Addiction: Not a Laughing Matter

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

I was disappointed to see the recent Dr. Drew segment on CNN titled “Hollywood’s Drug Addiction Problem.” On the show, Drew Pinsky joined a couple of unlikely panelists (journalist Dylan Howard and former “Loveline” sidekick, comedian Adam Carolla) and surprised many – myself included – by making sweeping assumptions about Demi Moore and other celebrities who have struggled with substance abuse in recent years. In the past, Dr. Drew has succeeded in being, as he says, “part of pop culture” and “relevant to young people.” Some of his work has increased the public’s awareness and understanding about addiction, but on this particular occasion, he missed the mark—by a long shot.

On CNN, Dr. Drew and his panelists laughed, joked, and generally seemed to have a grand old time trivializing addiction—a serious disease that affects nearly one in ten Americans over the age of 12. From listening to this segment, you might think that addiction was some sort of glamorous celebrities-only affair. “Shouldn’t celebrities do drugs?” asked Carolla, adding that if there’s any segment of the population who should use drugs, it’s celebrities. “Do you want airline pilots doing drugs?” he continued, “Or guys who drive cranes and backhoes?” Carolla acted as if celebrities can use drugs with immunity. Drugs cause extensive damage to the individual and to society, whether the user is a Hollywood star or your average Joe.

I’m saddened that Dr. Drew, who has a national forum, would invite guests like comedian Carolla to join him on the air—guests who are undoubtedly going to joke about substance abuse, and then would laugh right along with him. He knows that addiction is a chronic health condition, not unlike diabetes or heart disease. No one would joke about someone having diabetic crises or a heart attack. Likewise, it’s not a joke when someone has a new acute episode with substance abuse problems.

In addition to discussing drug use very casually, Dr. Drew stated with authority that celebrities are more prone to addiction “because they are more likely to have narcissistic personality constructs”. Drew didn’t provide supporting evidence for this claim, and if there are studies that show this I’d certainly love to see them. All the research I’ve done, led, or read points to this fact: addiction is an equal-opportunity disease that affects people from all walks of life. There are doctors, police officers, teachers, housewives, and–yes–airline pilots who all develop substance abuse problems and hide their addictions to the best of their abilities, just as celebrities do.

The difference is that celebrities must go through their struggles in the public eye. Many people are unduly fascinated by watching a star’s “fall from grace”—and the news media has focused attention on this phenomenon. At one point on the show, Carolla asks a question about the media’s fascination with celebrity addictions: “Are we vultures? Or are we helping to educate the public?” In my opinion, Carolla and other comedians who make fun of those suffering from the disease of addiction are indeed vultures. They don’t provide useful information about the disease or show folks how to get help. Instead, they imply that drug addiction is no big deal. And shame on Dr Drew for giving them a forum.

In reality, addiction is a very big deal. People lose their lives, livelihoods, and loved ones to this disease every day. It’s vitally important that we let people know that help is available and that treatment can work. Just as addiction doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, class, or celebrity status, neither does recovery. What if, when we turned on the TV, we saw the story of a celebrity celebrating one year of recovery and their triumph over addiction, rather than ten stories about the latest celebrity bad behavior? Celebrities who have found lasting recovery should be encouraged to come forward with their stories. The media should do their part to share these stories too and not simply focus on—or worse, joke about—stories of defeat.

The most valid point that Dr. Drew and his panelists made was that celebrities are role models and must take accountability for their actions. Still, celebrities aren’t the only ones. We are all role models, whether it’s for our kids, our friends, our neighbors, or the public at large. Each of us must set a good example by taking responsibility for ourselves. Unfortunately, by joining such wisecracking cohorts, Dr. Drew is not behaving as the role model he could be. Drew has regularly used his platform to spread awareness about addiction and recovery—but in this case, he and his panelists only added to the misinformation and mockery.

Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer
Phoenix House

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1 Comment

  • Jennifer L

    While I can definitely see your point about how joking around can be inappropriate in some settings, I also feel that having a sense of humor in this field is really important. i find that if I do not have a sense of humor as a clinician then my ability to compartmentalize things is difficult.
    Working in the field I hear about tramatic things on a daily basis. I need to be able to find humor in something so that I dont end up burnt out or worse, providing a disservice to my clients.
    So personally I can see both sides. Addiction can be fatal, we all know this. But sometimes I think we need to step back and find humor in the little things so that we dont go crazy.