The Stigma Is Real: Why I Scroll By Viral Overdose Videos

By Alexis Pleus 03/17/16

In my dream for the future, no one will grab a phone to video the scene of an overdose and use it to humiliate or "inform" others, they will help save them instead.

The Stigma Is Real: Why I Scroll By Viral Overdose Videos
Alexis and her son Jeff via Author

Lately there has been a surge of videos posted to social media showing overdoses and overdose revivals in action.

At least, that’s what I assume they show.

I haven’t watched a single video.

You see, I lost my son to a heroin overdose. I am one parent fortunate enough not to have seen my son’s body after he passed, but I did get a graphic description of the scene from the girl who found him. From that description alone, I see it, over and over again. 

Due to my son’s death, I also have dreams. Nightmares, actually. In one reccurring nightmare, I am sitting at a table eating dinner with several people while someone sitting with us is turning blue. I scream, “Can’t you see them? Can you see they’re dying?” I scream, but the conversation continues, glasses clink and people put forkfuls of food in their mouths commenting on how delicious it is. I can see their faces, enjoying life, drinking, eating while someone at the table is slumped over with their forehead on the table.

I had one dream where one of my living sons was overdosing, and I kept questioning when I should give the naloxone as he slipped away and came back—one minute out cold, the next talking to me. There was a room full of people who seemed oblivious to the situation as he collapsed into my arms and I struggled to hold him up. I kept asking, “Now? Now do I give it?” But no one would listen.

It has been 19 months since I lost my son Jeff and these nightmares continue.

From 2010 through today, over 250,000 people have lost their lives to an overdose. I suspect that means there are at least 400,000 parents reliving a nightmare night after night, just like I do. Add to that the siblings, grandparents, friends, husbands, wives and in some cases, their children.

People send me articles about the opioid epidemic all the time and I appreciate that. 

People post to my Facebook wall and tag me in the posts of these overdose videos, and I cannot fathom or understand it.

I have chosen not to say a word in response because what can be said? Thank you for the video that reminds me in a horrifically graphic way how my son died? Thank you for the video that shows me how someone else was saved, though my son was not?

As horrific as these posts are for me, I cannot imagine how they are impacting the parents who found their child, or the mothers or fathers who attempted to revive their own child, unsuccessfully.

Do people send them the videos as well?

I often try to remind myself that people mean well. I have had to remind myself of this hundreds of times since losing my son to a heroin overdose as people tend to say extremely insensitive things.

People mean well. 

If that is the case, if you do in fact have good intentions as you are posting these videos, please pause for a moment.

Ask yourself, will this image, video or article help the person I am sending it to, or will it cause them pain? There is a difference between information that is useful and information that is simply graphic and gruesome.

What about parents who lose their children in ways other than overdose? Do we think it is appropriate to send them a video of a person either dying or being saved in a similar way? If my son died in a gruesome car accident, would they send me videos of gruesome car accidents? What about suicide? Would they send me suicide videos?

These overdose videos are screaming evidence that the stigma is real. Do we respect people suffering from this disease so little that we need to show them to hundreds of thousands of people at their lowest of low moments? Do we need to disrespect their parents in this way? That is someone’s son or daughter in that video. Speaking from my experience and the experience of the hundreds of parents I have communicated with, most likely the person in that video is attached to a mom and dad who are at home, worried sick and doing all they can to save them. 

These videos do little other than perpetuate the stigma. Though I scroll by the still frame of the video as fast as I can to avoid having yet another blueish-purple face to contribute to my nightmares, I do pause to read the comments. Some of them anyways. There are only just so many times I can read, “Another dumb junkie,” or “There’s a life not worth saving,” and “Let them die,” or the myriad of other comments degrading a person before I feel overwhelmed with sadness over the ignorance and lack of empathy that exists.

For those who will argue and say, people need to see this, they need to see the reality of the disease, and they need to see what will happen; I say, exercising listening skills, compassion and reducing the stigma will have a much greater impact. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, I don’t think posting a graphic video of a person overdosing on your Facebook page is going to lead a single heroin-addicted person to feel comfortable to ask you for help, probably not even your own child, if they need help.

Posting an article about the disease of addiction, a compassionate message for those who are struggling or a beautiful tribute video, might.

As an advocate for change, I have said many times, every great movement’s tipping point came when those who were not directly affected by an injustice joined forces with those who were. In my nightmares, most people around me are oblivious to the person dying. Life is all around, people are continuing with their activities, laughter and conversation while someone is dying and only one person is trying to save them. No one joins in, everyone else goes on with their activities.

In my dream for the future, not one person will grab a phone to video the scene and use it to humiliate or "inform" others, they will drop what they are doing immediately to help save the person. They will understand that person suffers from a disease, they will reach out to support them and the family and ask questions like, "Why aren’t we providing adequate treatment to those who need it? What can I do to help?"

Alexis Pleus is an engineer, artist, writer and community activist. Most importantly, she is the mother of three sons, one of whom she could not save.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Alexis Pleus is the Founder and Executive Director of Truth Pharm. In addition, she serves on the National Action Committee for “Facing Addiction” assisting in developing their advocacy and action agenda. Alexis is a licensed professional engineer with over 25 years of experience in the design and construction industry and was an adjunct professor at SUNY Broome in the Civil Engineering Technology program. She developed and provided in-house corporate education at each of her employers and has also taught for the Corporate Education and Continuing Education Program through SUNY Broome at local corporations such as Lockheed and Link. Find Alexis on LinkedIn and Twitter.