May 17, 2002

Prism Awards shine light on addiction

By Adele Slaughter, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

Millions of Americans suffer in the darkness of drug and alcohol dependence. But some of Hollywood's brightest stars are illuminating this national tragedy through their thoughtful and realistic portrayals of the despair and destruction caused by addiction.

"I have had friends who were on cocaine," says Donald Faison of Scrubs. "I watched them fall completely off the map and bring themselves up again. Addiction sucks."

Joining Faison recently at the sixth annual Prism Awards were fellow luminaries Penelope Cruz, Erika Christensen, Barbara Eden, Kelly Lynch, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Dr. Drew Pinsky.

"I've been presenting at the Prism Awards for the last three years," says Barbara Eden. "I'm here because I want people to realize how deeply film and TV impact our society and how stories can be used to inform the public about addiction."

The Entertainment Industries Council (EIC), together with The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) joined forces to create the Prism Awards to honor the accurate depiction of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use in television, film, music and comic books.

After appearing in last year's winning feature film Traffic, Christensen won again this year for a PBS show called In the Mix.

"We wanted to show how widespread ecstasy use is and how harmless kids consider it to be, when actually it is very, very dangerous," says Christensen. "In the last two years, since I started doing research for Traffic, I have been exposed to a lot. I feel very close to the subject of addiction."

Blow - directed by Ted Demme - won the award for theatrical feature film. Demme died earlier this year of a heart attack. Toxicology reports concluded that a "small amount" of cocaine in his system may have contributed to his death.

Other shows that were honored for their depiction of addiction included The Division, Third Watch and All My Children.

Growing problem

With approximately 14.8 million Americans currently using illicit drugs, 3.5 million drug-dependent Americans and 8.2 million dependent on alcohol, addiction remains one of the most disturbing diseases facing America.

Today, the rate of illicit drug use among American youths is higher than it was in 1992 but significantly lower than the peak rate of 1979.

"Early in the disease, people use drugs because they work - they feel better - and that's what motivates them to use," says Pinsky, Medical Director for the Department of Chemical Dependency Services, Las Encinas Hospital. "Later in the disease there is literally a switch that's thrown in the part of the brain called the mesolimbic apparatus, and now drives are self-perpetuating and you want to stop, but you can't."

Among one of the more problematic drugs for America's youth is ecstasy, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine. Since 1996, ecstasy use has continued to rise steadily among American teens.

In fact, the increases alarmed NIDA enough to approach film producer Sue Castle.

"I decided to write In the Mix because NIDA came to us and said, ╬We have research that there is a growing problem with ecstasy and want to catch it early,'" says Castle. "We discovered that it was everywhere. Kids were using it in school, at home, hanging out. And it wasn't just the older kids - middle-school kids were using ecstasy too. Parents are just becoming aware that this is a problem through the media."

And hopefully the kids are also getting the message.

The rate of increase for ecstasy use is predicted to have slowed in 2001. The entertainment industry's efforts to effect a change in how kids perceive drugs may be one of the reasons kids are beginning to understand the dangers of this "club drug."

The agony & ecstasy

"I have learned that ecstasy absolutely is a gateway drug for kids today," says Christensen. "Recently I went to Washington, DC, and attended a briefing that the DEA held on ecstasy. I was horrified at the toll it was taking. Not only physically, but I think it has a much more profound effect spiritually and mentally on kids."

Although it can be purchased in powder form and snorted or smoked, ecstasy is most commonly ingested in tablet form. Once activated in the body, ecstasy elicits the release the neurotransmitter - serotonin - from brain neurons.

Serotonin helps regulate moods, aggression, sexual activity, sleep and pain sensitivity. Providing an enhanced sense of pleasure and self-confidence, and increased energy, ecstasy's effects include a sense of peacefulness, acceptance and empathy.

But ecstasy has a decidedly darker side.

In researching the film, Castle and Christensen found that heightened intimacy under the influence of ecstasy leads many teenagers to have unprotected sex, putting them at increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.

And high doses of ecstasy can cause a sudden increase in body temperature, causing muscle breakdown and kidney and cardiovascular failure, often with fatal results. Ecstasy use can also cause:

While taking ecstasy, and sometimes for weeks afterward, the psychological effects can include:

And research indicates that ecstasy destroys the serotonin-producing neurons in the brain.

"I have patients, particularly those who used ecstasy and LSD, coming in with profound brain damage who are going to be depressed the rest of their lives," says Pinsky, who also hosts Loveline. "Somebody who's had 20 or 30 hits of ecstasy is going to be on anti-depressants. If I don't do something to correct that biology with something pharmacological, I am impairing them. These people cannot stay sober without medication."

Pinsky adds that education, understanding, and support groups - like 12 Step programs - are also critical in helping people who are addicted stay "clean and sober." And realistic entertainment programs can play a major part in the drug education and awareness process.

"I love the fact that as entertainers we're saying we have a responsibility to educate people about what is happening in the world today," says Faison. "Drug abuse goes on in everyday life and to ignore it is ignorant."