On Wednesday afternoon, a Ford Explorer was stopped by an off-duty police officer in the small town of East Liverpool, Ohio. He had watched the car, which had been following a school bus, swerve in and out of the lane while traveling at an unnaturally slow speed. The bus stopped, dropped a child off, then continued on its way. The car, attempting to follow, rolled slowly off the road and to a stop. Officer Kevin Thompson approached the car and found inside a man and woman whose speech was virtually incomprehensible. Their heads bobbed back and forth until they both seemingly lost consciousness. It was then that Officer Thompson noticed a child sitting quietly in the back seat of the vehicle.
Deftly, Thompson called paramedics. The woman in the passenger’s seat was turning blue, and was administered Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an opiate overdose. When more officers reached the scene to assist Thompson, one decided to photograph the scene to capture the objectively shocking event they had witnessed. Not soon after, the pictures had made their way onto Facebook, and the story and images went viral. The officers had hoped to spread awareness of the ongoing heroin epidemic that is spreading like wildfire across Ohio, and simply in terms of the sheer number who saw the post, they succeeded. However, what may have been overlooked in this situation was the reality of the people actually shown in the images themselves.
The comments on the post, which I will not feature here, were frankly abhorrent. Some called for violence against the adults in the photograph, while others slung expletives and generally shamed both the parents and any who struggle with addiction. The comments made it clear that misunderstandings about addiction were just as prevalent as addiction itself. It goes without saying that the man and woman in these photographs, who have now been arrested and are soon to see their days in court, made undeniably careless and atrocious decisions; however, it’s debatable whether or not this posting and public shaming of these individuals was the best way to go about spreading awareness of drug abuse. The images were shocking and made international news, but not before the identities of the man, woman, and child were all made public, as their faces were not blurred and no attempt was made to maintain their anonymity.
German Lopez, a journalist at Vox, wrote in his article The photo of a couple using heroin with a kid in the car is horrifying. The reaction is even worse “Shaming the parents, as many people were quick to do on social media, won’t help them break their drug addiction. Getting them – and other drug users – medical care and treatment for a drug abuse disorder will.” It’s clear that addiction and drug abuse are a major problem in America right now, but we should be careful in our efforts to expose it. What we risk is ostracizing those with addiction, and reinforcing stigmas that make those with addictions believe they are second-class citizens and feel as though they cannot be helped. The response to these photos has been overwhelming, and while it clearly shows that the heroin epidemic in this country is far from solved and takes no prisoners, it also showed that we have a long way to go in our understanding of addiction and how we respond to it.
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