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Whose Death Gets to Be a Tragedy?

On the 19th of December, the Office for National Statistics released its report on 2022 drug-related deaths (DRDs); this report painted a bleak picture of a continuing public health crisis in the UK. DRDs are at their highest levels on record, with 4,907 lives lost, the highest number of deaths since records began in 1993.

Media reporting on the 2022 drug-related death results focused on the ageing cohort of heroin users within Generation X, marking a departure from previous reporting on DRDs. In the UK, particularly in Scotland, media’s historical focus has been overwhelmingly on young girls’ ecstasy deaths. Deaths in “unexpected” groups of people are often what makes the story newsworthy: in the US, attention and action on the opioid crisis was exacerbated especially when it began to impact young and white people.

The recent spotlight on older people using heroin may feel like positive attention given to a highly stigmatised population. However, this emerging narrative seems to be inflicting blame and stigma on them, contrasting sharply with how young people’s deaths are portrayed.

Statistics vs People

In drug policy, protecting young people’s lives is often the priority. This distinction is reflected in the stark contrast of language used to describe the deaths of the two groups: ‘the consequences of addiction’ for older people who use drugs (PWUDs) versus ‘the tragic accidents’ involving younger PWUDs.

As a starting point, the media often represents the ageing cohort through statistics, while individual stories are highlighted for young people.

In the story below, platformed by the British tabloid The Sun, the mother of Louise Unwin was interviewed.

“’Louise’s death was ‘the most terrible shock.'”

Here, Louise’s humanity is important; the focus is on a tragic incident of a loss of life. The article also highlights that “Some seven UK students died in 2021 alone” from ketamine – the same year that 4,852 others had also died from drugs. These stories often portray drug use as an unfortunate aspect of people’s lives, not the defining one: the story highlights pictures from Louise’s childhood, and her mother’s comments on the tragic loss of child-like innocence.

Those who are dying in larger numbers – dependent users – are often given no personality or defining features beyond their addiction.

“Addicts overdosing and walking around like zombies on the street.” (The Telegraph)

The visible nature of their struggles remains central to reporting. Dehumanising language of ‘zombies’ (literally unable to think for themselves) and ‘addicts’ are commonly used.

 

Accident vs Consequence

These two groups, young and old, further diverge in how their incidence of death is described. This difference is illustrated by the Government’s 2017 Drug Strategy.

“A cohort of heroin users getting older, more ill and who are more susceptible to overdose death.”

In contrast, this story from Sky News:

“Paddy was killed by toxic levels of GHB.”

Here, language is key – “was killed by” implies the drug’s active role in the death, absolving the young person of blame. Again, as with Louise’s story, the article on Paddy’s death focuses on his personality beyond drug consumption: he was “intelligent, an absolute charmer”, someone whose life was overturned due to his accidental involvement with drugs, and the always-downward demise they create for people.

However, in the Drug Strategy, “susceptible to overdose death” suggests that for older people, death was an inevitable consequence of their drug use. Research suggests that older age is often used to oversimplify drug-related deaths, attributing them to age-related complications. In contrast, young people using drugs suggests the possibility for change in their lifetime, while punctuating how tragic their deaths are for ending the chance for change. Using age to justify someone’s death silences the complexities of the rise of drug-related deaths and the policies that have exacerbated them in the first place, such as austerity, de-industrialisation, and inflexible treatment systems.

 

Imagery

In today’s media landscape, imagery is critical, especially with non-traditional sources like social media. Images and videos have been used to document the scares of synthetic opioids; individuals are often filmed in intoxicated states in public spaces, framed as ‘zombies’ to highlight the dangers of new drugs. This depiction strips away their humanity and dignity, raising questions about consent – is it ever sought before their photos or videos are published? For the deaths of young people, photos are often authorised by the family and frequently show them smiling with friends and family. With others, it is often their mugshots if they were arrested, or images of where they have died that are shown as the final images to be associated with them. Again, young victims are given humanity outside of their drug use.

From the Lancashire Telegraph.

 

The ideal victim

Much of my analysis on the varying presentation of drug deaths rests on Nil Christie’s work on the ideal victim. In his work, he considered why victims of crimes, specifically sexual assault, are viewed differently, noting that “full victim status” is given to those who are perceived to be weak, respectable, and blameless. In the context of drug-related deaths, young, white people using drugs fit this ideal victim profile. Lines get blurrier between those who use drugs and those who sell them, between those choosing to be in the industry and those coerced into it; blamelessness is not given to everyone so simply.

Age is not the only factor that affects the representation of drug-related deaths; it is however a primary indicator often focused on by media and policy. Factors like race, class, age, and drug use patterns all shape how PWUDs are portrayed in life and death. That underscored the importance of understanding all the intersecting identities and positions of people when we look to understand how deaths are reported.

 

What’s the story’s objective?

For young people, families are strikingly at the forefront; whereas, for older users, quotes and comments from criminal justice agencies dominate the story. This tension underscores the perceived blamelessness often attributed to young victims of drug-related deaths. When seeking for an explanation for their death, parents often frame the narrative around their children as victims of drug dealers, their peers, or the drugs themselves. This inherently produces a bias, felt particularly in what is the desired outcome.

“All a mammy wants to do is protect her children and I could not protect him from these drug dealers.” (BBC)

 

“UK cities risk becoming like drug-ravaged San Francisco, warns policing chief.” (The Telegraph)

One is a problem of mourning and tragedy; the other is a matter of policing and crime. However, both stories highlight the need for a crackdown – on the dealers and on drug use.

“Fifteen new synthetic opioids to be made illegal” (UK Government)

“My son was killed by GHB – it beggars belief it is not a Class A drug.” (Sky News)

More often than not, the tighter control of substances is presented as the only solution; other more progressive measures such as drug consumption rooms and drug checking, which are known to reduce DRDs, are rarely provided as alternatives. Stigma is a barrier to implementing these life-saving initiatives, as highlighted by Conservative MP Penny Mordaunt, who dismissed the drug consumption rooms as “somewhere safe and warm to take heroin.”

 

Final thoughts

The distinction between tragedy and preventability in drug-related deaths is mediated by societal perceptions: while this article focused on age, it also applies to class, race, and gender.

For young people, their deaths are tragic because of who they are, whereas for older users, their deaths are tragic due to who they could’ve been as a ‘non-drug user.’

This begs the question: Whose death is deemed a tragedy? And, crucially, whose death is seen as preventable?

As professionals, people who use drugs, and simply as humans, it’s crucial that we carefully attribute blame and responsibility for drug-related deaths; it is also important for us not to dehumanise people just for their drug use, regardless of their age, race or class. We must start with the belief that all drug-related deaths are preventable, and that no one is deserving of a fate that could be changed with support, rather than stigma.

Harm reduction saves lives. Stigma kills.

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