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Drug Overdoses Turn Up on Facebook and in Obituaries, Defying Stigma

Amid a U.S. epidemic, parents and loved ones are honoring their dead with honesty and warning their neighbors of the cost of addiction.

Drug addicts in recovery at a substance abuse treatment center in Westborough, Mass., last March.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

After the drug overdose of her niece's boyfriend, Jennifer Hodge returned to her Suwanee, Georgia, home late one night last fall to find her own 23-year-old son, Robbie, on the bathroom floor, also suffering from an apparent overdose.

She rushed him to the hospital, where doctors were able to revive his heart, though he remained unconscious. From her son's bedside, Hodge did something tens of millions of Americans do every day. She posted on Facebook.

"If you are struggling with addiction or are a parent struggling with your children, please come see me today," she wrote. "I feel the need to share with you so you may never feel this pain."

The post included a video of Robbie, smiling, as his mother asks him to promise not to use and he says he'll call her every day. Next to it, a photo of him in the hospital bed, unconscious.

Since being posted, Hodge's message has been shared nearly 5,000 times and has collected more than a thousand comments. People even started showing up at the hospital. 

Robbie died shortly after that, in early December, becoming another victim of the nation's drug epidemic. In 2015, more than 52,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of a steady but stark increase over the past 10 years. In 2005, it was just under 30,000. In Georgia alone in 2015, drugs claimed more than 1,300 lives.

"Our community needed someone to speak up," Hodge says. 

With her post, Hodge became part of a small but growing community of parents and loved ones who are sharing their families' struggles with addiction publicly, in hopes of reducing the stigma attached to it. Families typically memorialize deaths from addiction euphemistically, saying in obituaries that the person died "suddenly" or "unexpectedly." But raw honesty is becoming increasingly prevalent.

The shift is apparent, says Katie Falzone, vice president of operations at Legacy.com, a website that publishes obituaries collected from more than 1,500 newspapers and 3,500 funeral homes around the world. A search of the site's database shows that the words "overdose" and "addict" appeared in only one obituary in 2007 but were found in 68 obituaries in 2016. Obits that speak plainly of addiction remain a fraction of Legacy.com's huge vault of death notices and life stories, but the increase of nearly 700% took place as overall obituary volume on the site was climbing by a much smaller 44%. 

"Families of addicts have been sharing their struggles as a cautionary tale, hoping to save others the same heartache," Falzone says. 

Recovering addicts are also sharing their stories with the world, building a supportive online community of strangers facing similar struggles. The hashtag #soberlife was included in nearly 33,000 Instagram posts in 2015, and #sobriety was in more than 19,000, according to Recovery.org, a website aimed at connecting people with information to help with substance abuse.

"Seeking treatment is brave," the website says. "There should be no shame felt in finding oneself in a situation where help is needed." Still, stigma remains a major barrier to seeking out help, as a 2012 systematic review of stigma research noted. 

That has become a focal point for some anti-addiction advocates because, they say, it is often what stops people from getting the help they need. Gary Mendell, chief executive officer and the founder of Shatterproof, a national drug awareness nonprofit, says it was the stigma of addiction, not the drugs themselves, that drove his son to take his own life. Though he sent his son to rehabilitation programs, Mendell says, he blamed him for his disease. Among Shatterproof's top goals is removing shame from the equation.

Hodge also sees a problem with rehabilitation programs. "The rehabs continuously block [the addicts] from the public, so automatically they feel less than," she says. "I think that's building shame." The conversations on her Facebook post, she says, have come from people all over the world, a sign that the stigma is slowly falling away and that talking publicly is helpful.

At this point, Mendell says, there is no direct evidence that honest obituaries reduce shame, adding that research into addiction, and its stigma, is sorely underfunded. But he believes, "just intuitively," that the trend inevitably will have an impact. 

"I was not empathetic," Mendell says of his attitude toward his son. "I never hugged him and said, 'This has to be hard for you.' I was trained by the entire world that he wasn't trying hard enough." 

--With assistance from Yvette Romero

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