The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
Last week, the music industry was rocked by reports that Demi Lovato had been hospitalized. Initial headlines screamed – incorrectly – that the star had overdosed on heroin, and a slew of intrusive, sensationalist stories quickly followed. Unsurprisingly, TMZ led the charge by first reporting that the star’s apparent overdose had followed an “all-night party;” just days later, the site uncritically shared a statement made by interventionist Jeff VanVonderen who essentially blamed Lovato for her overdose. The Daily Mail penned a similarly speculative news piece, while US Weekly zeroed in on the star’s love life by hinting that hospital visits made by her ex Wilmer Valderrama could signal a reunion.
In the midst of this chaos, Lovato’s rep was forced to release an official statement in response to coverage by US Weekly. Not only did the brief quote state that Lovato was “awake” and that her family were grateful for the support she had received from fans, the statement also contained a telling request: “They respectfully ask for privacy and not speculation, as [Lovato’s] health and recovery is the most important thing right now.”
Lovato’s vicarious plea for privacy reveals an unsavory truth – that the media is actively exacerbating the problem. Contextually, the star has long been celebrated for opening up about her struggles with mental health and previous battles with addiction; just months ago, she made headlines for seemingly admitting to a relapse in surprise single “Sober.” Confessions like these are crucial, as they raise awareness of important issues. More importantly, the star was able to discuss the issues on her own terms by working the admission into her art.
Now, things are different. The stories surrounding her hospitalization are entirely out of her control and lacking any input from the star herself, and media outlets are abusing these facts by treating her hospitalization as a salacious news story as opposed to a catalyst for vital conversations.
Karen Tyrell, a spokesperson for leading UK drug and alcohol charity Addaction, states that most journalists cover these stories with the right intentions – but that there’s still a long way to go. Speaking to Highsnobiety, she explains: “Language really matters, and [it] can encourage or dissuade someone from coming forward for help. There are lots of negative words which people use – often unwittingly. In parts of the media, it’s implied that drug or alcohol problems are a personal failing, or that there’s something ‘wrong’ with someone who’s got dependency issues.”
This stigma described by Tyrell is pervasive, and does little to remedy the fact that a worrying percentage of people suffering with addiction don’t seek help. A recent US study revealed that 20.8 million respondents met the criteria for substance use disorder, yet just 2.2 million respondents actually received any type of treatment. Healthcare costs obviously contribute heavily to this disparity in the US, but the role of stigma can’t be underestimated. In the UK, funding is being slashed as addiction-related deaths continue to rise, a fact which underlines the importance of writing sensitively about the issues; after all, treatment relies on admission of a problem, and these confessions are being made to feel more and more scary by the insidious rhetoric around addiction.
At the heart of the problem is what Tyrell describes as a “blame culture around drug and alcohol abuse issues. We know from 50 years in this area that there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with someone who has dependency issues. Everyone, including people in the public eye, deserves respect and empathy. Nobody is immune, it’s not a failing. It can happen to anyone; nobody is hardwired, and everyone can recover with the right support.”
Unfortunately, celebrities are all too often refused this respect. Incidentally, last week also marked the eight-year anniversary of the death of Amy Winehouse, a woman who was intensely vilified by the media for her own well-documented struggles. Harrowing 2015 documentary Amy shows that fame-hungry paparazzi hounded her for photos and stripped her right to privacy, while a record label hellbent on making money from the star left it basically impossible for her to take time off. Her fans didn’t exactly help, either – in one scene, a audience member films a silent Winehouse at a concert, screaming “sing or give me my money back!” She had checked out of rehab just three weeks earlier.
The point here isn’t to draw parallels between Winehouse and Lovato, it’s to highlight that the music industry, fans, and the media play a vital role when it comes to artists struggling with addiction. Sean Paul recently explained the pressures that the industry puts on artists; in the past, Noisey has written extensively about music and mental health. We’re failing artists by prying into their private lives, and the gossip-fueled corners of the media are undeniably wreaking havoc by basically blaming Lovato for her relapse.
“There’s still a lot of shame and guilt around substance issues, but our experience is that, in families and in circles of friends, people really want to help and support you,” explains Tyrell. She urges anybody struggling similar issues to “reach out and ask for help,” and reiterates that there’s no right or wrong way to do so. “Maybe you can talk to a close friend, or someone who’s been through similar issues in the past. Or you might want to discuss it with your family before taking the next step. Services like ours have a free and confidential web chat where you can talk to someone about what you’re going through.”
These details are often lacking from media coverage, but they’re essential. Lovato’s choice to be open and honest about her struggles in the past has made her a vital role model for fans worldwide battling similar issues, but it’s important to allow the star space to recover. To report on her ‘all-night parties’ and speculate on her love life while simultaneously erasing discussions of addiction is irresponsible, as is the uncritical publication of a statement which implies that Lovato is to blame for her own relapse. In a week which saw an outpouring of grief for Winehouse as well as anger at the media outlets quick to cruelly insult her, it’s worth remembering the lessons we all should have learned to ensure that Lovato isn’t met with the same nasty, sensationalist coverage.
More importantly, if you’re facing similar issues it’s crucial to remember that the stigma is unjustifiable, and that seeking treatment can save lives. In Tyrell’s words: “The important thing is to start the conversation, and don’t be afraid to say you’re struggling.”
For more like this, read our op-ed on why the abundance of sober celebrities point toward a shift away from drinking culture.