One of my responsibilities as an older sister is the drug talk. While I’ve taken it upon myself to pass down a voice of reason, there is a noticeable discrepancy in my experience with drug education and my personal reality — both from being a part of Gen Z and having gone to an elitist high school abundant with academic pressure — that hinders my ability to articulate the reality of drug use and addiction.

Growing up, a walk across 125th St. in East Harlem, an area historically saturated with opioids, and sights of locals half-asleep on the sidewalks would be accompanied with harmful rhetoric, such as, “This is what happens when you do drugs,” or “This is why you shouldn’t do drugs.” Not to mention, candid and unwarranted photos depicting Lindsay Lohan’s “rise and fall” were consistently plastered on the front pages of magazines I skimmed through in supermarkets. The truth is, though, I knew more drug addicts in high school than I could physically count, as all sorts of substances served as a means to grapple with academic pressure. Although the problem at hand was beyond the scope of study-drug abuse, my peers’ seemingly successful social and academic life and most importantly, appearances hardly measured up to the warnings issued by both my parents and the tabloids.

In light of this discrepancy, “Euphoria,” a show illustrating the inner lives of several teens, has not been devoid of criticism pertaining to the unrealistic portrayal and romanticization of drug use. Specifically, critics fear that the show’s depictions of drug use would promote unhealthy coping mechanisms among an impressionable audience. However, while critics simultaneously claim that clips from “Euphoria” falsely diagnose addiction as glamorous and that their intention is to end addiction, the “harsh reality” — images of half-asleep addicts and celebrities after benders — is neither realistic nor productive to their goal either.

For one, images of the “harsh reality” frame addiction as a personal flaw — a deficit in the moral character and willpower of users — when empirically that is not the case. The prescription opioid epidemic is a prominent example. It stemmed from a mid-1980s study that shifted cultural attitudes about opioids to consider them a low-risk, non-addictive cure for pain and about pain itself as a condition that necessitated treatment. Marketing for prescription opioids as a “miracle drug” would continue well into the 21st century as doctors in West Virginia and Kentucky, specifically, became the target of sales pitches for newer and less addictive opioid products. As of now, one in four participants in long-term prescription opioid therapy have become addicted.

If the epidemic has taught us one thing, it’s that despite the claims of for-profit studies, opioids are indeed addictive. Addiction often operates outside the scope of personal willpower, taking root in patients who most likely had no intention of participating in the epidemic. Now, doctors ask patients about their family and personal history with addiction, sexual abuse and psychological issues when prescribing opioids, all of which new research proves can exacerbate one’s susceptibility to addiction.

Here’s where “Euphoria” gets addiction right — the show supplements addiction with narratives surrounding the mental health crisis. In other words, personal issues are only at fault in so much as they underscore broader systemic issues that have also empirically fueled drug addiction in certain communities. The crack epidemic, for example, that resulted from the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s and primarily influenced predominantly Black communities in urban areas, was cyclically fueled by systemic issues, such as racism and mass incarceration, which failed to get crack off the streets, and, consequently, a lack of holistic treatments, such as mental health and addiction counseling.

The intention of amplifying media representations of addiction with “harsher” depictions and dubbing them as reality to ultimately end addiction may be noble, but these images ultimately diverge from the evidence and history of drug addiction as systematic by placing the burden of sheer willpower onto those who are struggling. While the “harsh reality” may ease anxiety among “Euphoria” critics, for example, doing so is only counterproductive to both the efforts of humanizing the stigma and, as the war on drugs has shown, centering treatment as the locus of addiction discourse.

When it comes to “Euphoria’s” casual images of drug use and the tabloids’ exploitative photographs of Lindsay Lohan, simply put, these images are really two sides of the same coin, and we cannot replace Hollywood misrepresentation with another distorted and subliminal form of it, as representation and education are inextricably linked within the addiction discourse. While the media must do its part in neither sensationalizing nor dehumanizing addiction, we must also do ours by recognizing our own prejudices within drug education.

Julie Ha is a sophomore double-majoring in English and comparative literature.