Journalists, the media and the opioid epidemic


It’s very rare you read the news and don’t see a story about opioids. Overdose rates are rising all the time and the media covers it as a result, often referring to it as the ‘opioid epidemic’. We know most journalists covering this genre of news want to get the story right, and we also know that when it comes to addiction, there’s a lot to consider. 


Sometimes, scientists don’t convey findings as clearly as they could and a long tradition of shaming people struggling with addiction makes it less likely that addiction is talked about as the public-health crisis and a disease and instead as a moral failing on behalf of the individual. 


We wanted to pull together this article to support journalists in Teesside and beyond to utilise when writing about opioids; here’s four facts you should know:


  1. Long-term opioid use causes changes in the brain

To some it is confusing why people continue to misuse substances even as their lives fall apart, but once you learn how opioid use changes the way that the brain functions, it makes much more sense. Opioid drugs flood the brain with pleasure-causing and pain-reducing chemical signals. This makes these drugs effective for short-term pain relief however, over time the brain adapts to the chemicals and reduces the amount of chemicals it releases on its own. As a result, someone who uses opioids will need these drugs to feel normal - without them, the brain’s balance is disrupted and painful withdrawal sets in. Acknowledging this biological underpinning goes a long way to helping the public understand how addiction works and that it is not a flaw of character.



  1. Opioid addiction has highly effective treatments

In the media, medication-assisted treatments are rarely mentioned, despite scientific consensus. These medications target the biological basis of opioid addiction, helping to overcome the chemical dependency and reduce the impact of withdrawal. Starting a journey into recovery is less about ‘willpower’ and ‘strength of character’ and more about accessing the right support for each individual. If the media reported these treatments, the gap in the provision and access to treatment services would be further recognised and supported. 


  1. The goal of addiction treatment is to restore a person’s ability to achieve their full potential and to live their best lives

This might seem obvious, but this goal isn’t something the media tends to focus on. Phrases like ‘getting clean’ only serve to suggest that before recovery people were ‘dirty’ and that if someone isn’t abstinent then recovery isn’t complete. In fact, many chronic illnesses (e.g. ongoing insulin treatment for diabetes) receive ongoing treatment and to continue with medication-assisted treatment doesn’t make recovery any less valuable. For the press to focus on functioning addiction recovery rather than abstinence alone would be a triumph. 


‘Any treatment which allows a person to work, raise a family, fulfill social roles without impairment, and of course stay alive, should be welcomed and applauded.’ - CJR.org


  1. A person with an addiction is not ‘an addict’

In society we have stopped calling people with schizophrenia ‘schizophrenics’ or people with leprosy ‘lepers’ - people with illnesses are people first. People with emotions, aspirations, families and lives. 


Some people with addictions refer to themselves as addicts - this is their right and we should respect that, it is common with societal norms.


However, the word addict carries huge negative connotations, and the press should make a conscious effort to try and not label people who are struggling. For people reading the media, a single word can dehumanise and stigmatise some of the most vulnerable members of society.


Overall, the fact that the media covers the rising nature of addiction at all should be congratulated - it was hidden for decades and outlets often shied away from talking about it to the public. We hope that you’ll find these facts helpful, and utilise them in future article writing. We welcome the opportunity to talk to journalists about how appropriate framing, compassion and context, informed by scientific evidence, can change the way we talk about addiction for the better.


If you’d like to chat further, call us on 01642 351976 and ask for our Marketing and Communications Officer.