- - Thursday, November 22, 2018

Addiction-themed movies like “Beautiful Boy” and the upcoming “Ben is Back” won’t make a fraction of what “Bohemian Rhapsody” or the latest Harry Potter prequel earn.

But they might do something more substantial: Specialists in treating addicts say those stories could influence the way we view both addiction and the families torn apart by the condition.

Accurate portrayals of addiction not only sway public opinion but also reduce the stigma on these issues, says Dr. Drew Pinsky, an addiction medicine specialist and host of “Dr. Drew Midday Live” on Talk Radio 790/KABC in Los Angeles and on KGO 810 in San Francisco.

People can learn from well-written stories more than lectures or PowerPoint presentations, he says, although he worries about the accuracy of the information shared in some Hollywood tales.

One of the signature parts of Dr. Pinsky’s career in media, which includes co-hosting radio’s “Loveline” program and speaking out on breaking news, is that he helps disseminate information about addiction and mental health issues.

It’s one reason he headlined VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” a long-running reality show revealing addiction’s many faces. Several “Rehab” alums, including actor Jeff Conaway and singer Mindy McCready, subsequently died because of complications from addiction, underling the fragile nature of recovery.

It’s why ABC-TV could use an opioids storyline to explain the recent death of character Roseanne Conner in “The Conners,” the “Roseanne” spinoff that debuted last month. Enough Americans understand the gravity of addiction and the growing problem surrounding opioids, Dr. Pinsky says.

Hollywood often puts big money behind movies to try to sway the public’s perspective on hot button political issues — think “Miss Sloane” (gun control), “The Campaign” (big money in politics) and “Promised Land” (fracking) — then along comes a pair of indie films and suddenly there’s hope in the medical community that more people will understand the horrors of addiction.

That hope motivated the creator of “Ben Is Back,” starring Oscar winner Julia Roberts and rising star Lucas Hedges of “Manchester By the Sea” fame.

Mr. Hedges’ father, Peter Hedges, wrote and directed the film about a young man’s dramatic return home following a stint in rehab. Peter Hedges doesn’t think a single film can directly impact the culture. Several media projects just might, though.

“I came of age as a playwright in the ‘80s in New York during the AIDS epidemic,” Mr. Hedges said, noting that Larry Kramer’s stage plays “The Normal Heart” and “Just Say No, A Play about a Farce” were alerting audiences to the deadly disease.

“No one play or playwright could address the enormity of the crisis,” Mr. Hedges said. “The same thing is true here. The best thing is to bring our best work to the table and hope that it’s part of a larger conversation.”

Dr. Tom Doub, chief clinical director at the American Addiction Centers in Brentwood, Tennessee, says Hollywood’s treatment of opioid abuse, up until recently, often has taken a superficial look at the problem. Some screenwriters have employed drugs as fodder for jokes or pat character details, he says.

“The sensationalized imagery associated with addiction does everyone a disservice,” said Dr. Doub, adding that “Beautiful Boy,” starring Steve Carell as the father of an addicted teen (Timothee Chalamet), avoids that path.

A drug addict “can be anyone, and they don’t deserve to be placed in the same box as a repeated caricature,” he said. “They need understanding, and more importantly, they need help.”

The public, he said, is more willing to process these portrayals “because addiction hits home to a lot more people than it did a decade ago … there likely aren’t many degrees of separation between the average person and the disease.”

Christopher J. Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University, agrees, saying it’s no accident that films like “Beautiful Boy” and “Ben Is Back” are hitting theaters now.

“Hollywood and TV tend to follow rather than create social trends in most cases,” Mr. Ferguson said. “So I think we’re seeing some films addressing this now because it is very much in the public consciousness.”

Mr. Ferguson is less optimistic that these stories have a positive impact on the culture.

“Movies can be a good place to start discussions, but they are rarely change agents for either good or evil in their own right,” he said, pointing to his university’s own contribution to a study on youth smoking.

The study found that smoking in films has a “negligible impact” on how much teens smoke, he said. “So sometimes we tend to exaggerate the power of fictional media.”

Dr. Brent Boyette is a board-certified addiction-medicine specialist and the chief medical officer at the addiction treatment facility Pathway Healthcare in Birmingham, Alabama. He, says movies such as “Beautiful Boy” illustrate how common, and random, addiction can be.

The Roseanne character’s death wasn’t an aberration. It’s commonplace, said Dr. Boyette, who cheers on media projects willing to destigmatize addiction.

Dr. Pinsky insists the media can play a role in helping us understand addiction, recovery and the insidious nature of drug use.

“The way we get people to change their behaviors is through narratives,” Dr. Pinsky said, pointing to teen pregnancy as a recent example. “We show people getting pregnant on TV [like MTV’s ‘16 and Pregnant’] and how horrible their lives are … and they get the message.”

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