05/27/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Can We Stop the Drug Overdose Epidemic in Hollywood?

What do Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, River Phoenix, John Belushi, and Michael Jackson all have in common? They are all celebrities who died at or near the height of their career due to a drug overdose. Of course, the list of Hollywood celebrities who have overdosed is long and varied, with some succumbing to their addictions at low points in their career and others at the top of their game. But regardless of the timing, death by drug overdose is a recurrent theme in Hollywood that never seems to end.

Granted, people from all walks of life overdose on drugs - businesspeople, housewives, college students, etc. However, Hollywood's elite are often the role models of our children and young adults. Today's actors, musicians, and comedians set the bar for young and old alike. What they do seems normal, no matter how abnormal it really is. Perhaps this is why overdosing is often pegged as a "Hollywood problem" even though it occurs everywhere; after all, celebrities get recognized more often for the bad things they do rather than the good.

In reality, dying of a drug overdose is really just a form of a larger problem - suicide. While most people who engage in drug use think they're just having a fun time and don't intend to kill themselves, they know the dangers going in and still do the risky behavior. So, yes, they are taking their own life, much like the distressed businessman who jumps off a bridge or the young college student who inflicts a gunshot to her head.

The Realities of Stardom

What is it about Hollywood life that makes drug use and overdose so prevalent? For many celebrities, the constant pressure to be pretty enough, sexy enough, rich enough, talented enough, or thin enough is too much to bear. Even though Oscar parties look exciting and TV blooper reels make acting appear much more fun than cubicle life, the reality is that Hollywood and celebrity status are filled with stress. For people in this group, drug use is a way to deal with the constant pressure.

For others, the drug use stems from feelings of guilt. These people believe they are not worthy of their success and fame. They feel like a fraud and use drugs to mask their insecurities. Still, others have a sense of entitlement. They believe they can do whatever they want and that nothing can hurt them. They even say things like, "I'm above it all," and "That will never happen to me." These people see drug use a thrill-seeking leisure activity.

Unfortunately, in all these scenarios, a little drug use is never enough. Once these people reach one level of high, they need to go further for a greater high. In a way, it's a lot like what happens with sex addicts. Once they start dabbling in sex, they need a bigger rush, so they go to threesomes, then they go to orgies, then they go to S&M. The pop singer Madonna talked about this over a decade ago in her book Sex, where she explained that once you try something, you have to take the next step. It's the same with drugs. Once you get a small high, you get used to it and need a bigger and better high just to feel normal. All too often, though, the high goes too far, resulting in an overdose situation.

More Questions than Answers

Why haven't we as a society resolved this issue? Why isn't there something in place to help all people who suffer from drug addictions? Sure, we have programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and we have rehab centers and counselors, but why aren't these interventions and programs working? Why is it that when people are on top, they tend to self-destruct?

Case in point: Look at Lindsay Lohan. She's a very talented actress, yet she continues to drink and use drugs even though she's seen several of her friends die because of drugs and alcohol. She even publicly says, "I'm so afraid that's going to be my fate."

What is going on in our society today that is so terrible that many people don't want to be here anymore? Why is it so hard to deal with the day-to-day stresses, not just in Hollywood, but everywhere? Why does the drug and overdose problem seem to continually get worse rather than get better?

Perhaps it comes down to having more support systems in place for people. Obviously, what we're doing now isn't working well enough. And while it's certainly true that people need to take personal responsibility for their life and actions, they also need support in the form of family, friends, and/or therapists/counselors to help them through the ups and downs of life. Yes, rehab is one thing to get people off the drugs, but then they need the support to keep going and to find out why they need the drugs in the first place.

Perhaps it's also about educating our youth better. Having ups and downs in life is normal, and today's young people need to not only understand that, but also have coping skills to handle the ups, the downs, and everything in between. If they were taught proper coping skills, perhaps they wouldn't feel the need to resort to drugs or alcohol. Perhaps they'd be better equipped to deal with their emotions and problems in a constructive way rather than a destructive one.

A Life Worth Living
The only way to solve this problem is to tackle it head on... and to do so quickly. With more than 33,000 people dying from drug overdose each year, help can't come a minute, or a life, too soon. So while we all want our children to have future successes equivalent to people like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, we certainly don't want our kids to imitate these celebrities' fate. Ultimately, if Hollywood celebrities are going to be our children's role models, then we need to help them model a drug-free life, one that is worth not only living, but also imitating.