Dr. Drew and the perils of TV rehab

Dr. Drew and the perils of TV rehab

February 21st, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

Dr. Drew Pinsky has come under fire after several celebrities who appeared on his television show have died, including Mindy McCready, who died Sunday of an apparent suicide.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Singer Richard Marx - who was last relevant when the Cold War was still hot and people spent evenings standing outside in their Members Only jackets, acid washed jeans and jelly shoes staring at a fading Halley's Comet - stepped into a heap of controversy on Monday.

In a Twitter post, the purveyor of corny pop ballads compared Dr. Drew Pinsky to Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the wake of country singer Mindy McCready's death by suicide.

Marx's comments were completely out of line and unfair ... to Dr. Kevorkian.

Dr. Kevorkian provided relief and offered the promise of death with dignity to patients afflicted with horribly painful terminal illnesses. Dr. Drew, on the other hand, exploits people with dangerous addictions and medical problems on television. He regularly fails to help the people he's treating, while enjoying the fame and wealth that comes with train-wreck reality TV.

McCready, who appeared on one of Dr. Drew's shows -- VH1's "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew" -- took her own life on Sunday. She killed herself and her dog at the same Arkansas home where her boyfriend, David Wilson, apparently committed suicide last month.

The 37-year-old country singer was the fifth "Celebrity Rehab" cast member to die in the past two years.

Part of the reason for Dr. Drew's disastrous track record appears to be related to the show's fondness for putting people who are actually already sober, or who suffer from silly addictions to things like "love," in treatment with individuals with grave addictions to meth, heroin, cocaine and pain killers. This likely caused people who truly needed help with their problems to be overlooked in an attempt to give more air time to celebrities with lesser problems who drew more viewers to the show.

Over its five seasons, the goal of the "Celebrity Rehab" appeared to morph away from helping people and toward putting as many clashing personalities as possible in a room to create maximum drama for the cameras. Such manufactured mayhem may work well for "The Real World" or "The Bachelor," but when people are struggling with life-or-death addictions, it can be devastating.

In 2011, Salon columnist Drew Grant exposed perhaps the greatest flaw in Dr. Drew's attempt to treat celebrity addicts in the context of a TV show. Dr. Drew claims that addiction goes hand-in-hand with the type of self-absorption that plagues some people after becoming a celebrity -- "celebrity narcissism," as he calls it. Grant points out that if some of Dr. Drew's patients "suffer from celebrity narcissism just by the nature of being celebrities, then shoving a camera in their faces while they should be focusing on getting sober is not only distracting, it's undermining their ability to get well."

The uncomfortable tension created by taking people who are harmed by their own celebrity and throwing them on a TV show that will make them more famous and, thus, more troubled, has earned Dr. Drew plenty of well-earned critics.

"Dr. Drew is to medicine what David Blaine is to science," says the great American comedian-philosopher Doug Stanhope in one of his most well-known rants. He's an "ambulance chaser to the stars."

While Dr. Drew's medical credentials are legitimate -- he's a board-certified internist/addictionologist with an M.D. from the University of Southern California -- his techniques are frequently condemned by his peers.

Dr. Jeffrey Foote, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of substance abuse, uses clips from "Celebrity Rehab" to explain how not to treat patients suffering from addiction. In a 2009 New York Times Magazine article, Foote said that "the velvet-glove confrontational stuff Pinsky does is what works for TV, but it's not what works for patients."

Dr. Drew may not have done a lot to help many of the celebrities on "Celebrity Rehab" get sober and healthy in a way that will help them in a constructive, long-term way. But that probably doesn't bother Dr. Drew.

He can find solace in the tens of millions of dollars he has made off of exploiting the patients he failed to help.