Can a television show educate viewers about addiction, treatment, and recovery when it features celebrities ranging from a former professional wrestler to a past star of adult films? The eight-episode run of VH1's Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew this winter elicited many questions about how best to offer the public a window to what occurs in a treatment setting—a process that in theory could go a long way toward enhancing public support of addicts and the services they need.
Reaction to the series from the treatment and recovery communities was swift and unmistakably negative. “The premise is the problem,” Faces and Voices of Recovery Executive Director Pat Taylor told me in an interview. “We don't have ‘Celebrity Cancer.’ I can't imagine a show where people were seen throwing up after chemo.”
Taylor said she watched the show's first episode in January and was “appalled” over sensational aspects such as repetitive shots of an ambulance transporting ill actor Jeff Conaway. “Addiction should not be a reality show,” she said.
By the middle of the series' run, following an exchange of correspondence with VH1 that left advocates dissatisfied with the network's response to their concerns, Faces and Voices organized a Feb. 7 national call-in to the network. Taylor reported the next day that one participant from Missouri was able to organize 40 calls on her own, including one from a state legislator.
As of this writing, it remained to be seen whether the feedback would convince VH1 to consider advocates' recommendations for changes and enhancements to the show, including placing information on its Web site to outline the many pathways to recovery and the treatment resources that are available. In a January e-mail communication to Taylor, VH1 Executive Vice President Tom Calderone insisted the show was intended to demonstrate that recovery is possible, and added, “We hope that after watching the full series, you will change your mind about the message and point of this show.”
I watched two episodes of the series during the midpoint of its run, and I would acknowledge that there are some positives. Drew Pinsky, MD, the show's host and moderator, offers perceptive commentary on subjects such as relapse triggers and family involvement in the recovery process. Each episode also features a public service announcement from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in which Pinsky appears.
Yet other important opportunities to educate are missed, such as when an incident involving a patient having a detailed phone conversation with a patient who has left treatment—clearly raising concerns about boundaries and confidentiality—is largely glossed over. And the question remains: Would viewers who are not well-versed in treatment topics be able to cull the important information from what they might just interpret as the typical celebrity hijinks they are used to seeing on screen these days?
“Using all these celebrities creates a misconception,” Taylor says. “Americans regardless of their status struggle with addiction.”
If you watched any of the installments of this series, let us know whether you thought it was helpful or harmful to the cause of treatment and recovery. Early results of an online poll we conducted on our Web site (http://www.addictionpro.com) showed that opinion was somewhat divided. E-mail your thoughts to me at email@example.com and we will plan to print some of the responses in an upcoming issue.
Gary A. Enos, Editor