Prince Story Demonstrates the Stigma of Opioid Addiction, but Will It Help Change It?

prince-story-demonstrates-stigma-of-opioid-addictionAmerica has hopefully learned two things from the untimely overdose death of pop icon Prince.

First, the longer you wait to get treatment for the abuse of painkillers, the more likely you are to die.

Second, anyone who aids and abets someone in covering up their addiction is playing an active role in allowing a monumentally huge national problem rage on. Painkiller overuse is churning out hundreds of addicts daily, which often leads further down the slippery slope of addiction to drugs like heroin or fentanyl, which killed Prince.

“’What in the hell are you waiting for?’ should be the title of your article,” Anita Devlin said in an exclusive interview with “And as I tell the other mothers, if you want to keep it a secret, they are going to die.”

Devlin authored a book with her son, Mike, called “S.O.B.E.R.,” which is short for “son of a bitch, everything is real.” The book shows how Devlin and her son both swallowed their pride and got Mike treatment for his opioid addiction. As a result, Mike is alive today. And Anita is a happy mother again enjoying life with her children.

Everything related to Prince’s addiction was covered up so well, and for so many years, that America did not want to believe that he had fallen to drugs like so many celebrities before him. Prince was different, they said. Prince was a true man of God.

A third lesson learned? Even men of God can become addicts.

“And If the Elevator Tries to Bring You Down…”

One could argue that for years Prince’s songs hinted of drug use. In “Crazy,” he sings:

“And if the elevator tries to bring you down, go crazy, punch a higher floor! Woo!”

Addicts frequently talk about coming down from their high. No matter what drug you’re addicted to, coming down hurts.

Until you find help.

Those close to Prince, like the loved ones of so many opioid addicts, had planned on convincing the legendary musician to go on maintenance therapy for his longtime opioid problem. Maintenance therapy is treatment with drugs such as buprenorphine or methadone. For opioid addicts, the addiction can become so severe that withdrawals are not only painful, they can also be deadly. Maintenance therapy allows a person to live a relatively normal life. Addicts can work, provide for their families, and be present, unlike someone in pieces from painkillers or heroin.

Yet the stigma associated with maintenance therapy can be harsh and can come from all directions, including family members and even 12-Steps groups.

By the time Prince’s loved ones sought maintenance therapy for their friend, it was too late. When the medication arrived at Paisley Park to be administered the next day, Prince was dead – in an elevator, no less.

Maintenance Therapy Can Work, but Is Highly Stigmatized

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Maia Szalavitz, journalist and author of the upcoming book “Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary Way of Understanding Addictions,” says she became hooked on Prince and injecting drugs at the same time. She associated the song “Kiss” with the time she first shot up.

“This tragedy makes clear that what likely killed him, and is killing so many others, is not just addiction itself but the stigma we attach to it and, even worse, to the most effective treatment for it,” she writes in a piece headlined, “The public scorns the addiction treatment Prince was going to try. They shouldn’t.”1

“If we really want to stop the overdose epidemic, we need to get serious about providing the only treatment known to reduce the death rate by 50 percent to 70 percent or more: indefinite, potentially lifelong, maintenance on a legal opioid drug like methadone or buprenorphine,” she writes in the Washington Post piece.

“The data on maintenance is clear: If you increase access to it, death, crime and infectious disease drop; if you cut it short, all of those harms rise.”

Medical examiners finally made the cause of Prince’s death official June 2: an accidental, self-administered dose of fentanyl. They did not specify how Prince ingested the fentanyl, a dangerous painkiller essentially reserved for cancer patients. Prince suffered from hip pain and had surgery on his hip several years ago, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.2

People who mix opioids with other drugs, such as benzodiazepines, which are used to treat anxiety, face an even greater risk of fatal overdose.

Can Prince’s Legacy Serve to Destigmatize Opioid Abuse?

In her Washington Post piece, Szalavitz ends on a somber note: “Prince’s death was awful enough. A man lost his life, we lost a great artist – and we lost the chance for him to model and destigmatize the best treatment we currently have for addiction.”

One can still hope that, even in death, Prince’s now public battle with opioids will serve to destigmatize the millions of Americans suffering from opioid addiction.

Prince, in fact, represents a particularly vulnerable demographic, as reported by NPR on All Things Considered.3 The story quoted U.S Centers for Disease Control & Prevention statistics that showed that in 2013 and 2014, people ages 45 to 64 accounted for about half of drug overdose deaths.

“It is indeed a demographic to keep an eye on,” Boston Medical Center epidemiologist Traci Green is quoted in the piece as saying. “People in this older age range may be more likely to live alone or be otherwise isolated – maybe from divorce or because their kids have moved out.”

Devlin agreed that the Prince case, one cover-up of his rumored drug problem after another by people close to him, all the way up until the medical examiner’s report was released, shows how stigma is the main accomplice in the deadly opioid epidemic.

“The judging has got to be flushed down the toilet,” she said. “He had help on the way. Why would you risk dying. Why would you keep it a secret?”


1.Szalavitz, M. (2016, May 9). The public scorns the addiction treatment Prince was going to try. They shouldn’t. The Washington Post. Retrieved June 4, 3016, from
2.Chanen, D., Olson, J. (2016, June 3). Prince died from accidental overdose of fentanyl. Minneapolis Star Tribune. Retrieved June 4, 2016, from
3.Gourlay, K. (2016, May 5; updated June 3). “In Prince’s Age Group, Risk of Opioid Overdose Climbs.” National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Retrieved June 4, 2016, from

Written by David Heitz