Deborah Cohen: Amy Winehouse’s battle with addiction

Deborah CohenWhen celebrity ill-health and death play out across the media, the chattering classes inevitably all have their say.

With Jade Goody attention turned to cervical cancer (and created mass hysteria about the age screening should begin); and Kylie’s breast cancer, which she survived, raised its profile.

With Amy Winehouse, who died this weekend, the attention needs to turn addiction. Following her death, the eulogies from famous friends in newspapers and outpourings on Twitter masked a darker tone.

The cause of her death has not, as yet, been confirmed by post-mortem. But irrespective of the cause, what her death revealed was a grotesque misunderstanding for people with addictions—people who, as one person put it “bring it on themselves.” 

“Avoidable though…I have far more sympathy for those shot in Norway than someone who did it to themselves I’m afraid,” someone posted up on a friend’s Facebook wall—as if people have a limited compassion quota that’s not worth wasting on “wasters.”

It was her own choice; she didn’t have to do it; she could’ve got out, I’ve heard people say over the past few days. It was just a consequence of being part of the uber-cool drug fuelled music scene with it’s week long binges and extravagant excess.

“There are far more tragedies in the world than a smackhead singer who, effectively, glorified taking drugs,” another said.

Her celebrity status meant every painful twist in her chaotic lifestyle was played out in lurid detail in the press— blood soaked ballet pumps, arms razed with scratches, slumped in a corner at parties. Hardly glorification.

I’d been to several festivals where she’d played—or tried to. Incoherent and stumbling, close-ups on large screens beamed out a small pale girl whose wrinkled skin belied her age.

People turned, tutted, walked away. Some jeered and booed. Others stood and watched wide-eyed in horror. (Some wide-eyed from ingesting a similar cocktail of class As and booze—their drug consumption not having turned bad.) You have to question the wisdom of thrusting such a vulnerable person onto a stage—trial by rather hypocritical festival going crowd. Sympathy, one the whole, was notable by its absence.

But for all those whose every woe or entry into an expensive rehab clinic is an opportunity for a front page exclusive, there are thousands more whose lives are beset by addictions away from the camera lens.

The Priory, with its en-suite bathrooms and lush surroundings, has become synonymous with the excesses of celebrity lifestyle—it’s detox luxe. But if someone who does have the means to afford tailored addiction treatment gets sucked back in once they find themselves surrounded by coked-up liggers again, what about all those who find themselves relying on an already fragmented drug service?

The day after Winehouse’s death, the independent drugs monitoring body DrugScope, and several other charities, warned that budget cuts to drug and alcohol services for young people are having a “devastating impact” on the fight against substance abuse. Included in these cuts is treatment for young people battling addiction.

Perhaps, tellingly, comments such as, “Hardly, a surprise was it?” and “she was a junkie, after all” expose a grim reality of the state our understanding about addictions: why they occur in some people; how to treat them; what policy best governs the causes; and, who profits from it all?
It’s something that the EU is well aware of and is funding a 5-year multi-million Euro project bringing together 90 researchers in 25 countries (the BMJ is one of the partner organisations) to explore these very issues.  

Perhaps, ironically given the context, the media invitation to the launch event in May says that the project intends “to shine a bright spotlight” on this too often neglected area of public policy. Let’s hope that spotlight refocuses it on what’s going really change public attitudes—which clearly aren’t the graphic photos of a young woman dying through addiction.

Deborah Cohen, investigations editor, BMJ.