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Is Hollywood in the Middle of a Drug Epidemic?

From Cory Monteith’s death due to an overdose to Lamar Odom’s addiction, is celebrity drug use on the rise?

Cory MonteithFrazer Harrison/Getty Images
Story Highlights
There is an uptick in the usage of illegal substance among stars -- particularly young stars
Prescription drugs and constant media scrutiny are both contributing factors
We do celebrities a disservice when we make either fun of, or downplay, their addictions

It seems like every day, we learn about a new celebrity with a drug problem. Usually, it comes to light when the addiction has already gone too far; Lamar Odom's drug use tearing his marriage apart, for example, or Lindsay Lohan being caught with cocaine. Other times, we find out about the drug use after the celebrity has stopped, as in the cases of Zac Efron (who quietly went to rehab earlier this year) and Brad Pitt (who has said he wasted much of the '90s getting high). Sometimes, celebrity drug use gets in the media because they're actively bragging about it, as Miley Cyrus has been doing lately. And then there's the worst-case scenario: celebrities whose drug addictions take their lives. Cory Monteith is the latest, most startling victim.

This is not a new issue, obviously. Fame and drug use have gone hand-in-hand from the earliest days of Hollywood. When a person becomes a celebrity, they're suddenly under intense pressure to perform, act, and live a certain way. At the same time, they're becoming isolated from their parents, their old friends, and other support systems. Drugs are plentiful in Hollywood, and they become a go-to coping mechanism for stars who are uncomfortable in the spotlight.

Recently, however, it feels like a new star with a drug problem emerges every week. And the number of famous people who have died from overdoses in the past five years alone -- including Monteith, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Corey Haim and Amy Winehouse -- is staggering. Do we simply know more about celebrities' bad habits in the era of TMZ? Or could it be that the Hollywood drug epidemic is getting worse?

One aspect of the problem is definitely on the rise and it's not just among celebrities: the prescription drug abuse has skyrocketed, particularly among young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990. (100 people die from drug overdoses every day in the U.S.) These drugs are legal, but taken recreationally, benign things like anti-anxiety meds, pain killers, muscle relaxants and cold medicines become dangerous. The wrong combination of pills, drugs and alcohol can be deadly, but still, people tend to think of prescription drugs as somehow harmless. In nearly every recent case of celebrity death by overdose, prescription pills played a role.

So what has changed in the past ten years for celebrities, and young celebrities in particular?

The answer is fundamental: celebrity itself has changed. We see more of their dark sides, for one. Once upon a time, studios and the media would go out of their way to protect celebrities from bad press, which meant hiding (and often enabling) their addictions. These days, stars don’t have that luxury.

But also, thanks to ever-present paparazzi, the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and so on, celebrities are expected to live their lives more publicly and transparently than ever before. And that's enough to drive anyone to drink. Can't relate? Think about being at a party with people you don't know too well, and how much more relaxed you are after a glass of wine. Now imagine you're under pressure to impress people all the time. Stress and anxiety are side effects of fame, and drugs and alcohol become easy -- but dangerous -- coping mechanisms.

We all understand this, to an extent, which is why celebrities who have overcome their addictions (Robert Downey Jr., for example) are admired. Unfortunately, the public has no mercy for celebrities who are actively in the throes of addiction. This is particularly an issue when the celebrity is female, like Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes. When we gawk at them, or make fun of them, we like to think that we're shaming them into getting help. In reality, we're probably making it harder for them.

We can't change the culture that drives celebrities to drug use. But it couldn't hurt to have more sympathy for people who are suffering from addiction, whether they seem perfect from the outside (like Monteith) or a total mess (like Winehouse). And let's stop acting like celebrity drug deaths are either out-of-the-blue accidents or inevitable tragedies. They're part of a larger, scarier trend, and it's not going away.

Donna Kaufman is a freelance writer and iVillage contributor. Find her on Twitter and Google+.

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A writer wonders why rich white celebs overdosing is more tragic.

Writer Helen Redmond compares the recent drug-related deaths of two actors, Cory Monteith and The Wire's DeAndre McCullough, to reveal how race and fame factor into our understanding of addiction. "Cory Monteith’s overdose death was portrayed as a profound loss that could and should have been prevented," she writes. "McCullough’s death was discussed as inevitable after a long struggle with an 'addiction that won out' or as another account put it, "a demon inside of him that he couldn’t get rid of.'"

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Dr. Drew says the dangers of drug addiction are worse for stars.

"Celebrities don't have the same consequences that the rest of us do," addiction specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky told CNN after Whitney Houston’s death of a drug overdose. “People are too enamored with having them in their life or having them make money. That’s the special liability they have that pulls them out of the focus on their human condition.”

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An anonymous actress quits Adderall and speaks on the epidemic.

In this eye-opening editorial, a well-known actress writes anonymously about her decision to quit using the prescription drug Adderall. She describes how the drug nearly wrecked both her life and career, as she became "dead-eyed and soulless and raggedy and gaunt." The worst part, she says, is that everyone in Hollywood seems to be casually using Adderall, without any awareness of the consequences.

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