Soledad O’Brien: Reflections on “Heroin USA”

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

This past month, a powerful special report, “Heroin USA,” aired on the Al Jazeera network. Produced by award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien, the piece offers a very moving view of the lives and struggles of three heroin users from the suburbs of Cincinnati. Recently Phoenix House caught up with O’Brien and asked her to reflect on “Heroin USA” and what she’d like viewers to take away from the report.

PH: In producing “Heroin, USA,” you focused on “the new face of heroin addiction” with three very intimate portrayals. What did you want to accomplish with this approach?

SO: Every well-told story is told through the pain and struggles of individuals that viewers can identify with. The numbers around the heroin epidemic are overwhelming. We wanted to bring home not only the statistics, but the pain of these individuals who are struggling with addiction, and of their family members who are trying to figure out the best way to support them.

PH: What were the biggest insights you gained from doing the special report?

SO: Dr. Kolodny’s insights were breathtaking. The numbers of people affected by this epidemic are massive, and it seems every town is vulnerable to the scourge of heroin. I think there is tremendous stigma attached to addiction and addicts, and it was clear in our reporting that hiding from the problem and being ashamed of addiction is not helpful. Not for the individual, and certainly not for society in general.

PH: What did you learn about the heroin epidemic that most surprised you?

SO: I think the financial impact was probably the biggest surprise for me–the degree to which relatively small municipalities are dealing with a massive influx of emergencies and overdoses; the high cost of sending addicts to rehab two, three, five, ten times.

Heroin USA--screen capturePH: How did doing the documentary impact you on a personal level? 

SO: I think talking to Mike Heffron’s family was the hardest. We wanted to know who he was before addiction overtook his life. It was clear it was very painful for the family to even talk about it. It was brutally painful for them. And I hope by doing this story, we’ve been able to provide a service to them. We know they want to share this with schools and students and talk about Mike and discuss how dangerous using prescription drugs and trying heroin can be.

PH: What do you want most viewers, including policymakers and/or family members of people struggling with substance abuse disorders to take away from watching “Heroin USA”?

SO: I want them to see the human beings behind these terrible statistics. I want everyone to understand that these are people who are struggling, who sometimes do terrible things, and who often, ultimately, want to become normal through their drug use. I hope policy makers understand the massive impact that they’ve had, not just on public health, but on the finances of family members who are willing to do anything to save a loved one.

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  • Cindy

    I pray that this will open the eyes to those in Government to view addicts as people and good people who had hopes, dreams, and futures that were ripped away by the evils of drug addiction. We need more good treatment facilities for those with little or no resources as many have lost everything to drugs and not just those for the court ordered because many are not high quality care and have a very high relapse rate. Instead of putting non-violent offenders in jail/prison making the prison system a billion dollar industry put the money into good treatment centers which would attract good, qualified, & caring counselors and lower relapse rate. The government, charities, etc., really need to LOOK at the stats on addiction and so many lives being lost that could have been prevented.

  • Maura Christopher

    Thank you, Cindy. We absolutely agree with you. What’s happening is a tragedy that can be prevented. The government is beginning to pay attention to this, but not fast enough. As you say, so many lives are being lost that could have been prevented!

  • Jerome Livingston

    For many years, I was addicted to Heroin. Not proud of things I did and people whom I hurt. Drugs have taken me to the degradation of hell. Could count the time I overdose. And putting life on the line, in order to get a fix. You may learn more watch interview at

  • Gloria

    I did not get the opportunity to view the show but I can definitely relate as a mother of a heroin addict. The pain of watching your love one go through heroin addiction is heart wrenching. What is difficult for me now is finding a facility or facilites that take medical patients. Medical is another system that does nothing to help addicts or even non-addicts. What people don’t understand is that many of these addicts don’t want to stay in their addiction but the drug is evil and helps numb the emotions that the addict is experiencing because they feel useless, worthless and feel they don’t have an chance in “normal society” Jobs? not even a non-addict, college graduate can get employed. Our economy is just taking people into a downward spiral.

  • Jody

    I watched the documentary and it saddens me how the pharmaceutical companies actually start the real addiction and once they no longer can refill there prescriptions they turn to street drugs like Heroin I live in Chicago I’ve seen what pain killers do to people and when that just doesn’t do it no more they turn to Cocaine and Heroin but here they sell prescription drugs Heroin and Cocaine like its an Ice Cream truck selling Ice Cream I’ve lost several friends in the years of over dose as long as its money coming in the epidemic will never end cause it comes from the top I’ve seen it I knew someone who didn’t care what they sold to these people out there cause they said they were no good junkies hebwas arrested but then let out its a very sad world we live in they prefer money over a human beings life inwish there wasba way to just stop this war and save all those addicted but in reality there’s not a damn thing anyone can do .