'Heroin(e)' Director On Opioid Epidemic: Addiction Doesn't See Color or Gender

By Paul Gaita 02/28/18

The acclaimed documentary filmmaker spoke about the stigma of addiction in a recent interview.

fFlmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon
Filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon Photo via YouTube

In her Oscar-nominated documentary short, Heroin(e), which is currently streaming on Netflix, filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon examines the national opioid epidemic from the perspectives of three women—a fire chief, a drug court judge and a street missionary—in West Virginia, which tops the nation for drug overdose rates.

In an interview with Business Insider, Sheldon—a Peabody Award winner who previously explored rural American lives in the documentary Hollow (2013)—said that she focused on her three subjects because they treated those with dependency issues as "human beings and not as junkies." The belief that people struggling with substance use disorder are somehow inferior, is among the key misconceptions Sheldon hoped to address with her film.

According to the filmmaker, those who struggle with dependency are subject to preconceived notions about not only their financial and social standing, but also their morality. "People have described it as an 'addiction of misery,' but the problem with describing it as such is that it seems to say that those who aren't in misery, those with good jobs and a good standing in society are exempt from addiction, which just isn't the case," she said.

Americans have "pushed addiction off as a largely lower-class or a very racialized issue," she noted. But with the opioid epidemic affecting individuals of every racial and economic group in urban, suburban and rural areas, such outdated thinking no longer applies. "Addiction doesn't see color," said Sheldon. "It doesn't see gender."

That stigmatization also extends to the reasons behind dependency. As Sheldon notes, "It's been studied that four out of five heroin users actually started with a pill—OxyContin or a synthetic opioid." It's no longer viable to "point fingers and say, 'It's not in our community.' It's everywhere," she added.

As she sees it, the tragedy of the opioid epidemic has also prompted a sea change in conversation about dependency. "In the past, we've said, especially for communities of color, 'Lock them up and throw away the key. They're moral failures. There are no second chances.' And now that other classes and other races have become impacted by this, our eyes are being opened. And that's very unfortunate for our history, but it's time that we don't make the same mistakes we've made in the past."

Stripping away the stigma attached to dependency is one step in providing assistance to those in the eye of the epidemic, but as Sheldon said, there are a number of factors that also need to be addressed in order to effect real change. "I'd like every politician to watch the film and see what people on the front lines deal with on a daily basis, and make policies that are based on informed decisions of what the front lines look like," she said.

Efforts from the medical, legal and social front—including the criminal justice system and the faith-based community—can also have an impact on important decisions for their constituents. Keeping Medicaid intact to provide funds and resources to rural communities like the one depicted in the film will also be a boon to those in need, Sheldon said.

If there's one step that everyone can take to help the situation, Sheldon says that "it starts with kindness. It starts with being more perceptive to what's happening in your own community and seeing how you can help in being kinder to one another, and trying to see how we, on an individual level, can help improve other's lives."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.