Kathryn Prescott on her PSA/Short Film "Dear You" and the Opioid Epidemic

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In today’s society, one of the greatest fights being waged in America is against the opioid epidemic. A controversial topic due to the stigma surrounding drug and opioid addiction, many people face uphill battles against addiction because they don’t have proper access to medication, therapy, or long-term treatment. The opioid epidemic isn’t limited to just street drugs like heroin and other synthetic opioids such as “Grey Death”. It also involves medications like Codeine, Vicodin, Percocet, Hydrocodone, Oxycontin and many other legal drugs that are prescribed by doctors for pain management. These drugs are legal, yet their chemical similarity to drugs like heroin means that they are incredibly addictive. Last year 22,000 Americans died due to overdoses from prescription painkillers.

The fight against opioid addiction will be generational. One of the best ways to begin to combat opioid addiction is to educate oneself about what to do and how to help those who are suffering from addiction. Treating addiction as a choice and the people who fall prey to it as less than human will only serve to exacerbate the crisis at hand.

Kathryn Prescott, who plays Penelope in CW’s Reign, Carter Stevens on MTV’s Finding Carter, and Chloe in the upcoming Netflix dramedy “Dude”(opposite Lucy Hale) is a social advocate, director, and actress. Her newly released short film, “Dear You” is a love letter about the struggles of a young man who has just come out of rehabilitation for his opioid addiction. The short film was written as a way to help educate young people about what opioid addiction truly is and also as a way to combat the stigma surrounding opioid addiction that Prescott has personally witnessed throughout her life. The Teen Magazine got the chance to interview Prescott about her new short film “Dear You” and how she has been involved in the fight against opioid addiction.

What would you like our readers to know about the opioid crisis?

I think mainly that the opioid epidemic exists and that it’s claiming so many lives. Overdose is now the number one cause of death for Americans under 50, opioids are killing more people every year than car crashes and gun crime combined. But lots of people, including myself up until a few years ago, aren’t aware of how widespread the problem is, even if they know someone who is experiencing opioid addiction or are experiencing it themselves. We hope we can encourage more people to learn about the factors that led to this epidemic. So many people now addicted to heroin started by taking painkillers prescribed to them by their doctors for an injury. We have a page on the film’s website explaining the link between prescription opioids and heroin use which goes into more detail. We hope we can help break down the idea that addiction is a choice and/or a moral failing. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that affects the very areas of the brain that deal with choice. It is powerful enough to overcome our strongest and most basic instincts. But the shame and isolation surrounding it continue to prevent people from reaching out for help. We hope this film can help start more conversations about addiction and the best ways to overcome it.

When did you become aware of the effect the opioid crisis was having on youth in America? How did you get involved and why?

I’ve watched several of my close friends and family suffer from addiction. But I had no idea how widespread the problem with opioids in particular was. I was taking a look around Homeless Health Care Los Angeles’ Arts and Wellness Center in Downtown LA about three or four years ago and I saw a map of the city on the wall. In it were loads of pins. When I asked what the pins stood for, they told me that each one represented a life saved from an overdose by the overdose-reversal drug naloxone. Firstly, I had no idea so many people were overdosing, secondly, I had no idea there was a reversal drug for opioid overdoses. From then I became really interested in/astounded by the scope of this epidemic. I was speaking with a friend about past opioid awareness efforts. Many of them don’t target young adults and, when they do, often paint people suffering from addiction in a very negative or stereotypical fashion, highlighting or exaggerating the negative behaviors associated with addiction and rarely touching on any of the sadness or pain that’s going on beneath the surface. That’s when we decided to make this video.

Please tell us about your short film, Dear You, and how it differs from other Public Service Announcements or short films released about the opioid crisis. What message are you hoping to communicate through your film?

The film takes a journey through the mind of a young boy as he goes through the motions of his daily life, narrating in voiceover as if he is addressing a past love. He’s heartbroken and alone, unsure of who he’s supposed to be now without this person. All the while checking his phone and wondering if he should just pick it up and call them. As the day goes on we witness his mental state decline. Eventually, he makes a decision, picks up the phone and begins texting. We assume he’s getting in touch with this person that he misses so much, but then we see three of his friends arrive--clearly, none of them are the person he’s been thinking about all day. We then cut to a little later on as they all hang out watching TV. We hear the boy say in voiceover “I just wanted to feel your warmth, to fall asleep with you again” and we land on a shot of him injecting himself with heroin. The idea is that at this point we realize rather than watching a young boy suffering from heartbreak, that this whole time we have been watching a young man in the first few months of recovery from heroin addiction, desperately trying not to relapse. He has been addressing heroin as if it were a past love. Rather than a sort of ‘Just Say No’ campaign, we hope to raise awareness about this epidemic by hinting at the true pain of addiction experienced by those actually suffering from it, at the intimate relationship people can feel they have to these drugs and at the crippling, 24-hour mental back and forth experienced by those in recovery. Many opioid/drug awareness campaigns seem to suggest that this problem can be solved simply by telling as many people as possible not to do drugs. But that doesn’t help those who are already using, or anyone trying to understand someone who is. We hope that this film helps spark some more open and honest conversations about the cyclical nature of pain and isolation when it comes to addiction.

What advice do you have for writers and directors in portraying this epidemic?

I’m not an expert, but I would say just try to get inside the head of someone experiencing this. Don’t judge them. Talk to people who have experienced this or are currently experiencing it, chances are you already know someone who is or has. Addiction is usually a sign that something much deeper is going on.

Why did you end Dear You with the line, “And it was everything I had hoped”?

