Talking ISSUES: HLN's Jane Velez-Mitchell Discusses Substance Abuse and the Conrad Murray Trial

The astonishing evidence that has been presented so far in the case against Dr. Conrad Murray highlights the pressing societal challenge of substance dependency that permeates our culture and extends far beyond the courtroom walls. This trial provides the opportunity to explore the myriad of factors contributing to this national epidemic, including ethically questionable practices in the medical profession, doctors' responsibilities to their patients, and social attitudes toward drug use.

Jane Velez-Mitchell, the provocative host of HLN's current affairs show ISSUES with Jane Velez-Mitchell tackles this controversial topic and its relationship to this case. Velez-Mitchell, also a bestselling author of Addict Nation: An Intervention for America , draws from her personal journey as a recovering alcoholic and offers a persuasive perspective on what valuable lessons can be learned from this trial and ultimately, how to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in our own lives.

Velez-Mitchell fears that America has a national problem with prescription drug abuse:

In some states, more people are OD'ing from prescription drugs than they are dying in car accidents. What we have is really a pandemic of prescription drug abuse in this country. I think that this case really shines light on that because we, as Americans, but I think people in general, have a tendency to idolize and idealize doctors and forget that they are flesh and blood human beings with the same potential for greed, with the same potential for character defects. This case really shatters that myth and shows a very real doctor, with very real cravings for money, and very real character defects. I think that's a nice wake-up call for everybody.

Research reports and alarming statistical data published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse substantiate Velez-Mitchell's claims:

The nonmedical use or abuse of prescription drugs is a serious and growing public health problem in this country. Most people take prescription medications responsibly; however, an estimated 48 million people (ages 12 and older) have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in their lifetimes. This represents approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population.

MS: How would you characterize the relationship between Dr. Conrad Murray and Michael Jackson?

JVM: I think it was the intersection of a guy who had money problems, who had a history of bankruptcy, and who had children by several different women and they were seeking support from him. It's the intersection of a guy like that and a guy who was under tremendous pressure to perform, who suffered from insomnia, and who has a history of having a problem with substance abuse, specifically non-illegal drugs, legal drugs. You have these two people meeting at a very critical time for both of them, but particularly for Michael Jackson and it implodes. But ultimately, it is the doctor's responsibility. It was his responsibility to say, "You may want it, but I am not going to give it to you." And why is that so important in today's world? It's important because there are so many people who are going to their doctors for the wrong reasons and seeking to basically self-medicate and get the doctor to co-sign their problem.

MS: What could and should Dr. Conrad Murray have done differently to prevent this tragedy?

JVM: The first thing Dr. Murray could have done was put "Michael Jackson" into a Google search and up would have come the fact that in 1993, Michael Jackson admitted that he had a substance abuse problem and was seeking treatment for it. Once you have a person who has had a substance abuse problem and who has admitted it, then they are never cured from that. They can only be in recovery from that one day at a time. As a doctor, he should have realized that he was dealing with somebody who should not be given mood altering medications for anything other than an absolutely necessary medical condition. He should have made himself aware.

The second thing he should have done was realize that propofol is not supposed to be used as a sleep aid and simply said, "No!" Michael Jackson's nurse said, "No!" There were other people who, according to their own statements, stood up to him and said, "No!" This doctor should have said, "No!" The fact that he has had tried to claim that other doctors did exactly what he's done or similar things, it really doesn't exonerate him.

I think in general, you have doctors across the country with precious little knowledge of addiction and of substance abuse problems. I am a recovering alcoholic with sixteen years of sobriety and I cannot tell you how many times I have gone into a doctor's office with some kind of ache or pain and they want to prescribe to me something mood altering. It's like, well I can't do that, I am a recovering alcoholic. Sometimes they look at me funny like they don't really understand the connection. Doctors do not have enough education in substance abuse and why somebody who once had a substance abuse problem, can never again just be prescribed painkillers or anti-anxiety drugs or anything that is habit forming without a really, really, really important look into whether it is absolutely medically necessary.

MS: Do you think "blaming the victim" in this case is the right thing to do?

JVM: No, I don't think it is right to "blame the victim." Michael Jackson is dead and he can't be here to defend himself. He's not the doctor. It's up to doctors to say, "No!" That is why this is an important story because you have people going to doctors all the time now and asking for drugs and they have become very sophisticated in ways to get it. Let's face it, we essentially encourage this by marketing drugs directly to people and saying, "Ask your doctor about XYZ, ask your doctor about this." The bottom line is that doctors are supposed to determine what your medication is, not the other way around. We have a cultural confusion about all of that.

MS: HLN provided full coverage of the Casey Anthony trial this summer and now it is covering the Dr. Conrad Murray trial across the network. What distinguishes ISSUES with Jane Velez-Mitchell from HLN's other shows in terms of its take on these high-profile trials?

JVM: I always try to look at it from the perspective of what can we learn about these cases that will inform our own lives. In my first book, Secrets Can Be Murder , the premise of that was, let's look at these high-profile cases to see what secrets were unveiled during the course of the criminal trials and how we can learn from them to avoid similar outcomes.

One of the things that I learned from looking at all of those high-profile cases was that in almost each case there was a moment where honesty was always an option and people didn't take that option. Look at the alternative. What I got out of writing that was that honesty is always an option. As bad as a divorce may be for Scott Peterson, had he just said, "I want a divorce, I'm having an affair," that would have been a far better outcome than the ultimate outcome of murder.

In all these cases, I think there's a lot that one can learn that informs our own lives. What's the consequence of this choice? What's the consequence of that choice? What were the psychological underpinnings? I'm a person who looks at things from the perspective of addiction because I am a recovering alcoholic and I also look at it from the therapy perspective because I have done a lot of therapy and Twelve-Step work and I feel like there is something that we can learn from these cases. That's what I hope to do is have a deeper dialogue.

MS: Ultimately, what do you want your audience to take away from watching the Dr. Conrad Murray trial?

JVM: The lesson is that if you medicate the problem, all you do is postpone and enlarge it. We don't learn anymore in this culture, to sit through the feelings and experience what it is that we're running away from and work through it. We are really all culturally driven to just medicate the problem which it never goes away, it just gets worse. You don't solve it, you don't work through it.

I can only say what I have learned in Twelve-Step as a recovering alcoholic is to just try and I don't always succeed, to sit through the feelings. Whatever it is that's keeping you up, try to find out what that is. What is that anxiety? I know sometimes, sure, it is a chemical issue and there are other things that are more complicated than my simple answer. But usually there's a component of something that we just need to face and if we have the strength to face that, then we don't need to medicate it.


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