Mental Illness As Entertainment: Where Should Reality Programming Draw the Line?

Guys, remember the good old days, when Dr. Drew used to hang out on MTV and talk about premature ejaculation? 





Well, the 90s have come and gone, but Dr. Drew Pinsky didn't go with them; the American board-certified internist, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at USC's Keck School of Medicine, and staff member at Huntington Memorial Hospital has managed to stay prominent in mass media and the public eye with various television appearances and his own syndicated talk radio shows. From 2008 to 2012, Dr. Drew produced and starred in the reality show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, which followed a group of B-, C-, and D-list celebrities through treatment for drug and alcohol addition. Individuals appearing on the show were treated by Pinsky himself, along with the staff of the Pasadena Recovery Center in Pasadena, California. Citing the relapses and deaths of several Celebrity Rehab cast members–and the subsequent criticism lobbed at him because of it–Dr. Drew announced in May 2013 that the show would not be returning in the next season. 



Ironically enough, the story is that Dr. Drew began the show as a way to "authentically" depict addiction, and to offer intervention to a demographic (the once rich and famous who had fallen victim to the overindulgences of Hollywood) that desperately needed his help…help that he was offering on television. In front of millions of viewers. While paying the celebrity participants a weekly salary. 


No less than five cast members died while Celebrity Rehab was still on the air, and a few weeks ago, another Celebrity Rehab alum, former pro wrester Joan "Chyna" Laurer died from an "accidental" overdose of Valium and Ambien. Laurer had previously overdosed on sleeping medication in 2010. The criticism for Celebrity Rehab has been unearthed with this latest death, and one can imagine that Dr. Drew still stands by his previous statement on the matter:


"If I was doing a show on cancer there would not be much surprise when my cancer patient died. In fact, we’d celebrate a few years of good quality life. People don’t understand that addiction has virtually the same prognosis."


And yes — that's true: addicts have a very high relapse rate, and along with that comes the very real possibility of death from overdose. But does that erase all the negative ramifications that one might suffer from battling addiction before an audience of millions? An audience, one might argue, that tunes in specifically to see the train go off the rails, so to speak. After all, train wrecks get great ratings. 


Even Dr. Drew's cancer comparison is inherently troublesome: yes, if there was a cancer reality show, no one would think to blame Dr. Drew for a cast member's death. But there isn't a cancer reality show. Because cancer is perceived as a serious medical condition, and we as a society want to give cancer patients all the respect, dignity, and privacy they deserve while living with their condition. What does this say about how we view mental illness? 


It's true: the cast members on Celebrity Rehab weren't forced in front of the cameras, but they were lured with the promise of free, high-end rehabilitation, which can be very, very expensive. They had all managed to overcome the difficult hurdle of admitting they needed help, only to have to get that help in the form of voyeuristic entertainment. Did watching Celebrity Rehab actually make an impact on how its viewers perceive mental illness and addiction? Well, as someone who used to watch A&E's Intervention on a regular basis, I have to admit it increased my understanding of addiction and certain mental illnesses, but I also have to admit that I wasn't just there for the education. I was watching to be entertained (which, coincidentally, is why I stopped). 


What do you think? Does Dr. Drew deserve the heat he has gotten over Celebrity Rehab, years after the show went off the air? Do these types of shows actually help anyone? Were you a Celebrity Rehab viewer who can speak to the nature of the show? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


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