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3 TV Shows that Touch on Drugs, Addiction, & Mental Illness

tv shows about addiction

Studies show that drinking is often “naturalized” on television, and that drugs are often “glamorized” in media depictions. Time and time again, we’ve seen TV characters binge drinking, getting high, selling drugs, all without consequence. In the past, many TV shows have tried to touch on the topic of drug addiction, but quickly fell short of getting it right – a character becomes an alcoholic, then by season 2, his alcoholism goes away. Very rarely did TV shows of the past get to the heart of the addiction journey.

Yet as more Americans grow aware of the growing opioid epidemic, and as more of us see the damaging effects of mental health disorders, we also can see that many television series are catching up. Some TV shows about drugs and addiction – such as the three below – actually get (most of) the picture right.

1.  This is Us on NBC

NBC’s hit television series, This is Us, is celebrated for its accurate, honest, and emotional portrayal of many sensitive, complex, yet everyday issues. In addition to touching on topics like adoption, eating disorders, and death in the family, the show also brings new light to substance addiction and mental health disorders – two issues that are constantly surrounding us, yet that are not always talked about.

Season 2 of This is Us ended just a few weeks back, but we are still thinking about how Kevin Pearson’s addiction story unfolded in those final episodes.

Kevin Pearson – an actor, a brother, and a son – landed a new stage role at the beginning of Season 2, and while on set, re-exacerbated an old knee injury. As episodes progress, we see Kevin slip into a Vicodin addiction in attempts to manage his pain (and, much of the time, we want to scream at the TV for all the glaring signs of addiction that Kevin misses along the way). He is sinks into bouts of depression, he steals a prescription slip from a doctor’s pad, and is always reaching for a bottle of pills or a bottle of booze to cope. We saw him hide his painkiller problem from his loved ones (a common sign of opioid addiction) and postpone seeking help. And, by the season finale, we saw him get arrested for driving under the influence.

Justin Hartley, who plays Kevin Pearson on This is Us, says of his portrayal of addiction, “I wanted to make sure that we told a story that was honest and true, especially because this is something that people deal with a lot… It’s very dangerous. You can lose your wealth, you can lose your friends, you can lose your trust, you can lose your dignity, you can lose everything. We didn’t want to just tell a drug story real quick and then just wrap it up in a bow.” They wanted to show the journey.

This is Us also brings genetics and family history into Kevin’s storyline. In Episode 12 of Season 2, the Pearson family attends a therapy session where Kevin tries to confront the root of his addiction – his genes. His father was an alcoholic, his father’s father had a drinking problem, and his sister has a food addiction. While the therapy session was portrayed dramatically, the issues presented were very real, the involvement of the family was very real, and both ring true for those with addiction in the family.

2.   Shameless on Showtime

Showtime’s Shameless is dark, dramatic, unconventional, and hilarious all the same. The TV series crosses new boundaries as it follows the dysfunctional and often self-destructive Gallagher family – with the shadow of drug addiction impeding each family member throughout the show’s plotline.

Frank Gallagher is a father of six, an active drinker and drug user, and all too often, he lets the two roles intertwine. Time and time again, we see Frank’s addictions affect the lives of his children. He is not the father figure they need; he is ruthless, uncaring, living life on the edge, and will do just about anything to get high or get rich. He obliterates his family’s hopes and expectations for a functioning parent. Yet they accept him and his lifestyle wholeheartedly. They do not intervene; they do not push him to seek help. In later seasons, we even see them start to develop addictive behaviors and drug problems themselves.

In our recent blog post about help for families of addicts, we talked about the fact that addiction affects the entire family – emotionally, mentally, financially. We also know that exposure to addiction – such as an addicted parent – in childhood can put a person at higher risk for a substance use disorder down the road. These are two facts that are explored again and again in Shameless, as his daughter Fiona dabbles with cocaine (and runs into legal issues) and son Lip gets kicked out of school and sent to drug rehab.

Being a comedic series, Shameless definitely walks a fine line between the implausible and reality. Yet it does so successfully. Shameless brings the issue of addiction in the family to light. It also gives us a new perspective on the compulsive behaviors and unyielding attitudes that addicts often go through—like Frank’s callous ability to blow the insurance money his family received (after their house set fire) on rounds of alcohol and a new Porsche.

Shameless also touches on mental health. In addition to Frank’s clear battles with substance addiction, we also see his ex-wife Monica struggle with co-occurring disorders— bipolar disorder and addiction. As their storyline develops, Frank’s son Ian also develops bipolar disorder, yet uses it to help others.

3.   The Trade on Showtime

The Trade is a brand-new, five-episode series that began and ended in early 2018. The documentary series was introduced to shed light on the current opioid epidemic sweeping our country, and offers real-life accounts from all sides of America’s opioid crisis – the growers, the consumers and addicts, the cartel bosses, and law enforcement. In just five episodes, you get to know a mother who is investigated for selling opioid drugs, and her child who is taken away. You get to know the farmers in Guerrero, Mexico who harvest poppy resin – and you hear what they have to say about their labor and role in the crisis. You get to know the addicted persons that desire to stop using, that attempt to get clean, that relapse. You get to know them all.

The Trade gives us an accurate portrayal of the rise of heroin addiction and the effect that it can have in people’s lives – all that are involved. What’s missing, however, is the connection between the rise of heroin and the rise of pharmaceutical opioid drug addiction.

Television does not always get addiction right, but there are times that it does. For some that are in recovery, these shows can be hard to watch. It can be hard to be reminded of drug abuse for those that are now sober. However, for those who have loved ones in recovery – for those who know someone struggling with drug use, addiction, and/or mental health – these shows can actually educate us. They give us the opportunity to step outside our own experiences and knowledge of drug addiction, and to see it from another light. They give us the opportunity to talk about drugs and addiction in our homes and with our friends and family members. TV shows about drugs and addiction are, in a way, resources that can inspire meaningful and thoughtful conversations about the dangers of substance abuse.

For more information on drug addiction and mental health, or to help your loved one into recovery, please do not hesitate to contact Turnbridge. We are a young adult rehab center focused on helping young men and women through addictive and co-occurring disorders. We are here for you.