C4 Innovations

Impact of Media on Stigma and Recovery: A Youth’s Perspective

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Isabel Kai Fisher discusses the impact of the media’s portrayal of substance use on young audiences and ways creativity can support recovery with hosts Adrienne Kasmally and Nate Batiste. This episode is sponsored by Project Amp.

April 4, 2022


Adrienne Kasmally, Host (00:05): Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Adrienne Kasmally, I am the research coordinator at C4 Innovations and lead and support Project Amp’s youth advisory board. Today’s podcast is sponsored by Project Amp, a substance-use prevention and early intervention mentorship program for adolescents. With me today, my guest co-host, former youth advisory board member and current Project Amp fellow and intern, Nate Batiste. Hi Nate.

Nate Batiste, Co-Host (00:35): Hello, Adrienne. It is so nice to be here with you today.

Adrienne (00:39): Our topic today is the impact of the media’s portrayal of substance use on young audiences. It is my pleasure to introduce our guest Isabel Kai Fisher calling in all the way from Westchester, New York. Isabel is a recent graduate of SUNY Purchase and serves as a member of Project Amp’s youth advisory board. Isabel, thanks for joining us today.

Isabel Kai Fisher, Guest (01:01): Thanks Adrienne. It’s so great to be here.

Adrienne (01:04): So, Isabel, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your work with the youth advisory board.

Isabel (01:10): I’ve been on the board since June. And, we have a lot of really amazing discussions about substance use prevention in youth and adolescents, as well as trauma-informed care and harm reduction. We’ve been doing some work on social media and also some research projects that have been really amazing. And, I love being involved.

Adrienne (01:41): And can you tell us a little bit more about your experiences with substance use and recovery?

Isabel (01:46): Definitely. I dealt with a lot of medical issues as a teenager and was prescribed benzodiazepines, which I became addicted to around 15, 16. And, it really changed how I interacted with the world, how I saw myself, how I saw others. I became very depressed. And, I just got to this point where I decided to seek recovery, because I didn’t really recognize myself anymore. And it’s been a really meaningful journey. I even wrote my undergrad thesis about recovery, which was inspired by my own experience and also just navigating the world as a person in recovery and talking to other people who have similar stories.

Nate (02:42): So, you identify as a person in recovery. With that, have you experienced some type of stigma? And if so, can you tell us a little bit about the work you’ve done to explore that stigma and how it shows up in substance use prevention programs?

Isabel (03:03): Yeah. Stigma was the thing that really got to me, and still really gets to me. I remember my first year in recovery, not ever wanting to talk, because I felt like the world was judging me, and I was also really judging myself. I felt like in my communities there wasn’t a cohesive understanding of addiction, and mental health, and recovery. And, I felt like just a bad person. Especially, as a queer person seeking recovery, I didn’t even have a lot of role models that I related to. I just felt very isolated. And, that was really hard, and I also didn’t know how to speak out against stigma when I first entered recovery, because it was just so heavy.

Isabel (04:02): And, something that’s helped is meeting people and making myself talk. I mean, I try not to force anything, but sometimes it does help to give myself a little push. And I find that, when I do that, I begin to attract more of the energy I’m putting out. But stigma is so silencing. And, when I was letting myself be silenced, it was hard to attract anything into my life. It was very stagnant. And I think that’s one of the biggest dangers of stigma is that, it can really keep people stagnant and keep people in situations and environments where they aren’t encouraged to grow. And, it’s also the reason why we need better representations, more realistic, more accurate, more faces and stories that people can relate to, so that they don’t feel as silenced. And I think that can be a really meaningful way to prevent and intervene in people suffering in silence.

Nate (05:21): Isabel, I totally agree with you that, we need more voices to speak up about these different issues, about stigma, about different ways to confront it and talk about it. We see multiple different ways that stigma is portrayed through TV, movies, songs. How do these different depictions impact youth?

Isabel (05:44): I love that question. I think it’s very layered, and it depends on what form of media people are consuming. A lot of TV and movies have a very similar storyline that they follow. I’m thinking of intervention type TV shows, Euphoria, an HBO series about teens in high school using drugs and their social interactions. And, I’m thinking about movies like Rocket Man, the Elton John movie, just some examples. And, they all follow a similar storyline where someone is using drugs or drinking, and it’s chaotic and self-destructive. And the people around them get mad at them. And then there’s AA or some other 12-step program. That’s people’s understanding of addiction and recovery.

