Using Cory Monteith’s tragic death as a teaching moment

It’s a sad time for Glee fans. Cory Monteith, 31, one of the show’s stars, was found dead this week in his hotel room from a combination of heroin and alcohol.

From an early age, Monteith had struggled with addiction and wasn’t shy about discussing it. In a 2011 interview, the actor described how he started drinking and smoking marijuana at 13 years old, often skipping school to do so. By the time he quit school at 16, the actor said he was “out of control” and “had a serious problem.”

But for younger Glee viewers who only knew Monteith as Finn Hudson—the clean-cut star athlete turned glee club member—understanding the difference between the lifestyle of the actor and the character he portrayed on TV may be difficult.

“My 14-year-old daughter is a big Glee fan, and she definitely was shocked by this news,” says Sharon Levy, MD, MPH, director of Boston Children’s Hospital Adolescent Substance Abuse Program. “It was a topic of conversation in our house all weekend. As a parent, I really wanted to know what she thought about the circumstances around his passing and gauge her understanding of how serious a problem addiction can be.”

When discussing Monteith with her daughter, Levy says the conversation focused on how drugs and alcohol can impact people in all walks of life—no matter how young, popular and successful—and about how his death now serves as a tragic reminder of that fact.

“In my opinion, one of the most upsetting aspects about his situation, and the thousands of cases like it, is that addiction is a preventable disorder,” Levy says. “But the only way you can guarantee you’ll avoid addiction and the struggles it leads to is to not use alcohol and drugs, especially during adolescence, which is when most addictions develop.”

Sharon, Levy, MD, MPH

Unfortunately, Levy says making this message stick with young people can be a tough sell for parents, especially when there is no shortage of popular media suggesting that drinking and using more accessible drugs like marijuana is typical teenage behavior that rarely leads to problems. Even when talking with her daughter about Monteith, Levy was reminded of an early Glee plotline, where the late star’s character has marijuana planted on him by a teacher in an attempt to blackmail him into joining the glee club—a trick that works in the end to the delight of everyone involved.

Given Monteith’s real life struggles with early drug use, the scene’s glib portrayal of an adult making drugs available to a teenager seems inappropriate. But now, in the wake of his death, the scene takes on a far more ominous tone.

“At the time, I was shocked about the message the show was delivering, as if it was not a big deal that an adult would pin marijuana on a student to coerce him to join a school group,” she says. “And while I was disappointed with how they handled that scene, it did provide an opportunity for me to talk with my daughter about how even trusted people can do things that are wrong and have harmful consequences. I’m hoping that talk will encourage her to think for herself if she is ever in a situation where a trusted friend or even a respected adult offers her drugs.”

While some parents may not be overly eager to use TV shows or the real-life the death of a TV star as teachable moments, Levy says the opportunity to engage adolescents in a frank and timely discussion about the consequences of addiction is almost always worth the effort.

“The conversations that result from this type of news story may not always be easy to have, but they’re important because they provide parents with a chance to talk about what could become a difficult real-life situation for their kids, in a way that doesn’t seem forced,” she says. “Involved parents and well-informed children and teens are the first and best line of defense against substance abuse and these types of teaching moments only reinforce that idea.”

For more information about Boston Children’s Hospital Adolescent Substance Abuse Program, visit their website.