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How the Media Portrays Substance Use Disorder – The Good, Bad, and Honest

August 11, 2021
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Addiction Portrayal in the Media

I never really thought about the influence of the media on addiction and alcoholism until I started  my own journey of recovery. In fact, it is nearly impossible to spend an evening watching TV without seeing or hearing drugs or alcohol being referenced or used. When driving in your car, regardless of what genre you listen to, you’ll most likely hear a song alluding to drug or alcohol use on your daily commute. Media can influence many different aspects of our lives. I grew up in the 70’s with “Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll” being the theme!

Media can raise awareness of certain issues, but it also has the power to further drive stereotypes that can negatively impact others. The media’s influence on how addiction is viewed in the real world can influence how others treat individuals who deal with the real-life struggle of living with a substance use disorder.

The Power of Media

Unless asked to look at the power of media in retrospect, not many of us take a step back to consider just how influenced we can be. The media has long impacted our society and culture. This impact has only grown stronger with the increase of technology. In the past, media was more controlled, select newspapers, radio stations, TV channels. There was only so much influence and information that could be accessed at one time. Those days are long gone. Today, the media has endless amounts of ways in which to reach society. Social media has made this even easier, but the most consistent influence of the media is through our music, television, and movies. One common theme in music, television, and movies is alcohol and substance abuse.

Substance Abuse Portrayal in the Media

Substance abuse has been casually displayed and, in some cases, glorified by the entertainment industry. This isn’t too shocking when we consider how ingrained substances have become in our culture. Drugs and alcohol play major roles in many of the cultural activities that define us. Think of how many movies and TV shows have people smoking?  The media we watch has influence.  Many could never picture a sporting event without tailgating in the parking lot and drinking down ice cold beer. Major celebrations call for alcohol, including weddings, birthdays, and major holidays. In recent years, diaper-keg parties have grown in popularity for expecting couples.

Media can both influence and maintain influences created by others. Media has the power to make substance use seem commonplace and even expected. This can create many common misconceptions that can be carried into the real world. This can have both positive and negative repercussions.

Negative Impact Media has on Substance Abuse

Negative Impact Media has on Substance Abuse

When it comes to drugs and alcohol, the entertainment industry has the power to shine them in both positive and negative light. The greatest power the Media has is providing consistent and reliable character development and plot points. As a society, we have certain set understandings of who the hero is, the villain, and the personality type that comes with these roles. While every show or movie needs its own plot twists, there is a general understanding of the narrative arch in which these characters will grow and develop.

With the high use of drugs and alcohol in the media, that means we also get many instances of drugs and alcohol addicts. Through this, television and film have created a common man’s view of drug addiction and alcoholism. Think about it, when you’ve seen someone on TV or in a movie struggling with addiction, what are they like? Are they reaching their rock bottom? Going through a divorce or losing custody of their kids? Are they unreliable? Someone to pity? This is a common representation of what substance addiction looks like, and it couldn’t be further from the truth for many real individuals.

Media has been allowed to portray addiction as a homogenous experience across the board, stripping the true nuances that make it such a different disease to treat and overcome. Because of what we see in TVs and films, many of us have been impacted in the way we view real world individuals. We almost expect that someone struggling from addiction must hit rock bottom and that their life essentially must be destroyed before it can get any better.

This can impact real individuals in a variety of different ways, such as:

  • Adding to the Fear – Admitting that you are struggling with alcohol and substance abuse is the most difficult first step that many must make. Unlike the portrayal the Media often provides, many individuals struggling with addiction aren’t “obvious.” Many are still great friends, loving parents, and dependable co-workers. Many still maintain a career and can hide the darker parts of substance dependency. Since the media helps to facilitate certain stigmas, admitting an addiction can be frightening. Not only does that person have to face their own demons, but they will have to face many stigmas that were shaped through blanket depictions from media.
  • Higher Level of Denial – Just having more than a few drinks over the course of a week is considered a bit much for both men and women. In fact, many individuals are heavy drinkers. These individuals will often be able to make excuses for themselves, largely in part to the different stigmas portrayed in the media. They may drink heavily, but they don’t do this, that, and whatever. They can demonstrate how their substance use doesn’t meet the portrayed look of a person struggling with addiction. This could prevent someone who needs help from seeking help.
  • Rock Bottom – Everyone is familiar with the term rock bottom on some level. This depiction of addiction floods our TV, shaping the misconception that a person can’t seek help or won’t benefit from the help until they are at their absolute lowest. The truth of the matter is that every individual has a different journey, and some can seek help before their life faces any real negative repercussions.

The entertainment industry can shape our understanding of the people and the world around us.

Complex people are simplified down to certain aspects of their life and personality, including those who have a substance addiction. This simplification helps to fuel harmless stereotypes and can lead to unrealistic stigmas against the people we encounter in real life. The use of broad-brush strokes appears too often in public, and it is important we try to educate ourselves against it.

