A Teen Wrote and Co-Directed This Powerful PSA About the Rapid Spiral of Opioid Addiction

'Hey Charlie' aims to promote medical treatment over faith-based recovery

The long-form spot shows how quickly opioid addiction can derail a young life that seemed to be on the right track.
The Smithers Foundation

A recent opioid-abuse awareness ad isn’t just targeted at teens; it’s also written and directed by one.

“Hey Charlie,” is a nearly 4-minute ad from The Christopher D. Smithers Foundation and Columbia University Medical Center, following a 17-year-old boy living in suburbia as he goes from a star athlete with good grades to abusing prescription pills and worse—almost in an instant.

A pointed narrative about the kind of rapid, surprising decline that’s becoming increasingly common in recent years, it’s the brainchild of Brinkley Smithers—the 18-year-old granddaughter of the philanthropic nonprofit’s founder and great-granddaughter of its namesake. It’s also the centerpiece of the group’s broader effort, titled “Stop the Spiral,” to promote pharmacology-based treatments for opioid addiction—in short, using anti-craving drugs like methadone to help keep users clean, rather than relying on 12-step or faith-based abstinence approaches.

Some 60,000 Americans die each year from drug overdoses, some 40,000 of them involving opioids. Prescription opioid overdose alone—not counting drugs like heroin—claimed some 22,000 lives last year.

A high school senior, Smithers zeroed in on the idea last summer while volunteering at the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD)—an organization also founded by Smithers’ grandfather, and that receives funding from the Smithers Foundation—where she says she learned about the way opioid addiction affects families, and about the prevalent stigma around the disorder.

“A lot of people think people who are addicted to pills, or anything really, are just lowlifes—so they don’t really care and don’t really pay attention to it,” she says. “I wanted to make it like it could be any other normal kid that you just would imagine, who’s doing well; he just fell into the wrong thing at the wrong time at a party—how it usually kind of happens.”

After writing the script, she—then still age 17, like the protagonist—shared it with Steve Chassman, executive director at LICADD. He connected her with Robert Smyth, a director at production company Heavy Pictures, who co-helmed the spot to help bring it to life.

It was essential to the team that the film steer clear of the preachy tone so many PSAs adopt—Smithers cites the infamous egg in a frying pan, while others try to lecture young people about avoiding bad choices. “Coming from a kid’s point of view it never really works,” she says. “You can tell kids to not do things all you want but it’s no sure thing that they’re going to listen. I wanted to tell a story and have people feel something and make a choice for themselves, because that’s what’s most effective, I think.”

"I wanted to tell a story and have people feel something and make a choice for themselves, because that's what's most effective."
Brinkley Smithers, 18, "Hey Charlie" creator

So far, the clip has accumulated more than 3 million views, boosted by initial paid promotion on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Some viewers may note stylistic similarities to Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” especially in the editing, but Smithers says that while she understands the comparisons, she hadn’t seen the 2000 feature film—a brutally graphic generational cult classic about drug abuse—until after the PSA was finished (See also: Aronofsky’s 2011 anti-meth PSAs.). The goal of her piece, she says, is to get teenagers and adults talking more openly about opioid use and addiction “and to show you don’t have to be afraid to come forward, you don’t have to be afraid to get help. This could be you. This could be anyone, and (we want) to erase the stigma.”

A second PSA currently in the brainstorming phase, meanwhile, will focus more on showing how effective forms of treatment—evidence-based, medicine-assisted approaches—will play out. “People need to know it’s OK to get medication for this problem,” says Smithers, who’ll be attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to study film starting in the fall, and included “Hey Charlie” in her application portfolio.

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