When you think of the word “rehabilitation” what often comes to mind is a disheveled derelict sobering up after a lifetime of bad choices or a burned-out meth addict who was a high school dropout and indulged in a life of crime and prostitution.
Rehab is for real people
What may not come to mind is the man who graduated from medical school at the top of his class and had a successful private practice for many years before an unexpected surgery led him to become addicted to pain medications, or the devoted mother who juggles three jobs to support her family and found her occasional glass of wine adding up to a bottle or two a night.
We might not consider the hard-working, decorated military veteran who is paralyzed by anxiety or the magnetic motivational speaker whose incapacitating depression prevents her from getting out of bed for months on end.
These aren’t the type of people we typically think of as seeking treatment – whether psychiatric or substance-based – in part because the media exposes us to a very narrow segment of the population making headlines in this area: celebrities. Unfortunately, this small population has a disproportionate effect on our image of a person in treatment, despite the fact that the treatment seen on TV is not representative of rehabilitation as a whole.
Media attention helps and hurts
The recent media attention celebrities have brought to treatment through shows like Dr. Drew Pinsky’s “Celebrity Rehab” can be seen as both a step forward as well as a step back. On one hand, the shows have increased awareness of the prevalence of mental illness and addiction, helping to ameliorate the strong stigma that still exists.
On the other hand, such shows and media coverage may lead viewers to question the sincerity of patients in treatment. When popular celebs such as Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen briefly enter treatment in the most comfortable of settings, sometimes only after the threat of prison time, their actions can be seen as an insincere act designed to avoid legal consequences or generate publicity.
Adding to the question of sincerity is how much of the focus is truly on treatment. The fact is most participants on shows like “Celebrity Rehab” are immaculately made up, and often seem to be purposefully acting in ways likely to garner more screen time.
While we can’t doubt the sincerity of every celebrity seeking treatment, it is important to note the feelings we come away with after watching these shows: Are we merely entertained by the antics, or are we more empathetic to the plight of these individuals?
Indeed, it’s an important question to consider, as more celebrities than ever are checking themselves in for treatment of all kinds.
The power of treatment
Despite the hype that celebrities bring to the area of rehabilitation, it is important not to lose sight of the significance of treatment. Rehabilitation, whether psychiatric or substance-based, can be life altering. Whether one enters treatment to satisfy a legal obligation, or because there is a true desire to change, most people can look back on their time in treatment with appreciation.
For me, working at The Menninger Clinic has brought to light just how grateful patients are for the treatment experience. I have witnessed patients gain a brighter outlook and better quality of life as a result of the combined efforts of the treatment team and staff. I can recall being moved by some of my first experiences here, especially listening to the stories patients told upon discharge; their heartfelt gratitude and newfound hope was inspiring.
I recall a particular patient, a self-described “hell on wheels,” who entered The Clinic in a somewhat hostile and impatient manner. Over the next eight weeks I noticed a softening of her demeanor and witnessed her engaging in meaningful and supportive conversation with fellow patients. At the community meeting where she said goodbye to her fellow patients and the program staff, she reflected on her experiences at Menninger and offered words of encouragement, as well as this thoughtful statement:
“Some of the finest people I have ever known currently live in mental institutions, or work in them.”
Touching examples such as this one help give a face and a story to a patient, who may otherwise fall into the stereotypical image of a person in treatment.
She was just one example. In fact, one does not need to look far to see the impact this Clinic and its staff have had on patients; countless letters decorate break rooms and unit walls, bearing witness to the many lives that are touched in the experience of treatment.
Keeping things in perspective
So the next time you hear about another celebrity agreeing to be filmed while engaging in treatment with the promise of a “spin-off show,” or you see a glossy magazine cover proclaiming that Lindsay Lohan is using her time in treatment to prepare for a new role, keep in mind that this is merely a snapshot of a very select population, and that there exists a much larger group of people who are seeking treatment to get back on track with their lives, no strings attached.