The boy we are watching in the film has been in recovery for a while, he’s therefore at a very high risk of overdosing if he does relapse (because he will now have a lowered tolerance). We watch him inject himself and finally relax. The tragic thing is, we don’t know if he actually survives this hit. The likelihood is that he might not. He says it was everything he had hoped and we see him finally able to let go of his pain, but then we’re left with those title cards about how relapse after a period of abstinence comes with a very high risk of overdose. It’s supposed to leave viewers assuming the worst.

You’ve partnered with the Homeless Health Care Los Angeles and spoken to people all over the USA who have been personally touched by this epidemic. Is there someone you have met whose story has stayed with you the most?

Yes, my amazing friend Mitch. I met Mitch when I was first thinking about making the film. I was speaking to some people at Utah Naloxone, whose mission it is to distribute the overdose-reversal drug naloxone to all who need it in the state. They told me about a boy they knew whose mom had rescued him from death twice by using the reversal drug on him. They told me he was doing really well now, living in California and had been clean for a long time. When I was back in California I got in touch with him. We got on immediately. We spoke on the phone for ages and then arranged to meet up for coffee. That was the start of our friendship. He had this level of authenticity, humour and sensitivity and just this ability to see through to people’s core, but he never judged anyone. He approached people with the utmost empathy and compassion- never had to prove himself, or to disprove other people. He was just an amazing and rare kind of human being. He gave me notes on every draft of the script and eventually he came to work as part of the grip and electric department on set once we started production. We rented a big house in Atlanta, where we shot, and Mitch stayed there with all of us. He became friends with my brother, our lead actor and everyone who worked on the film with us. About 9 months after production we had arranged to meet up on a Thursday. On that Tuesday night I got a call from one of our friends who told me Mitch had passed away. He had a weak heart due to his years of drug use and died of a heart attack at age 32, despite having successfully beaten his heroin addiction.

What do you believe are the main causes that lead youth into opioid addiction, and what societal factors contribute to its continuation?

That’s hard, and again, I’m not an expert but there are a number of factors that have been proven to increase the risk of addiction. Genetics play a role, as does emotional or physical trauma, and then there is the clear link between mental health and addiction. I think something like 50% of people struggling with addiction have an underlying mental health issue like depression or anxiety. A lot of people I know who have struggled with addiction say it’s for this reason that overcoming the physical addiction to the drug itself is just the start when you’re trying to overcome an addiction to any drug. Once you physically get it out of your system you then have to start addressing the underlying issues that lead you to addiction in the first place. Lack of a sufficient support network can also increase the risk that someone will fall into addiction, and make recovery especially hard, although there are some really great support networks out there for people in recovery. I think the shame and stigma around addiction is also definitely a contributing factor to the growth of this epidemic. Think how many lives could be saved if the overdose-reversal drug naloxone was more readily available to the public- at clubs, music venues, on every college campus and in every first aid kit? But the stigma around addiction and overdoses is arguably one of the reasons that this isn’t a reality. There’s a whole section of the film’s website which explains what naloxone is, why it’s so vital and how you can get it.

In your opinion, what can schools do to better educate their students on the spread of the opioid crisis? Do you believe that education on opioids and other additives should be mandatory in high schools and why?

I think just talking about it more, having non-judgemental discussions and creating a safe space for young people to discuss the risks of opioids in particular, even when they are prescribed to you by a doctor. The less stigma that exists around drugs, addiction and those suffering from it, the more people will feel safe enough to reach out for help if they need it, without fear of judgement. Yes, I do think education on opioids should be mandatory. I also think more people need to know about naloxone. Drug overdose is now the number one killer of Americans under 50 - we all need to be aware of how to save someone from one.

What else needs to happen to address this epidemic?

I think we need to stop viewing it as a problem which can be solved with the criminal justice system. Addiction is now a public health emergency. We put so much money and energy into punishing people once they are addicted to these drugs, why don’t we spend a little more of that time and money trying to figure out what kind of factors led them to chronic drug use in the first place? I think we need better access to affordable mental health care in particular, so that people aren’t allowed to fall through the gaps simply because they weren’t born into a family that could afford therapy or rehab. The shame and stigma needs to stop, so that people from all walks of life feel safe enough to reach out for help. Persecuting or shaming someone because they are suffering from an illness isn’t fair and doesn’t help anyone. I think in the future we’ll look back on how we currently treat those suffering from addiction the same way we now look back on medieval medicine practices.

What hotlines would you recommend teenagers suffering from this epidemic call if they need someone to talk to? Where can our readers find more information?

SAMHSA at 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Or take a look at Facing Addiction’s amazing Resource Hub - an interactive map where you can enter your zip code to find counselors, treatment facilities, recovery centers and more: (https://www.capacitype.com/find-it) If you are are an LA resident and need help with housing, harm reduction or health services, you can contact Homeless Health Care Los Angeles (even if you are not homeless). For a list of further resources, you can also go to the ‘Get Help’ section of the film’s website.

If you or a loved one are currently suffering from addiction, know that there are resources and people who are willing to help you and those around you.

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Siena Parrish

Editor

Siena is currently a college student who is majoring in Political Science. She is an avid reader of international news and books concerning the history of the Middle East and 15th century China. Siena enjoys drinking excessive amounts of caffeine and practicing martial arts.

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Mia Johansson

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Mia Johansson created The Teen Magazine from her room when she was 17 years old and is now the developer and administrator behind The Teen Magazine. She enjoys spending her time playing soccer, programming, writing, and hanging out with friends.