Horrifying,” “shocking” and “disturbing” are among the words appearing in headlines around the world in response to photos authorities in East Liverpool, Ohio, released last week showing two adults in the midst of a heroin overdose slumped over in their vehicle while a small child sat in the backseat. The city posted the images on Facebook in an effort to drive home the devastating impact of the Ohio heroin epidemic. But to anyone who treats people addicted to opioids such as heroin, fentanyl or prescription painkillers, those photos had zero shock value. “Every number you see represented in the opioid epidemic in this country looks like this couple,” Dr. Drew Pinsky told CNN. “What’s more shocking to me about these pictures is that people are shocked by these pictures. This is business as usual for an opioid addict.” Ohio has been among the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, which claims the lives of 78 people nationwide every day. Just two days after the incident involving the couple in East Liverpool, authorities responded to 24 overdoses in the city of Akron alone. According to the Ohio Department of Health, unintentional drug overdoses caused the deaths of 3,050 Ohio residents in 2015, the highest number on record, compared to 2,531 in 2014. Opioids remained the driving factor behind the overdoses. Among the reasons officials in East Liverpool publicized the photos of the overdosing couple was to “show the other side of this horrible drug,” the Facebook post said. “We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess.” By putting faces to the scourge, the city hoped to jar people out of their complacency and start a community conversation about the toll of opioid abuse with the larger goal of persuading the state to allocate funds for an inpatient treatment center in town.
Rational Thought and Addiction at Odds
They also wanted drug users to think about the collateral damage caused by their addiction. “We are hopeful [the child’s] story can convince another user to think twice about injecting this poison while having a child in their custody.” To be sure, no addict wants to put a child in such a situation. But for someone whose brain has been altered or “hijacked” by opioids, alcohol or other drugs, there’s no “thinking twice.” There’s just one thought, and it’s about getting high again. An addict will risk everything for that next fix. Kathleen McCoy, a chemical dependency specialist at the Counseling Center of Columbiana County in East Liverpool, told the Washington Post that when she looks at the photo of the unconscious couple, she sees a terrible illness. “I have an understanding of how addiction is a disease in the brain; it’s a chronic illness that can be treated,” McCoy said. “So you’re looking at two individuals, in the car with a child. And you’re looking at — once people get addicted, it’s more of a sickness that needs to be treated, versus these are terrible people.”
An Attempt to Shame?
Addiction is indeed a serious illness that requires long-term medical care, the same kind of care afforded to people with other chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Authorities would never publish a photo of a person who fell into a diabetic coma or suffered a heart attack in public, critics of the city say, leading many to believe the photos were used to shame the couple. This comment on East Liverpool’s Facebook page summed up the opinions of many: “People need to be aware of this problem, but public shame is not how we handle this,” one man wrote. “If this photo disgusts or alarms you, please don’t spew insults and shame people who have this condition. Instead, think about how we can foster a society that helps those in need.” Others, however, applauded the decision to release the photos. “I *was* this child and I wish someone had shown my face to the community,” one woman posted. “I wish my community had rallied around me and forced my mother to change so that I would have a chance at life. Stop talking about blurring the child’s face and start talking about how you can help him and children like him. He already feels like he isn’t being seen. He feels like his face is blurred all the time since his parents never look him in the eyes. His teachers try to avoid him because it’s too painful for them. No one listens to him. UNBLUR HIS FACE. SEE HIM.” The city acknowledged the photographs would be offensive to some. But Brian Allen, East Liverpool’s director of public service and safety, said the intent was to shame the government, not the couple. “I completely agree you can’t shame an addict into getting help,” Allen told People magazine. “But I can shame the government into providing help.”