A new documentary from Nova focuses on how opioid addiction affects the brain

"I want people to know that addiction is a treatable medical condition — it’s not a hopeless diagnosis," said Sarah Holt, the film’s writer, director, and producer.

A screenshot from the new Nova documentary "Addiction." –NOVA

A new documentary premiering Wednesday on PBS takes a deep look at how opioid addiction affects the brain.

The film, “Addiction,” created by the team at Boston-based Nova, weaves the stories of impacted families alongside the work being done by scientists to understand and treat the nationwide epidemic, which killed more than 63,600 people in 2016 alone.

Sarah Holt, the film’s writer, director, and producer, told Boston.com she hopes the documentary will help to shed light on the stigma associated with addiction as well as help those seeking ways to assist loved ones struggling with dependance on drugs.

Like nearly half of all Americans, I watched relatives, neighbors, [and] friends struggle with addiction, and it was incredible to me that families were navigating a broken system of care — trying to figure out how to help their loved ones and paying for it out of their own pockets, often times spending tens of thousands of dollars on treatment that wasn’t effective. ” Holt said. “And I was astounded by the stigma surrounding addiction. I thought, well, if I could make a film that kind of explained the science of addition, help people understand how the brain changes when it’s been exposed to drugs, it would really be important and maybe contribute to helping people realize this is not a moral failing. This is not a matter of weak wills. It’s such a baffling force, addiction.”


The most challenging aspect of making the documentary was finding people willing to share their stories on camera, she said. Even those who had years of recovery behind them were unwilling to speak about their struggles, fearful of what would happen once others found out.

“I think the stigma is huge, even in the language we use,” Holt said. “We call people ‘clean’ or ‘dirty.’ You’d never say, if somebody had diabetes and had high blood sugar, that they were dirty.”

In making the film, Holt, whose previous work includes “Can Alzheimer’s be Stopped?”, said she wanted to cover how people fall into addiction, why the disease is considered a brain disorder and chronic condition, and what effective treatment looks like. Helping people who are addicted should be part of the medical system, she said, and what those struggling with dependency on opioids need is support and compassion.

People would say to me, ‘Oh it must be so depressing, working on a film about addiction,’” Holt said. “And I really think the most important point is that it wasn’t depressing because I could see that once people get the right treatment, they get better. I want people to know that addiction is a treatable medical condition — it’s not a hopeless diagnosis. And we really need to be stepping up to the plate and trying to help people get the help they need.”


“Addiction,” which is narrated by Joe Morton, premieres at 9 p.m. on PBS. Watch a clip from the film below: