— Two deaths in three months.
That’s become the legacy of the VH1 reality television program “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” after two of its alumni, Mike Starr and Jeff Conaway, passed away after appearing on the program.
Following the March death of former Alice in Chains bassist Starr, the 3-year-old show, which places a motley crew of celebs in a California recovery center, came under fire for its questionable treatment methods in sources ranging from New York Magazine to Salon.com. Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler even went so far as to call the program unethical, claiming former Guns ’N Roses drummer Steven Adler was asked to fake a drug stupor for the show’s cameras.
After Conaway’s passing, “Celebrity Rehab” star and executive producer Dr. Drew Pinsky attempted to distance his show from the death, claiming the actor died from years of prescription pill abuse, pneumonia and sepsis, not a drug overdose (although the results of Conaway’s autopsy are pending). Still, Conaway’s death casts an ever more negative pall on a show that’s already courted controversy.
Yet former participants of the program and experts in the counseling field said that neither the show nor Pinsky should be held responsible for either death — even though virtually all admit the show contains both sensationalistic and exploitative elements.
One such Pinsky supporter is actor Jeremy London, who appeared on the show’s fourth season and has struggled with addiction to prescription pain pills.
“The people that are going to die are going to die anyway,” London said. “I hate saying that, but there’s a certain personality type that even Dr. Drew will never ever be able to help. You have people that can be in rehab for 90 days and get out and go and do drugs one time and die.”
Spending time on the program might have actually had a positive effect on Starr and Conaway, said show alumna Rachel Uchitel, the former nightclub manager and girlfriend of Tiger Woods who battled addiction to “Ambien, Xanax, Valium and Vicodin.
“Unfortunately, these two celebrities died, but at the same time they were given the opportunity to see the light by being on ‘Celebrity Rehab’ and maybe that kept them alive longer than they would have had they not been on the show,” Uchitel said. “I promise you that for the time these people are in ‘Celebrity Rehab,’ it’s saving their lives. What they choose to do with (the experience) later is their own doing.”
Agreeing with the show’s veterans is Jeff Foote, PhD, a clinical psychologist who serves as the executive director for the Center for Motivation and Change, which specializes in the treatment of dependency and compulsive behavior issues.
“I wouldn’t even remotely say that somebody being put on that show was the thing that ultimately killed them or made them worse,” said Foote. “Because you’re talking about people with very long histories of substance abuse and, presumably, being on that show was just another blip on the radar of various things they’d been through over the years.”
Charges of exploitation
The fact that the travails of addicts are filmed has led to claims that “Celebrity Rehab” is less about helping participants get better and more about providing viewers with lurid subject matter at which they can gawk. Not true, said Dr. Steve Daviss, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Maryland and medical blogger at Better Health.
“The fact that it happens in front of TV cameras is, I would say, irrelevant,” said Daviss, who analyses the field of counseling in his new book “Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work.” “I think Dr. Drew does a very good job of doing what we would do in a rehab setting. He explained things well. The issues that you saw with the celebrities, or patients, were actually very similar to what I’ve seen in addiction settings.”
Unfortunately, Daviss said, one of the drawbacks of filming people is that “whenever you put a camera in front of people, then it changes the dynamic and people are no longer there just for their own recovery but they have other motivations as well.”
The way some of the show’s participants played to the camera is what caused Uchitel to exit the show, she said.
“There was that whole interaction between myself and (model) Janice Dickinson,” Uchitel said. “Part of why I left was because I got into a fight with Dr. Drew and I felt like ‘Is this a reality show or is this rehab? Because I signed up for rehab. Yes, it happens to be on TV but you told me it wasn’t staged and Janice is doing all these things to make me feel like we’re just on a show to resurrect her career.’”
Actor Eric Roberts said the show’s entertainment component doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness it can have on the people seeking treatment.
“They sell advertising space, they make money and everybody’s watching if Janice Dickinson is going to behave this week, so, yeah, it’s exploitation,” Roberts said. “But as a participant of it you can’t look at it that way. Look at the great people involved: (head counselor) Bob Forrest and Dr. Drew. These guys are the real deal and they both have taught me something. I owe them a lot for that.”
Foote, though, said he believes the filming and broadcasting of therapy sessions does, in fact, impede the effectiveness of therapy.
“They’re talking in their groups and their reactions to things are all on public display,” Foote said. “That, I think as just an ethical issue and an efficacy issue, can’t be anything but bad. I can’t think of that as anything other than just money-making publicity entertainment. It’s certainly a bad way to conduct treatment if you think you’re actually doing treatment.”
Yet according to Roberts, the cameras began to seem irrelevant after a while: “I expected it to be like riding a public bus in my underwear — really, really uncomfortably embarrassing. And it was for a minute. But then I got in sync with Bob Forrest and Dr. Drew, and I understood what I had to do and it felt fine.”
But why would anyone choose to go on such a show instead of entering a private facility? According to Eliza Roberts, Eric Roberts’ wife, “if you’re a celebrity and you’re going to go into rehab, it’s celebrity rehab anyway. But sans Dr. Drew and sans the ability to also possibly help people who are watching.”
Behind the scenes
“Celebrity Rehab” participants say the show is more constructive than its detractors claim because there is more to the program than viewers see.
According to London, the show “rolls cameras 24/7,” but while the cameras film some of the participants, others are participating in off-camera therapeutic sessions designed to help them kick drugs or alcohol.
“Therapy sessions are going on pretty much around the clock,” London said. “There are a couple of different therapists who are on the show that you really don’t get to see, like Dr. (Charles) Sophie, and a couple of other people that are fantastic. They just aren’t big parts of the (televised) show.”
The show also doesn’t concentrate on the after-care programs Pinsky and his staff provide — programs both London and Uchitel said they found helpful in keeping their addictions at bay.
“The offices are open to people that were on previous seasons to go in and talk,” Uchitel said. “My relationship with Bob Forrest and Dr. Drew has continued, even though we taped the show almost a year ago. In a way, they continue treatments with me (while) never asking for money. Within 15 seconds, if I text-message either one of them about any problem that I have or with a question, they respond.”
Roberts said he also continued his relationship with Forrest after his stint on the program: “He and I are great friends now. We see each other all the time socially and I also check in with him on how I’m doing.”
Eliza Roberts said it was the show’s backstage crew, not its broadcasts, that helped to convince her and her husband of its legitimacy as a treatment option.
“Upon our first meetings with some of the people behind the scenes, including Damian Sullivan the creator of the show, (I felt) these people were good people,” she said. “They were doing this for the right reasons, which took me as much by surprise as anybody.”