Isabel (06:49): And that was my understanding before I entered recovery was, people go a little crazy and then they go to church basements and get all better. And that’s not always the case. And I think, if we want to continue making media about these topics, such as addiction, drug use, and recovery, we owe it to the audience to have a spectrum of experience, because it isn’t really fair to people who have found help elsewhere, or have had different experiences and stories that they don’t get to see it on the screen. I think, I always wanted to see myself on the screen. I have a degree in media studies, and I spend most of my life online. I love media. I love it so much. I love art, and researching, and I’ve always been that way. And I always wanted to see something I could relate to.

Isabel (07:54): And I’m not saying I never did, I would relate to little pieces, but it’s just so scripted, a lot of TV and movies. And I think they’re made with a limited understanding of what addiction is. And, the audience consuming it also often has a limited understanding. And possibly, lack the education to understand what addiction does to be people and how it affects people’s lives.

Adrienne (08:27): And so, you’re saying that media is everywhere. We know that young people are going to be exposed to these different forms of media, through TV shows, and movies, and the music that they listen to, and that these forms of media aren’t always accurate or realistic. Are you seeing any initiatives that are trying to promote change in the media to address that stigma and support young people in better understanding what substance use addiction and recovery looks like?

Isabel (09:00): Yeah, I am. I think about this a lot. I think there are realistic portrayals and representations, but we don’t really get to see them. They aren’t the ones that make it big, aren’t Euphoria and Requiem for a Dream, these movies and TV shows that really glorify addiction. And they are really beautiful. I like them, but they’re difficult to watch. And, they’re almost about media itself, instead of addiction. Addiction is just the vessel that they used to tell a story. And that’s not the reality for people outside of the media world, they’re characters. But I have seen initiatives, a lot of nonprofits seeking to empower people through narratives of mental health recovery, and addiction recovery, and doing so in creative ways. And, these representations aren’t as easy to find. They’re really hard to find actually, because there isn’t enough uplifting of these kinds of media, for whatever reason. I have my own theories about why. But yeah, it depends where you look. There’s so many people in the world, so we have the stories, not everyone has the platforms though, and not everything really gets an audience.

Adrienne (10:45): Can you give an example?

Isabel (10:47): I really like platforms such as Vimeo where people can upload their own content. It can take a while to search around and find such content. But, sometimes that’s a really nice experience. Also, there’s an organization called Art With Impact, where people upload five minute long short films about mental health recovery. And even just YouTube, and searching around on Spotify sometimes, things can come up.

Adrienne (11:22): So, what can we do to uplift these voices and realistic depictions of substance use?

Isabel (11:29): I think pointing people in the right direction. It probably has to do with research. And I should say first, I don’t know the answer. I don’t think there’s just one answer. And I think that’s okay. But having conversations like this and finding other places to consume media more intentionally definitely helps. Even just consuming pop media with more critical thinking can help a lot, because two people can watch the same show and get something completely different out of it. So, it’s not always about the media itself, it’s about a media literacy, I guess, to consume and let it just be consumed, not to attach too much to it. And I say that because, as you know, a 12, 13 year old, I would watch Skins UK about the British teenagers who were severely chaotic and dealing with mental health issues, and addiction, and eating disorders. And I would be inspired by it. It was triggering. So, being aware that certain media is triggering, just having that awareness in watching it can make a difference.

Nate (12:51): You talked about watching these television programs and it being triggering for you at 12, 13 years old. And this was before you identified as a person of recovery. So, what can we do to make sure the youth today are being able to watch these shows, but not become triggered from the glamorization of substances in television programs, to listening to it in music, to watching videos that showcases it.

Isabel (13:31): I think, as a young person, it is so fun to do all the things that people tell you not to do. It’s the best. That’s what I wanted to do. If someone told me not to do something, immediately I wanted to do it, even if I didn’t want to do it the day before. So, programs like DARE, and the whole just say “no” thing, not very effective. And, participating in a program like that, and then finding a TV show where everyone’s doing all the things you’re not allowed to do, it’s seductive. It’s like, “Oh, this is bad.” We need to rebel. Everyone needs to rebel a little bit. But, we need to be able to rebel safely.

Isabel (14:19): So, having the education to watch things and not completely self-destruct, I think would be very beneficial for young people, learning that doing drugs, it’s okay, people do drugs. They’re not going to just stop because we’re told, “Just say no.” People have always done drugs. Before drugs people used to spin around in circles and fall over to have an altered state of consciousness. It’s a very human desire, and it’s not inherently bad. And, learning things like that can make a huge difference, so people know what they’re getting into and not just experimenting blindly.

