'Instead of dialing 911, they put it on Facebook': Experts say shaming overdose victims doesn't help

Posted at 11:26 AM, Oct 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-14 00:33:16-04

CINCINNATI -- You’ve seen at least one of these posts by now.

Lurid pictures and video depicting the lolling heads, blue lips and splayed-out bodies of real heroin overdose victims have become a new subgenre of viral content in states affected by the ongoing epidemic. They’ve been posted by police departments, family members of victims and bystanders at the scenes of public overdoses, and the arresting quality of these images has made them a magnet for both praise and criticism.

Officials of the City of East Liverpool, Ohio, said they believed the images they posted Sept. 8 -- images depicting grandparents who overdosed with a toddler in the back seat of their car -- were a graphic but necessary gesture to create greater public awareness of the opioid epidemic.

READ: Police take shocking photos of two adults overdosing in car with child in back seat

"We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess," read the Facebook post in which the images were posted. "This child can't speak for himself but we are hopeful his story can convince another user to think twice about injecting this poison while having a child in their custody."

One year ago to the day, police found Julie Bates slumped over the steering wheel of her running car at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Reading Road. Her young son was in the back seat. Bystanders filmed Bates and said "I can not believe it...she overdosed...This is taking over...with her baby...this stupid ass drug."

A few months later, a driver found Rebecca Cooper overdosed in her running car at the AutoZone on Seymour Avenue in Bond Hill. Her child was in the back seat of the car. Police said a "Good Samaritan" found Cooper and her son. He snapped photos from outside the car as he waited for EMTs.

Addiction experts and former heroin users, however, said images such as these can be downright dangerous to the mental and social wellbeing of the people they depict.

"You’re really breaking people down and destroying lives by putting people on video," said Vince Stith, a former heroin user. "To me, it’s just inappropriate. It really makes you wonder what’s more disgusting: people recording people that are just laying there, dying, or people there not getting help. Instead of dialing 911, they put it on Facebook."

The Reverend Thomas Hargis, who works with recovering heroin users through the Jubilee Project, echoed Stith’s statement. The key to helping heroin users is not to scare and stigmatize them, he said, but to create an open, supportive community for recovery. Hargis and Stith work together in Jubilee to do just that.

“Humiliating someone, putting someone in a deeper place of depression, I think, causes people to drive deeper in that hole I think they’re trying to get out of," Hargis said. "So it’s about embracing someone, not as an other, but embracing them as part of our community."

Anita Prater, department director of the Brighton Recovery Center, added that the problem with posting and sharing such images is not just an issue of the psychological impact it will have on the person in those images, but also of the way tactics based on fear and shame misunderstand the nature of addiction.

"It’s not a choice," Prater said. “People don’t wake up one day and say, ‘I want to be a drug addict, I want to rob people, I want to overdose.’ That’s not a choice. They’re being driven by a disease that has affected their brain chemistry."

Stith now mentors others who live with the same struggle he once faced, and he said spreading the word about community resources and recovery programs can be the most helpful thing another person can do for a heroin user in need.

"Scaring people with photos or video is not helping anybody," he said.

WCPO Web Editor Sarah Walsh contributed to this report.