‘Grey’s Anatomy: How the Medical Drama Has Dealt With Addiction Over the Years

Because it is a medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy deal with all aspects of health, both physical and mental. While the doctors at the center are generally focused on repairing heart valves and removing tumors (or other much, much crazier things), we learn a lot about their backgrounds, including their own medical struggles. One aspect of health that has been approached from various angles is addiction. Here’s how the show has addressed drug and alcohol addiction over the years.

Peyton Kennedy as Betty/Britney on Grey's Anatomy
Betty/Britney on Grey’s Anatomy | Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty Images)

It began with Richard Webber

James Pickens, Jr.’s Dr. Webber is one of just four characters who has remained on the show since the pilot. He starts off the series as the Chief of Surgery but later leaves the position while continuing to work at the Seattle hospital.

At the start of the series, Webber is sober. He has a sponsor and he’s been working the Alcoholics Anonymous program for years. However, this is Grey’s Anatomy, and there’s always drama. Given all that he’s undergone, it’s no surprise that Webber’s addiction comes up time and time again.

He falls off the wagon in Season 6

Between his tumultuous relationship with Adele, the stressors of his job, and the frequent catastrophes that seem to arise at his hospital, Webber begins drinking again in Season 6. Meredith, whom he’s had a strained relationship with up until that point due to his previous affair with her mother, discovers that he’s drinking again, and helps get him back on his feet.

Webber loses his job but goes to rehab, and gets it back. He later steps down in order to save Meredith’s job after she tampers with a drug trial in order to help his wife.

Amelia comes to the show later on

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Dr. Amelia Shepherd, sister of the now-deceased Derek Shepherd, becomes a series regular in Season 11, but fans of the greater Grey’s Anatomy universe have already been introduced to her and her addiction storyline. On Private Practice, Amelia joins her former sister-in-law at Oceanside Wellness, and the rest of the staff learn that she has struggled with an addiction to prescription drugs since she was young.

On the series, Amelia relapses and is sent to rehab. She is sober for the final two seasons. After Private Practice was canceled, Amelia visits her brother and sister-in-law in Seattle and ends up living with them. She takes over Derek’s job as head of neuro at Grey Sloan Memorial and continues to live with Meredith after his death. Amelia briefly relapses after a fight with Owen prior to their marriage, but gets right back to sobriety.

The Betty storyline looks deeper into the opioid crisis

Adults dealing with addiction is one thing, but the last two seasons of Grey’s Anatomy have called attention to the very real opioid crisis that is especially a problem with teens and young adults. Owen begins fostering a baby, Leo, and he and Amelia soon discover that Leo’s mom is Betty, a teenager who was an athlete before an injury led to her opioid addiction.

Amelia and Owen live together as a family with Betty and Leo until Betty relapses and goes to rehab. It’s then revealed that Betty is actually Britney, and her parents show up take her and Leo back. Britney overdoses and almost dies, but ends up recovering and goes home with her parents while Leo stays with Owen.

Showrunner Krista Vernoff cares a lot about the addiction storylines

Having someone champion stories about addiction behind-the-scenes is important to telling them correctly. Showrunner Krista Vernoff appears to care deeply about the accuracy of the portrayals on screen. She even tweets encouraging messages at fans who have shared their own struggles online, demonstrating that Grey’s Anatomy’s addiction storylines have a real-world impact on audiences.

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