Why Whitney Matters

why whitney matters

The good folks at Healthline have issued an engaging analysis of why Whitney matters to an America in the grips of addiction, as well as to the American families addiction has affected. So engaging was the analysis, in fact, that we at the Schnellenberger Family Foundation thought it well worth summarizing.

The piece, entitled “Addiction in America: Why Whitney Houston’s Story Matters,” doesn’t just analyze the causes of addiction vis-a-vis the documentary Whitney; it analyzes effects addiction had on the late, great singer’s entire life. It consists of insight from Janelle Westfall, clinical director at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Arizona, Yvette Jackson, assistant executive director at Devereux Arizona, as well as Sarah Allen Benton, the owner of Benton Behavioral Health Consulting and author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic. Like we said, the overall take is nothing short of engaging and well worth summarizing. So without further ado…

ACE is the Place Addiction is Often Born

ACE in this case stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. It includes abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), neglect (physical, emotional), and/or household dysfunction (mental illness, domestic abuse, substance abuse, incarceration, divorce). Children who were victims of ACE faced a higher likelihood for smoking, alcohol, and drug use. That was the conclusion reached by an extensive CDC-Kaiser Study on Adverse Childhood Experiences.

The traumatic experiences Houston endured as a child are discussed at length in the film Whitney. And, says Westfall, a child who endures traumatic events like those experienced by Houston is at “a much higher risk” for developing substance abuse and health issues later in life.

Genetics Can Influence Addiction

Studies conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimate that genetics may account for up to 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction. This explains why some people can use a drug and never try it again, while others develop a serious dependency.

“If someone has a genetic predisposition to addiction, then that can be very dangerous,” confirmed Westfall. “Experimentation can turn into an addiction rather quickly.” Therefore, it’s important to discuss a family history of addiction with doctors from an early age.

Peer Pressure

Yep, peer pressure can and often does play an important part in a person’s addiction. Even Whitney’s. Houston grew up in a middle-class home in East Orange, New Jersey that was surrounded by drug culture. In fact, her brother Michael even admitted to enabling her drug use. And according to the experts at Devereux Arizona, if those surrounding an individual are using a substance, they are far more likely to join in.

The Fame Game

It’s no secret that fame can exacerbate addiction. And Whitney’s story is exceptionally no exception. Houston was surrounded by sycophants and “yes-men” right to the too-early end. One might even say they hastened that early end.

“The curse of fame is often that there’s a lack of leverage within the family or entourage to lead a celebrity towards treatment,” Benton said. “Celebrities such as Whitney often surround themselves with people who benefit from enabling them. If an employee put pressure on them to seek help, they could risk losing their job.”

“There are also pressures that famous individuals such as Whitney may face which can be the perfect storm for addictive and mental health issues,” she adds. “Unlimited money and access to drugs, sycophants, career pressure, grueling schedules and a party-oriented lifestyle — for some.”

The Minority Factor

Discrimination and perceived discrimination cause African-Americans and those in the LGBT community to experience chronic stress at higher rates, reports the American Psychological Association. Stress, of course, can lead to a variety of health issues, including diabetes, mental disorders, and substance abuse.

Houston of course was a light-skinned black, so she experienced racial discrimination from both sides of the divide. That she was marketed as white only made matters that much worse. Healthline cites the 1989 instance of Houston being booed at the Soul Train Awards as an act that had a life-changing impact on her self-esteem.

Furthermore, Whitney claims Houston was “fluid.” That is, she was attracted to both men and women. Houston never came out as queer. And the question remains one of rumor and conjecture. Nevertheless, Houston’s being a gay icon during the ’80s and ’90s would provide ample opportunity to witness LGBTQ discrimination firsthand.

Why Whitney Matters

Why Whitney matters is as much a question of insight as it is of caution. So many things were not done or done wrong with regards to Houston’s addiction; seeing them all compiled on the big screen can be a useful tool for prevention. Seeing such a tragedy writ large can also be a lesson on how to behave toward our cultural icons, both as fans and as associates. Yes, they are superstars. But they’re human too. And racked with the same fallibility of all humans, regardless of how brightly they may shine.

In the end, why Whitney matters will be as much about the music as it will be the life that made such music. A life which meant so much to so many for so long, and which will continue to mean much to many, so long as we have hearts to feel.

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