January 30, 2017
The photo was shocking. A man and a woman lay incapacitated in the front seat of a parked car as the woman’s four-year-old grandson sits in the back still strapped into his car seat.
Police in East Liverpool, Ohio, took the photo last summer after they found James Acord and Rhonda Pasek unconscious outside a McDonald’s restaurant. The pair had overdosed on heroin and officers administered the lifesaving drug, Narcan, to revive them.
Authorities quickly put the child in protective custody, but the story didn’t end there. After the incident, police published the photo on social media, leading some to accuse the department of publicly shaming the couple and the child.
As heroin use skyrockets across the country, addicts are increasingly coming into public view. No longer behind closed doors, overdoses and other effects of heroin use are increasingly being documented in photos, videos, and live streams on social media and elsewhere.
East Liverpool Police said they published the photo as a public service to show people the reality of the heroin epidemic. However, others are skeptical of the tactic because the addicts in these photos and videos are often more the subject of ridicule than concern.
“The actions of the East Liverpool Police Department were incredibly insensitive. They were also morally repugnant,” Journalist Seth Mnookin wrote in an opinion piece for Stat News.
“There’s been a lot of research since then devoted to effective methods for curtailing illegal drug use and treating drug abuse. Publicly shaming drug users or bullying those most in need of help isn’t one of them.”
While many think these tough techniques will encourage addicts to hit “rock-bottom” and seek help, others say public shaming could make an addiction worse.
“The stigma associated with addiction can discourage people from coming forward to seek treatment,” Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at Harvard’s public health school, told the Huffington Post in October.
“Millions of people who need treatment are not receiving it,” he said. “Reasons for not seeking treatment include the fear of negative reactions from neighbors, community members, and employers.”
The Baltimore-based ThatGuysOnHeroin.com is one of many websites that collect photos of heroin addicts passed out in public. The “junkies”’ are ranked on an “inebriation scale” of one to five, and the captions often mock them.
A picture of two women holding each other up, presumably after doing heroin, is captioned: “This is true friendship which will never be broken… until one of them stabs the other over H later this week.”
ThatGuysOnHeroin.com can be profane and cruel. However, at least one former addict has written into the site, thanking the anonymous creator.
“As a recovering addict who used to look like this … it makes me grateful that it doesn’t have to be like this anymore,” he wrote.
Sometimes the publicity can lead to positive changes. In October, a middle-aged couple was captured on video passing out on a sidewalk in Memphis. The video became a viral hit on Facebook with millions of views.
While many of the online comments were mean-spirited, the Tennessee couple’s embarrassing time in the spotlight had a happy ending. The man’s estranged daughter reached out to him for the first time in 10 years, urging the couple to get help. Ronald Hiers told a local CBS station he and his wife Carla are getting treatment–the first time either of them has entered a drug rehab.
Hiers told CNN that he held no ill-will toward the man who filmed the video, but he did wish people would be more empathetic toward people who struggle with addiction.
“I am a son. A husband. A brother. A grandfather. A father. I’m a human being,” Hiers told CNN. “That’s what so many people missed about it. Those were two human beings.”
Carla Hiers called the incident a “wake-up call” in a statement released by her Massachusetts treatment center.
“I am very optimistic about my recovery, and feel like God has reached down and pulled me out of a very dangerous situation,” Carla Hiers said the statement. “Since the video surfaced, I’ve learned that I can trust people, something I never did before. … I don’t feel hopeless, worthless and useless anymore.”