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A dangerous infatuation

September 1, 2009
by Tony Bevacqua, PsyD
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Society's preoccupation with celebrity addiction can harm individuals' recovery prospects

We all live in a celebrity culture, and celebrity addiction increasingly has become vital to it. It would be no exaggeration to say that millions of people who have never seen a Britney Spears video or a Lindsay Lohan movie are nevertheless familiar with their histories of chemical dependency, erratic behavior, legal trouble, reclusive treatment and widely publicized relapses. Indeed, the mass media now depict addiction as almost central to the lives of the rich and famous. Further sensationalizing chemical dependency, under the guise of documentary, are popular TV series such as “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew” and “Sober House.”

For most Americans, the hype surrounding celebrity addiction is little more than a distraction in a difficult economic time. As evidenced by widespread Internet chatter, many certainly find it titillating. Perhaps more maturely, others simply look away. Yet overall, this growing phenomenon carries with it a particular burden for addiction professionals. And as one based in Los Angeles with many clients in the entertainment industry, I often find myself at “ground zero” in this regard.

In this article, I'd like to share my observations on how celebrity addiction culture affects our work as addiction professionals, and recommend how to respond most effectively. For whether we're located in New York or Minneapolis, Miami or Seattle, we're all intimately affected.

What celebrity culture teaches

As treatment professionals, we're committed to helping our clients identify their adaptive and maladaptive behaviors, understand the consequences for both, and learn self-responsibility. In this regard, whether explicitly or not, we're emulating the authoritative parenting style first delineated by Diana Baumrind in her influential approach to family dynamics.1 She contrasted the authoritative style with the authoritarian (obedience-oriented/punitive) and permissive (lax or indulgent) styles, both associated with weaker outcomes for fostering autonomy, self-efficacy and psychological well-being in youthful development.

Over the ensuing decades, the authoritative style has been consistently linked to better social adjustment and fewer behavioral disorders in teens and adults.2,3,4,5 In contrast, both the authoritarian and permissive parenting styles have been repeatedly tied to greater frequencies of problem behavior, including substance abuse. In a variety of ways, celebrity addiction culture undermines the authoritative approach and replaces it with essentially the permissive. It does this:

  • By fostering the illusion that bad behavior is acceptable if done by talented, creative people. Tabloids, TV newscasts and films have long presented the image that drug and alcohol use are part of the “maverick” lifestyle of the creative class, including artists, musicians and actors. Such depictions have a profound effect on our society's most impressionable and vulnerable members: the young.

  • Relatedly, by intimating that one can be chemically dependent and still be fabulously successful, wealthy and glamorous. This depiction makes it less likely that those with addictive problems will seek professional help at all or remain in treatment upon entering it.

  • By exploiting and reinforcing stereotypes. Performing artists and screen stars are typically portrayed as beautiful “empty suits” lurching for their next high. Almost never are they depicted as complex persons with legitimate life problems shared by countless others who aren't famous or rich.

  • By equating addiction treatment with what celebrities receive. In stunning Malibu facilities, the renowned are coddled and pampered. Paying fees of $40,000 to $70,000 per month, they enjoy gourmet meals prepared by star chefs and personal nutritionists, indulge in exotic spa treatments, and receive round-the-clock monitoring. Such interventions are essentially vacations and a public relations move-light years away from the real world of residential programming.

  • By highlighting the “disease model” of addiction. Few humanists are ever invited to appear on TV shows featuring celebrity addiction. Instead, experts are called upon to promote the medical/genetic viewpoint, which downplays psychological factors. This emphasis is especially misguided because empirical research indicates that the entertainment industry attracts men and women with a particular personality type, craving attention and admiration.6 In a later publication, these same authors suggest that this trait cluster places such individuals at a greater risk for addiction than the general population.7

  • By tacitly promulgating the downbeat message that addictions are incurable. For if even the young, beautiful and famous seemingly can't straighten themselves out despite lavish rehab, how can anyone hope to do so?

Of course, not everyone exposed to celebrity addiction becomes more likely to develop a chemical dependency, shun necessary intervention, or drop out of treatment. Rather, from my clinical experience, those individuals who lacked authoritative parenting while growing up are precisely those most vulnerable to the mass media's message as presented by the above examples.