms. 

Addiction Has No “End”  

This isn’t entirely true; prolonged and untreated substance use will very possibly result in overdose and serious deterioration of quality of life. But not all addiction impacts look the same; not everyone is going to wind up on the streets, and not everyone is going to wind up getting better after their first time in treatment. Addiction takes people to different places, and there is no straight line. Not everyone’s “rock-bottom” looks the same; not everyone even has a rock-bottom. Being honest and realistic about the impact of addiction without downplaying it or using scare tactics is key. 

Addiction Is Not a Moral Failing

There’s no question that alcohol and drugs can make people do scary, manipulative, dishonest and undignified things, but that’s merely the condition and not the person. Depicting someone struggling with addiction as an irreversibly violent or unrepentantly immoral person communicates that this is how society thinks of people who struggle with substance use. When people see these images, they may internalize them and believe there’s no hope for them and no point in getting help. Even on a subconscious level, this can dictate behavior.

Addiction Is Not Easily Fixed 

While scare tactics and shock-value will hardly serve the conversation, it’s also important to depict the potential and very often realized consequences of addiction. We have to recognize that recovery is an ongoing endeavor, and many people actually do relapse. Pretending that there is no more work to be done after treatment or that people are “all better” doesn’t serve reality.  

Simply put, it’s important to tell the whole story and represent the whole person: their family, relationships, trauma, virtues, strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. By leading with and focusing on the story, and not the addiction, we experience the person’s humanity and realize that this could truly happen to anyone. 

So… Who “Gets It Right?” 

There is an increasingly concerted effort to depict substance use and addiction in an authentic and honest way. The Hulu series “Dopesick,” for example, discusses the origins and impact of the opioid epidemic by telling the story of how Purdue Pharma orchestrated the proliferation of OxyContin in physicians’ offices and communities alike. It goes beyond the person who struggles with an addiction to present a broader real-life picture of this systemic issue. While it may not be a perfect representation of the dangers and impact of addiction, it makes an effort to portray all aspects of the disease, from the clinical to the social to the personal. 

Recovery Unplugged is hosting a six-week panel discussion to coincide with the “Dopesick,” which can be seen every Thursday starting at 7 pm CST on our YouTube and Facebook channels. Tune in this week to join the conversation. 


About the Author

Dominic Nicosia smiling at the camera.


Dominic Nicosia is a New Jersey-based journalist and content writer covering addiction care and mental health. He currently serves as Senior Content Writer for Recovery Unplugged Treatment Centers, a national addiction treatment organization that offers a full continuum of care and uses music to help people more readily embrace the treatment process.


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