Public attitudes towards drugs are shaped by many things, including high-profile celebrity encounters with drugs and addiction. One unfortunate example of this involves popular Canadian actor Cory Monteith, who was found dead in a Vancouver hotel last weekend, with a combination of heroin and alcohol in his body.
Monteith played a high-school football jock-cum-choirboy on the popular television program Glee. His character embodied, exposed and challenged the narrow subject positions and stereotypes that adolescents often face in high school.
In death, Monteith continues to expose narrow subject positions and stereotypes, this time pertaining to drugs.
When Monteith’s death was announced, it was met by an immediate outpouring of public grief. As fans and media sought an explanation for what had taken place, most of the attention focused on Monteith’s “troubled life” and “dark past”.
Why the trouble?
Although he had previously admitted to substance use and attended rehab, colleagues believed Monteith had stopped taking drugs. Josh C. Waller, who directed a film Monteith completed before his death said, “I never would have suspected anything was wrong.”
This notion – that something must have been wrong for Monteith to have taken drugs – has appeared elsewhere. In Rolling Stone magazine, Erik Hedegaard described him as a “guy with an unhappy past that bedeviled him to the end”.
In The Age, Ben Pobjie’s article Why Cory Monteith deserved a happier ending lamented:
Sadly, [his Glee character] Finn and Cory were not the same person … in real life it’s never as easy as on TV – and that as well as we knew Finn, we didn’t ever know Cory.
Unfortunately, these well-meaning attempts to understand Monteith’s drug use, addiction and death are deeply problematic. Especially the assumption that people who use drugs and develop addictions are fundamentally troubled and dysfunctional.
This simplistic narrative is often compounded when high-profile celebrities such as Monteith, or Heath Ledger and Amy Winehouse before him, die alone. The idea of popular celebrities meeting a lonely demise conjures up notions of tragedy, isolation and despair.
In so doing, it reinforces the idea that drug use leading to overdose must always be accompanied by deep-seated trauma. It’s a neat explanation for these sudden deaths but one that should trouble us.
Although drug use and overdose may sometimes be preceded by psychological pain, it isn’t always so. People who take drugs form a very diverse population.
Importantly, not all drug users or even addicts experience themselves as sick, dysfunctional or troubled. Indeed, the “troubled addict” is a narrow stereotype that has parallels with those Monteith’s character both embodied and resisted in Glee.
Of more concern though, is the notion of the “troubled” addict because it lends an air of inevitability to fatal overdoses. We need to challenge this.
Monteith’s death has been characterised by the coroner’s service and others as just a “sad and tragic accident”. To speak in this way is to imply that nothing could have been done to prevent it.
The reality is that overdoses are the product of a complex constellation of factors including laws that prohibit drug use, the lack of treatment options for people who want help for their substance use, and the absence of medically-supervised consumption facilities that play an important role in preventing fatal overdoses.
CNN recently reported that an overdose death occurs every 19 minutes in the United States. According to Australian harm-reduction expert Alex Wodak, medically-supervised drug consumption facilities are an important way to minimise risks and prevent such deaths, but the idea struggles to gain political support.
It just so happens that Canadians have been engaged in vigorous debate about the need for such facilities in recent weeks.
Many in favour of a harm-reduction approach have called for a facility in Toronto. It would be the second one in Canada but proponents continue to face resistance.
Cory Monteith was just 31 years old when he died. There can be no doubt that he “deserved a happier ending” as Pobjie suggests. But perhaps a more important question might be whether his death could have been avoided altogether.
Simplistic accounts do little to help us understand the complexity of drug use and the overdose phenomenon. And they divert attention from practical measures that could reduce the harms associated with drug use.