Ten Years Later: Heath Ledger’s Accidental Overdose Death Viewed Differently

By Kelly Burch 01/24/18

In the decade since Ledger's death, opioid overdoses have become alarmingly common.

Heath Ledger

A decade after he overdosed on January 22, 2008, Heath Ledger’s death can now be seen as one of the first well-publicized casualties of the opioid epidemic.

Ledger was found with many prescription drugs in his system, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam and alprazolam, according to a recent op-ed in the Huffington Post. Headlines claimed that the actor had died of a “prescription drug overdose,” an idea that still seemed foreign to many Americans, who trusted doctors to know best when it came to prescribing powerful medications. 

In the 10 years since, overdoses of prescription pills have become alarmingly common. Not only have prescription drugs killed tens of thousands of Americans per year, they’ve also claimed more high-profile individuals in the entertainment industry including Michael Jackson in 2009, Prince in 2016, and Tom Petty last October. 

Recently an autopsy report showed that Petty had fentanyl, oxycodone and other prescription drugs in his system. The singer’s family was blunt about the dangers of prescription drugs.

“As a family we recognize this report may spark a further discussion on the opioid crisis and we feel that it is a healthy and necessary discussion and we hope in some way this report can save lives. Many people who overdose begin with a legitimate injury or simply do not understand the potency and deadly nature of these medications,” the family said in a statement posted online. 

Of course, Ledger’s was not the first death caused by prescription opioids. Data from the CDC showed that Ledger’s death came during a time when opioid-related overdoses were beginning to sharply rise

In 2015, Ledger's father, Kim Ledger, said, “Heath’s accidental death serves as a caution to the hidden dangers of combining prescription medication.”

Kim Ledger went on to support organizations that educate people on the risks of prescription medications, and he has advocated for prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) aimed at reducing doctor shopping.

In 2015 he pointed out that there was no monitoring system in Australia, where he lived. “So you can literally go from one doctor to the next in Australia and build up an armory of pills,” he said. The government has since dedicated funding to establishing a national prescription monitoring program. 

In the United States, PDMPs have become much more common in the decade since Ledger died, with many states requiring doctors and pharmacies to use them. 

Like thousands of families across the globe, the Ledger family still mourns the loss of a child who died much too young. 

“Losing a child is something that never leaves you,” Kim Ledger said in 2016. “You can live with the pain, but it never leaves you."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.