Positive Impact Media Can Have on Addiction Stigma

Media can have a Positive Impact on Addiction Stigma

While there can be several negative impacts caused by the Media, there are also positive impacts that the Media can have when it comes to substance use and recovery. Some shows and films strive to make their portrayal more realistic and less fueled by the need for drama. These shows can give a truer look into how real people deal with these issues. This can help watchers better understand and be wary of misconceptions they may have gained through more generalized aspects of entertainment.

Best Movies and TV Shows About Addiction and Alcoholism

Many shows and movies strive to show the complex nature of dealing with a substance addiction. They allow the character to be more than just a carbon copy of what is expected.

Some great examples of this include:

A Star is Born

Recently remade for the third time, this story revolves around a fading rock star who falls in love with a rising star. His addiction becomes apparent early on, many of his shows becoming canceled, his growing undependability to the people around him, and his growing bitterness towards his aspiring wife. The movie highlights both the lows and the highs of their relationship and the impact that his addiction had on his world.

The Lost Weekend

When it comes to addiction portrayed in film, this movie is usually one of the first to be referenced. This story follows a writer named Don Birnam, who has struggled with alcohol addiction for years. It focuses on one weekend of his life where he is seen drinking alone in bars, hiding stashes of alcohol in his home, and even pawning his girlfriend’s coat that played an important role in their early romance. He struggles with the meaning of his life, his success as a writer, and his ability to provide for the woman he loves. This once again shows the complex nature of addiction, demonstrating both the highs and lows, as well as the understanding of there being a problem but not understanding how to fix it


Movies aren’t the only aspect of entertainment that can both negatively and positively impact the way we see addiction. Television plays just as crucial of a role. House is a show that was able to provide a more realistic view of addiction. In this show, Dr. House clearly suffers from drug addiction.


While not addiction-focused, this mainstream sitcom wasn’t afraid to tackle serious issues. It reveals the impact a single person struggling with alcohol dependency takes on a family. Though it offers plenty of laughs between challenges, the storylines are honest and insightful.

Although I had never really watched this show myself, a friend sent me this screenshot. Apparently, this was on the screen after the last episode, which- for me- says it all:

“Eight years ago we set out to make a comedy whose central theme was hope.  Hope that recovery from alcoholism and addiction is possible.  Hope that the journey can be filled with love, friendship and laughter.  Hope that people can change, mistakes can be forgiven, and shattered relationships can be healed.  And finally, hope that life, through all its ups and downs, never has to be faced alone.  So that was our goal.  Our not-so-secret agenda.  For one hundred and seventy episodes we wrapped jokes around hope.  On behalf of everyone involved in the making of Mom, thank you for watching. Thank you for your support.  And, most importantly, thank you to all the men and women who have, for generations, carried the message:  There is a solution.”

Chuck Lorre Productions, #673


The Gallaghers are a complex family, to say the least. While this show may incorporate a lot of humor, it also touches on the deep repercussions of alcohol and substance abuse. Many of the family’s problems are tied to the father, Frank. Frank’s alcoholism has led him to lie, steal, and abandon his family on more than one occasion. The viewer sees how this shapes his children and impacts them all differently. This show also highlights the real struggle of those who have both a mental illness and a substance dependency.

Nurse Jackie 

A prime example of how the patient and the caregiver become intertwined, Nurse Jackie offers a glimpse into the world of high-functioning addiction – without glamorizing it.

While these shows are not necessarily uplifting, they give the viewer a more realistic understanding of the complicated nature of addiction. There is no cookie-cutter example of a person struggling with a substance use disorder. A person’s story is complicated, and it is important that media represents this unique experience.

Understanding the Media’s Influence

Understanding the Media’s Influence

For the good or the bad, the ability of the entertainment industry to influence individuals isn’t going anywhere. These storylines have been in existence for years for a reason. We can’t deny that there is always a baseline of truth in these different representations of addiction. What we need to realize is the realistic aspects versus the overly dramatized ones.

Addiction is real; the people dealing with addiction are real, so it is crucial that we don’t allow what isn’t real to shape how we understand and treat those individuals.

The media can often oversimplify a complicated issue that many must deal with daily. Admitting you need help can be hard enough without having to handle stigmas that others have based on what they have seen on TV or in a movie.

Entertainment should be just that, entertaining. Media can also shine helpful light on the true nature of addiction, which is why it is important to formulate your understandings with facts and realistic scenarios.

It is important to remember that you aren’t alone on this journey. If you need help, ask for it. No one was meant to do this all alone.

Stay strong,




James Haggerty

A Time to Heal: Family Interventions offers personalized SUD Interventions, Addiction Recovery Planning, Case Management, Sober Companionship and Family Support. Call 310-450-6627 to connect with us.

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