PTTC Post Article - February 2020

P is for Prevention: How Sesame Street is Creating Awareness of Substance Use Disorders and Prevention for Youth

Sesame Street Workshop
Sesame Street Workshop

Launched in 2013, Sesame Street in Communities is a branch of Sesame Workshop’s outreach efforts. The online platform contains an abundance of resources for children, parents, and child-development professionals, including a focus on Parental Addiction. In a recent video, this topic is brought to light when Elmo talks about a friend, Karli, and her mother who “was away for a while.” Elmo’s father responded in true Sesame Street fashion openly and honestly discussing substance use and the help that is needed for those living with substance use disorders.


Other videos include conversations between Elmo, Karli and her human friend, 10-year-old Salia whose mom and dad share the same struggle as Karli’s mom. The conversations address topics that relate to substance use disorder ranging anywhere from guilt to recovering mechanisms. Karli’s introduction in May 2019 is building awareness of the opioid epidemic and improving prevention strategies at the earliest ages. By tackling the stigma and creating awareness, Sesame Street is taking the opportunity to show how to recognize substance misuse, how to get help, and how children and families can cope with the challenges of the opioid epidemic and its effect on families.


Sherrie Westin, president of social impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop says the new online resources are meant “to break down the stigma of parental addiction and help families build hope for the future”. “There’s nothing else out there that addresses substance abuse for young kids from their perspective,” Kama Einhorn, a senior content manager with Sesame Workshop, shared in an interview with Fast Company.


“I think that [Sesame Street in Communities] could have far-reaching implications, and it can help normalize for children, the experience of having a parent in recovery,” said Dr. William Riccardelli, Clinical Fellow in Adolescent Addiction Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “I also think that kind of message can be passed on to the community — schools and businesses — can also see this example of parents in recovery and can take away some positive insights from it.”


The effect that it has on families is not being taken lightly. According to Sesame Street in Communities “When a family member struggles with addiction, the whole family struggles. Children often think its their fault; they feel shame, embarrassment, guilt, and loneliness; they may feel invisible. It takes special effort to start important conversations and answer childrens questions. But parents, teachers, caregivers, and other caring adults can comfort children and guide them through difficult moments…”


“It’s time that we start to see some portrayal of the success that's possible with regular, consistent and proper treatment of substance use,” Dr Riccardelli said. “We have evidence that shows that the treatments work. I give Sesame Street a lot of credit for being innovative and leading a new generation. Especially considering all of the coverage of all the negative outcomes with substance use that we see. This is a direction that I wish more media would pursue.”


Einhorn and supervising producer, Melissa Dino, have carefully and strategically built these digital resources and videos to ring true from the perspective of youth, which is key when providing children with tools to help them understand prevention and living with substance use.


These resources are not only creating powerful tools for youth affected by the opioid epidemic, but they also provide a perspective that allows adults to understand a child’s point of view. The Sesame Workshop estimates that roughly 5.7 million children under 11-years-old in the United States live with a parent that has a substance use disorder. This shows there are millions of children nationally who may feel hopeless and alone even though they are not. These online resources provide a sense of relatability and much-needed hope for youth while also eloquently showing that substance use disorder is a sickness that requires adults to get help to get better.


Although the opioid epidemic and substance use challenges are not necessarily new to adults or media, the direct impact that they create for children and families is not an area that has been well supported. With the Sesame Street in Communities project creating free, accepting, relatable content for children and their caretakers, the door is finally being opened to the youngest segment of people deeply affected every day.


For more information, visit Sesame Street in Communities Parental Addiction resources.



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