Isabel (15:06): So, one thing that would be effective is really just critical thinking to watch things with a level of detachment and really think about the things you’re consuming and understanding that the media is not real life. It’s a form of expression. It’s conveying a message, but it’s also just a video. And, it can influence, and impact, and inspire. But, at the end of the day, a movie is just about two hours long, and it’s very edited. Also, to uplift other narratives, making space for those narratives, not always picking the thing that’s easy to watch, or beautiful and glamorous, sensationalized or aesthetic, even though that can make it easier to digest certain topics. But, I don’t know how realistic that is. I would love to see that happen. I think it is happening slowly.

Adrienne (16:18): So, you mentioned uplifting other narratives. What do you mean by that?

Isabel (16:22): When I say uplifting other narratives, I mean, discussing people’s experience in recovery that don’t adhere to the traditional 12-step structure. So, experiencing multiple pathways to recovery. I would love to see movies and TV shows about safe supply, needle exchange, using Buddhism as a way to pursue recovery, going on a long hike, it could be anything. I would love to see my story and see someone who spends hours on the floor making collages and getting glue on their hands. I want to see more of that. I don’t want to see the same circle of people in an AA meeting talking about their traumas. I think, there’s a time and place for that, but we need a little break. We need some new things.

Nate (17:35): Isabel, that’s so amazing for you to say, because there are organizations like the Church of Safe Injection who passes out needles for people to use safely, because they know, like you said, not everyone is going to stop using, but we can help promote safe using.

Isabel (17:54): Exactly. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. And I would love to see a documentary about… That would be a perfect story.

Adrienne (18:03): So, can you tell us a little bit about how you found recovery through creativity and the arts, and how that helped you to combat the stigma that you were experiencing?

Isabel (18:15): Definitely. I would love to talk about that. I’ve always made art, I’ve always loved art. And, my favorite form of art is collage. And I’m also a writer. I do other things, but those are my main forms of media, input and output. So, I continued with those practices even when I was addicted to Klonopin. And, everything I was making was very dark, and depressing, and I started hating it. I was like, “I hate this creativity. I’m making dark things.” And, it just felt very natural as I moved into a recovery mindset to make art about it. I make art about everything. Creativity saves me every day, because it’s fun, and safe, and experimental. And I think recovery itself is inherently creative. I mean, you just get to create your life a little bit more, and it’s fun. So, they go hand in hand.

Isabel (19:28): I also got a book called The Artist’s Way, which is a book about recovery and creativity. And, it was written by someone who has history of addiction, so there’s a feel to it, it’s helpful for creativity and other things. And, that was really helpful. I would get up and write every day and put myself in this space that was honoring whatever energy I had, instead of trying to seek outside of myself. That’s the biggest thing that creativity taught me. And, why I associate it with my recovery so much.

Nate (20:13): I love that you bring in that aspect of your own recovery. Your undergraduate thesis was written on the impacts of media on your own recovery. There was one quote in your thesis where you said, “However, if a prevention program does not include comprehensive harm reduction principles, and trauma-informed care, it will not be as effective as strictly abstinence-based thinking, because there will always be people that use substances. Abstinence-based thinking is not realistic in every case and sobriety is not the only measure of success.” Can you tell us a little more about that quote and how it relates to media?

Isabel (20:55): Yeah. So, something I was thinking about when I wrote my thesis was how I used to hold myself to this standard of, “I have to be perfect in my recovery. And perfection is complete sobriety and going to AA every day.” And it really overwhelmed me, especially because I have some health issues. And, I couldn’t get there every day. I didn’t even like it. And I ended up moving away from AA. But that’s a another story. And, we’re indoctrinated in every realm to do things a certain way, and all the other ways are wrong, by definition. But that’s just not true.

Isabel (21:44): I saw a tweet that said something along the lines of, “The most successful recovery story doesn’t have to be the person who has been sober and going to AA for 17 years. A successful recovery story can also be someone who sticks to their resolution of only using on the weekends. If it works for you, great, it’s nobody else’s business.” And that is so empowering. That’s really cool. That allows for new representations, that allows for new storylines, and media, and in life where people get to make choices, people get to trust themselves. We get to put away the idea that you can’t trust addicts. I think that, that’s very harmful. We don’t need to tell any more people that they can’t trust themselves, especially vulnerable populations who might need some extra resources and care. We all need different things. And, I would love to see the portrayals of all the different things we need and engage in. And yeah, it’s exciting.

Adrienne (23:11): Isabel, it has been a pleasure talking with you. I look forward to your leadership as we continue to elevate the voices of youth and young adults.

Isabel (23:20): Thanks for having me, Adrienne and Nate. It was so nice talking to you.

Nate (23:24): Thank you so much for being here today, Isabel.

Adrienne (23:27): And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika Simon, Producer (23:31): Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode is sponsored by Project Amp and was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Visit projectamp4youth.com to learn more. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.


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