opioid, oxy, drugs

Barney, participation trophies, and Nintendo: We didn’t see an opioid crisis coming?

Overdose deaths involving opiates and opioids have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Using information from death certificates compiled for the CDC’s Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER) database, almost half of the 13,000 heroin overdose deaths in 2015 (5,941) were to people born between 1981 and 2000. Prescription opioid drug overdose deaths match the same age bubble.

Clearly, a single generation or demographic isn’t involved in the crisis. If half of the deaths occur to one age band, half don’t. However one half is a statistically significant batch of dope deaths.

There are those who would direct the anger about this at pharmaceutical companies. They made stronger opioids and aggressively marketed them by the truckload to every doc with a prescription pad. There would be no supply, however, without demand. Economics. So what spiked the demand? A purple dinosaur, a medal for everyone, and constant entertainment with a reset button. They could be as much to blame as overzealous Rx writers and an uninterrupted flow of street smack.

An entire generation programmed for susceptibility

Barney, the purple dinosaur, became a phenom with the Pack-n-Play set in 1992. It was geared toward kids aged 1 to 8 years with sometimes educational value. Barney had kids singing, “I love you, you love me” etc. until the runaway hit was canned in 2009. It lives on today in syndication.

One specific rub on Barney is that the show didn’t help kids learn how to deal with negative feelings and emotions. As one commentator put it, the real danger from Barney was, “denial: the refusal to recognize the existence of unpleasant realities. For along with his steady diet of giggles and unconditional love, Barney offers our children a one-dimensional world. Everyone must be happy. Everything must be resolved right away.'” Ouch.

On the topic of not dealing with unpleasant realities is that there is, in the real world, a concept of winning and losing. They are not two separate and unrelated concepts: You cannot have all winners and no non-winners. We used to call them ‘losers,’ a la racer Dale Earnhardt once proclaiming ‘second place is the first place loser.’

It’s hard to peg an exact year when the everyone-gets-a-trophy movement began but a 2015 episode of the HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel documentary points to the late 1980’s or early 90’s as well. It was initially a California phenomenon. It was to boost the self-esteem of inner city youth. “We thought, especially for kids in struggling communities, if we just told them they were great they would believe it. Then they’ll achieve more because they were certain they were great,” researcher Ashley Merryman told HBO.

The first gaming system to reach mega-saturation in American households was the 8-bit Nintendo. It launched in October 1985 and Mario Bros. could be spotted babysitting millions of kids by the next fall. In fact, the entire gaming industry was $100 million in 1985: In 1986 it was $430 million, $310 million of it was Nintendo’s share.

Not blaming the opioid victim

Sociologists are big on generational cohorts like GenX or Millennials or Baby Boomers and enjoy painting with a broad brush the ills or successes of each cohort. The ones turning to the relief they find in opiates and opioids are not the ones to find fault with. Who gave them Barney, participation trophies, and gaming systems?

The Recession stymied economic growth, halted job creation, kept older Americans in the workforce longer, and encouraged younger American couples to have two wage earners. That Recession was 1982, NOT the most recent one of 2008. The opioid tragedy of those born 1981-2000 was written before many of them had even learned to read. GenX and Baby Boomer parents and grandparents who authentically loved and cared for kids, hobbled the same kids. How? By setting up an unrealistic world of expectations that all things are resolved in an hour, everyone gets an award and we must all be entertained all the time.

The grave consequences of an opioid crisis for this generation were entirely foreseeable – in hindsight. It’s like when the world first heard that Queen’s Freddie Mercury was gay. When we went back and watched the old videos we collectively said, ‘Well, that makes sense.”


Addicted Minds’ Editor-in-Chief, Scott Stevens, is the author of four alcohol books including the December 2016 release, I Can’t See The Forest With All These Damn Trees In The Way: The Health Consequences of Alcohol. The new BookLocker title is available now on Amazon (viewbook.at/prehab), alcohologist.com, and everywhere books are sold. Photo by Orcearo, used with permission.