From Jessie to Jenelle: Substance Abuse in Teen Shows from 1990-2014

I needed to make that joke because things are about to get heavy. Season 4 of Teen Mom 2 is where things do seem to get real when Jenelle develops a heroin addiction. Her addiction is so bad that she goes into debt, relationships in her life fall apart, and she doesn’t seem to do anything except get high with Kieffer and pass out. Jenelle states at one point that she is prepared to legally force her mother to stay away from her so she could keep doing drugs, which means Jenelle would willingly be giving up seeing her son since her mom has legal custody of her son. The season ends with Jenelle and Kieffer going catatonic on her couch after getting high offscreen.

The real face of addiction is more subdued yet disturbing than you'd expect (Screen: MTV)
The real face of addiction is more subdued yet disturbing than you’d expect (Screen: MTV)

The current season of Teen Mom 2, season 5, kicks off by catching the audience up on what has been happening with Jenelle since the last season ended: she broke up with Kieffer, went to counseling to get clean, got married, separated from her husband, had an abortion, met a new guy, and intentionally got pregnant with him. And that is the last her drug problems are addressed. A bigger deal is made this season over Jenelle’s irresponsible pet ownership skills than her past drug issues. Considering that one study found that 91% of recovering heroin addicts relapse (59% within the first week after leaving treatment), it seems unrealistic and almost irresponsible of Teen Mom 2 to make it seem that Jenelle has had no issues with substances since last season, save for a throw-away comment she makes about relapsing just one time after she met her now ex-husband.

Jenelle has admitted in interviews that she has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. She has stated that she has used various illegal drugs in an attempt to self-medicate. So, unlike the fictional characters of the early ‘90s, who were using substances to reach their full potential, teenagers in 2014 can watch a non-fictional young woman on a television show struggle with and then not address an addiction to hard core drugs.  One redeeming thing I will say about Teen Mom 2 is that they have title cards with information on getting help for substance abuse during episodes where Jenelle clearly struggles with her addiction.  Otherwise, though, they don’t feel the need to fully address this young woman’s struggle.

I guess I was wrong: shows are still treating substance abuse issues with a sweep-it-under-the-rug mentality. Saved by the Bell portrayed addiction as something that can be solved with a 1940’s-style arm shake and a good night’s sleep. Fast forward 24 years and Teen Mom 2 treats addiction like something that can be cured and never needs to be spoken of again. Both shows have featured characters with addictions, but quickly stopped portraying those addictions once newer story lines were needed.

Let’s end this article the way most networks end story lines about substance abuse, with a jaunty tune to pin a faux happy ending on a discussion that didn’t really change how people view a serious issue.

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About Becca Marshall 36 Articles
Becca has been writing about film and television since convincing her junior high English teacher that comparing and contrasting the film and stage versions of Romero and Juliet was a good idea for a term research paper. After getting her BA in English and film studies, she doubled down on liberal arts and got an MA in television, radio, and film from Syracuse University. Becca is incredibly proud to be an Aggie and entertains her non-Texan friends with Southern colloquialisms. Her hobbies include watching Golden Girls and her interests include all things zombies - she's simple, not basic. Email: