By Andrew Burki, Chief Public Policy Officer, Hanley Foundation
Sesame Street recently introduced a new muppet named Karli, who is in foster care as a result of her mother’s substance use disorder. As you would expect, this storyline was celebrated by recovery and prevention advocates around the world. However, not everyone feels as warm and loving about Sesame Street’s inclusion and attempt to normalize this population of marginalized children and their struggling parents.
In a recent piece by Boston Herald journalist, Jessica Heslam, she lays out her displeasure with Sesame Street and makes the case against Karli. Among other things, she mentions that she is the mother of a six-year-old; that Sesame Street has an audience comprised entirely of toddlers; and questions why Sesame Street is getting a ‘pass’ on a storyline that would evoke societal outrage if it appeared in Bubble Guppies or Paw Patrol. I’m going to assume that Jessica is what she would consider a good mother to her six-year-old, the same way my wife and I, both in long-term recovery for well over a decade each, are good parents to our three-year-old.
Which brings us to the real issue here. Jessica isn’t by any means alone in her out-of-sight-out-of-mind worldview of substance use disorder’s impact on American families. For decades, recovery advocates, government organizations, and nonprofits have called for stigma reduction surrounding substance use disorders and mental health concerns. Leaving aside insurance parity violations and socioeconomic disparity being the most determinant factors in who gets to go to treatment and who gets to go to prison, who gets to recover and who gets to go into the ground for the exact same health condition being a matter of discrimination, not a matter of stigma, Jessica’s piece showcases the empathy gap at the heart of America’s inability to end the crisis.
Sesame Street doesn’t just have an audience of toddlers. It has an audience comprised of children and their parents, grandparents, or caregivers. Statistically speaking, a significant number of those caregivers either have a substance use disorder or are in a primary caregiver position because of a substance use disorder in someone else. At a time when we have over 70,000 Americans dying from opioid use disorder, over 90,000 Americans dying from alcohol-related illnesses, and over 45,000 Americans dying from suicide each year, it’s long past time that someone with the clout of Sesame Street stepped up and started normalizing the experiences of the countless children who are collateral damage and victims of our inability to properly address the epidemic tearing through our country.
How many grandparents who are unexpectedly raising a second set of children due to their own child’s active substance use disorder or death, do you think sit down and watch Sesame Street each and every day with their grandchildren? How many kids in our children’s schools do you think are going home to an unstable environment as a result of a substance use disorder? We can continue to pretend that our children can be sheltered from the crisis, but at a time when virtually no American child will reach adulthood without experiencing deaths in their communities, it is negligent to do so. I hope that we are able to look back from the right side of history and view Karli with the same reverence that we view Mr. Rogers when he took on segregation in swimming pools.
All the “A is for Addiction” and “Can you tell me how to get to … rehab?” snarky jabs won’t end the crisis in our country. When it comes to Karli and the children impacted by the crisis, the answer to the question, “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?” is tragically simple. Open your front door and walk in any direction. There’s hardly a cul-de-sac in a gated community, a high rise apartment, or dirt road in rural America without children traumatized by the true human cost of this American epidemic.