What Harm Reductionists Think About Sesame Street’s Addiction Representation

    Sesame Street, the long-running children’s television show, has taken on issues ranging from exercise to incarceration. On October 9, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the show, announced new educational resources for parents and providers to support children who are coping with their parents’ problematic drug use. They are also adding a new plot line for muppet Karli, whose mother is “struggling with addiction” and returning from rehab.

    Sesame Street is aiming to “break down the stigma of parental addiction and help families build hope for the future,” as Sherrie Westin, Sesame Workshop’s president of social impact and philanthropy, explained.

    The show has received mostly public applause and “praise” for its “good work discussing the tough topic of addiction,” though socially conservative media commentators have raised the concern that the new initiative to address the “drug scourge […] crosses a line” or unduly “introduce[s] new fears into [children’s] psyches.”

    Within the harm reduction movement, opinions on the efficacy of the new initiative vary: a high school health educator believes that the show is promoting the building blocks of harm reduction for drug use, while two activists warn that the show could be sending messages that undercut a harm reduction approach in the first place.

    (Sesame Workshop did not respond for comment by publication time.)

    “I really appreciated the compassion and empathy,” Sasha Simon, the program manager of the Drug Policy Alliance’s new high school drug curriculum rooted in harm reduction, told Filter. One example of this could be the way the resource materials offer scripts for adults to explain to kids that their parent “is not a bad person,” and instead have “a disease that makes him/her lose control when drinking/using drugs.”

    “That’s a huge part of harm reduction. I think it’s a great place to start.”

    Dinah Ortiz, a parent advocate supervisor at The Bronx Defenders and a Filter contributor, is concerned that Sesame Street’s focus on the disease model of addiction, and not drug use more generally—which ranges from from abstinence to chaotic and out of control—could add fuel to the fire of child-parent separations that target parents of color. 

    “Sesame Street needs to talk about this realistically,” she told Filter, noting that rehab—which is where the character Karli’s mom went and which triggered her entry into foster care—does not work for everyone, and some people who struggle with chaotic drug use simply do not need it. “We want to stick [the parent who uses drugs] somewhere and keep the cycle going.”

    For Ortiz, this is personal. She, a Black woman, was separated from her children after her non-chaotic drug use, as she described it, was reported to the Office of Child and Family Services. “I was able to keep a job and have a roof over their head. It got chaotic when everyone turned on me and called child services. I lost my job and became homeless. Now everyone’s pointing their finger at me.”

    Carol Katz-Beyer, the co-founder of Families for Sensible Drug Policy, is concerned that Sesame Street could be reinforcing the systems that already break up families. “Do we really want to normalize having a parent behind bars or in a rehab bed as a societal outcome we encourage children to accept?” she posed to Filter. “Ultimately, a broken family will not serve kids well.”

    For Simon, another concern was how Sesame Workshop seems to be using “addiction” as a stand-in for all problematic drug use. She suspects the expansive continuum of drug use was reduced to “addiction” because it is “more known in lay popular culture. “I’m not mad at it but I do think it could do better.”

    Katz-Beyer “worr[ies] about the perceptions of kids who might now see their parents’ use of all substances as a concern for misuse.” For her, the cultural expediency could have harmful repercussions. “Many parents indulge in moderate consumption of substances, and problematic use is different than moderate use. What about a parent who openly smokes cannabis as a way to refrain from alcohol or opioid addiction? The message I see here conflates the two, giving the impression that all use is undesirable.”

    Simon would disagree with this, instead believing that Sesame Workshop “clarifies problematic drug use for what it feels like for kids. I think it’s good for kids to identify problematic drug use.”

    Ortiz rejects some parts of the Sesame Workshop resources that suggest abstinence-only and 12-step approaches, while not depicting medication-assisted treatments, like buprenorphine and methadone. In a response to a Frequently Asked Question about relapsing, they wrote that the parent “needs to try hard to not take drugs or drink alcohol” and that “If the person stops drinking or taking drugs, they can start to get better,” while not recognizing the benefits of moderating drug and alcohol use. The materials also wrote, “One thing that can really help him/her is going to meetings to talk with others who have the same sickness.”

    She worries this misses the point—namely, social determinants of health. “If we just start humanizing people and meeting them where they’re at, and talking about treatment as a whole entire person’s life, and not just about the drugs, then we’re going somewhere.”

    But Simon says these critiques are moving beyond the intentions of the creators. “This is not an adult conversation. It’s a child’s conversation we’re having.”

    Screenshot of Karli (left) and Elmo (right); by Sesame Workshop via Youtube

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