Using Demi Lovato’s OD to Talk to Teens about Addiction and Mental Health
Demi Lovato’s recent hospitalization from a drug overdose presents us with a ripe opportunity for a relevant conversation with our teens about youth substance use, addiction and mental health. Every celebrity OD or public act of inebriated horribleness hands us this opportunity, but this one has especially powerful potential. As a recent Guardian article stated, it’s a "gift to many people who have experienced similar illnesses," as well as for us educating about them.
Tweens to college-aged students are familiar with Demi. While younger teens are just plugging into her catchy current pop songs and constant media presence, many have grown up with her for the past 15 years, from Barney to Disney to young adulthood, and followed her complex and transparent journey. She’s young, beautiful, ridiculously talented, her career’s at a high point, and she seems to have all that many teens dream of and look up to. She manages to stay hip while openly criticizing the fakeness, shallowness and unhealthiness of the celebrity scene that she finds herself in. She’s also been wide open for years about her struggles with - and recovery from - multiple substance addictions, disordered eating, bipolar disorder, and self-harm, earning high respect by teens for “keepin it real.” Parents have finally felt comfortable with their teen daughters looking up to a female celebrity as she has proudly celebrated sobriety and educated about recovery, spoken out against mental health stigma and bullying, and even funded a treatment center.
Last October, Demi released her “Simply Complicated” documentary on YouTube, in which she candidly talks about her pathway to addiction and challenges with recovery (I highly suggest watching the first 45 minutes of this with your teen). A couple months after proudly announcing her 6 year sobriety anniversary this March she released the song “Sober,” appearing to be admitting an alcohol relapse. The media has been abuzz about her apparent “fall off the wagon” since, grilling her friends and hawking in on signs of her “going off the rails again.” This week, luckily, much of the dialogue has been more compassionate and educational about the nature of mental illness and addiction.
Here are some talking points to help seize the moment for valuable dialogue with our kids:
Prescription drugs are addicting and abuse is dangerous. While the details haven't been released about what she overdosed on, her being revived by Narcan indicates an opiate (painkiller or heroin), while her continuing hospitalization for withdrawal may indicate a benzodiazepene (anti-anxiety med like Xanax). Research shows us teens (and parents) overestimate the safety of misusing prescription drugs because they're made in FDA-monitored labs and prescribed my MD's. Plus they're easy to score from someone's medicine cabinet, transport, and pop in their mouths just like the Tylenol and vitamins they've been taking for years. Reality is, these meds are VERY addicting, creating withdrawal even with light prescribed use, and mixing them (including with alcohol) has led to many youth tragedies.
Relapse is part of addiction. Relapse is more common than not when someone is attempting to arrest any addiction. This is due to both the ways the chemicals and the repeated habits change the brain and produce cravings. About 60% of substance addicts receiving treatment will relapse within a year. Most addicts have a spiral versus straight line journey of recovery similar to hers, with slips, lesson learned, and new challenges that emerge.
If you have addiction in your family you’re more at risk yourself. Demi’s birth father was an addict and alcoholic, and her mother struggled with substance abuse and an eating disorder. The pain of her father’s addiction and her mother’s hyper-focus on body perfection influenced Demi’s developing problems. Aspects of addiction are both learned and inherited genetically from parents. Talk with your child honestly about their inherited/family-based risks.
Get real about all risk factors in order to overpower them. Demi has described painful childhood relational bullying, social anxiety, family stressors, societal pressures, unrealistic expectations, and Bipolar Disorder as factors leading to her addictions. Her story could have been very different if any one of these had been addressed earlier. Encourage your teen to look honestly at where their own risks are, and help them design ways to overpower them.
The younger you use, the more likely you are to get addicted and to have stronger problems. Heaps of research proves this, and Demi’s story reflects it. She formed extremely strong connections to alcohol and drugs by beginning use in middle school when brains are most easily imprinted. This results is her brain defaulting back to craving those substances when things are challenging. This makes a strong argument for delaying use as long as possible during the brain-growing teen years.
Know the dangerous science of tolerance and overdose. Substances and behavioral addictions act on reward centers of the brain, releasing chemicals that users gradually need more and more of to get the same feeling. This means users taking more drugs to feel “high” and increasingly risking dangerous overdose.
How to recognize a problem and get help. Those around Demi describe how her teen use was increasingly leading to negative personality changes, mood swings, health consequences, and prioritizing substance use over her goals, loved ones and values. Talk about how these consequences indicate an addictive relationship with anything (including cell phone use, video gaming, dating relationships etc). She also explains not being informed enough to recognize her patterns of bipolar disorder. Discuss what your teen’s options and resources are for getting themselves help if needed (including YOU of course!), as well as when and how to help a friend in trouble.
If you’ve got a kiddo in recovery...know it’s a holistic process. Changing and healing will take intervening in every aspect of their lives and their being wrapped in support. In her documentary, Demi explains how it has taken severing destructive social ties, leaning on loved ones, therapy, exercise, staying honest, and being humble enough to do whatever it takes to stay clean.
Love and healing to Demi Lovato. Hopefully she will keep including us all in her process to “discover what it’s like to be free of demons (as she says in her film),” so we can all continue to learn with her.
Kriya Lendzion is a school counselor, addictions counselor, prevention specialist and recovering addict living in Asheville, NC. For more info and tools for getting our kids healthily through adolescence plug in to her website, Twitter & Instagram @kjoycounselor, and Facebook.