In 1985, Yul Brynner teamed up with the American Cancer Society to create an anti-smoking commercial. A few days after his death from lung cancer, the commercial aired nationally for the first time. Brynner knew he was dying, and his final performance was a postmortem plea for people to stop smoking.
For Philip Seymour Hoffman, there will be no such commercial, only the sad truth that his drug-induced death was preventable.
Brynner died from cancer. Hoffman from addiction. Both are considered diseases by all the major medical associations in the world. Yet only addiction carries a stigma and moral condemnation by a large swath of the public. It's finally time to change that, and Philip Seymour Hoffman may be the unlikely spokesperson to do it in his most important role of a lifetime.
Hoffman knew the risks of his addiction as early as 23 years ago when he first sought help. It worked, and he enjoyed over two decades of sobriety, a major milestone for a disease that has no cure, but can be treated through medical detox, medications, cognitive therapy, and a focus on acknowledging the triggers to avoid relapse.
For diseases like cancer, diabetes, and certainly addiction, the risk of relapse is always a strong possibility. When a person relapses from cancer, they seek medical treatment and are supported with compassion. Substance abusers who relapse are viewed as morally and intellectually weak, and shunned by family, friends and society. They lose their jobs, their families kick them out of the house, and their friends turn their backs on them.
While Hoffman had discussed his past addiction with the media, notably during a CBS "60 Minutes" interview that has been replayed relentlessly over the last couple of weeks, it's possible he felt enough stigma about his recent relapse to keep it hidden from public scrutiny. Now, if an individual of Hoffman's celebrity, stature and resources felt intimated by his addiction, it's no wonder that addicts keep their addiction a secret and deny seeking proper treatment
At the very best, some users may attend support group meetings, but that is a far cry from much needed medical treatment. It wouldn't be responsible to treat a cancer relapse with a support group, nor would it be for an addict, although that is what usually happens. The worst-case scenario is when addicts try to treat themselves; it almost always ends in disaster.
Because of his stellar body of work and admiration from fans and fellow actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman's addiction is viewed as a tragedy, unlike so many others whose addiction is viewed as a moral lack of conviction.
The sad truth is, we are in the grips of a senseless epidemic of drug-related deaths in America. In January, Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont dedicated his entire State of the State address to the problem of addiction within his state borders. The reason: Fatal heroin overdoses doubled in Vermont last year. In Hoffman's hometown of New York, heroin-related deaths increased 84 percent from 2010 to 2012. Since 1999, nationwide deaths from heroin have increased 45 percent, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug-related deaths surpassed traffic fatalities for the first time in 2009.
We can't view this as a weakness or moral problem anymore. The number of people impacted by addiction and substance related deaths are increasing too quickly to continue with outdated methods and attitudes that never really worked well in the first place.
The answer to the heroin epidemic is obvious to medical professionals: Drug addiction needs to be treated like the chronic disease it is, and drug addicts should be encouraged -- even celebrated -- for seeking treatment rather than ostracized as pariahs.
Imagine if we scolded, berated and shamed sufferers of diabetes, asthma and hypertension every time they relapsed and went off their meds. Would we blame them for their disease and accuse them as morally weak for relapsing? And let's be clear here: Those who suffer from these chronic diseases do relapse about as often as drug addicts.
All of us should learn from the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He is a familiar face who was respected more for his career achievements and the kind of person he was in real life than the fact that he was addicted to drugs. While most of us never had the opportunity to know him personally, his onscreen magic made us feel like we did, instilling a compassion for his unfortunate death. Let's think of Hoffman as the face of drug addiction -- an extraordinary talent who needlessly fell victim to a chronic disease.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.