Most Misleading Depictions of Treatment Centers in Film & Television

Depending on the decade in which you were born, thinking about the rehab experience in treatment centers through the lens of film and television could either be frightening or appealing, depending on how it is represented … or misrepresented. A treatment center experience might bring to mind terrifying thoughts of torment dispensed by “Nurse Ratchet” from the world of film. Or perhaps the thought of rehab brings to mind “Dexter Morgan” from the world of television, sitting among a group of people discussing his “dark passenger,” before discovering a fellow serial killer in the group, with whom he can engage in highly sexual, manipulative and risky behavior. Or maybe your mind has settled on any number of fictional law enforcement personnel, private investigators or other folks waltzing into facilitated peer support groups in order to obtain sensitive information that they will later use to emotionally blackmail another person into doing what they want. On the other hand, maybe you’re picturing a spa vacation getaway surrounded by celebrities and beautiful landscapes where troubles are miraculously alleviated in 90 days with a massage and a smile. Regardless of which portrayal the idea of a treatment center calls to mind, each has the one thing in common. While entertaining, these depictions are wholly inaccurate and misleading. Over several decades, film and television portrayals of addiction, treatment centers, addicts and the rehab experience, have created an inaccurate socio-cultural understanding of addiction and recovery.

Film and Television vs. Reality

Though film and television depictions of treatment centers are often unrealistic and misleading, they do have the unique ability to educate the general public and addicts about how one can receive help and enter recovery. However, the tendency to sensationalize and entertain often wins out over the impulse to educate. Thus, opportunities for media to teach, and society to learn, is often missed. The following are some of the most common ways film and television distort the rehab experience and mislead the public about what happens in treatment.

  • Peer support groups are full of self-loathing and depression. In the movies and on television, group therapy sessions are often frequented by misfits who sit around telling sad stories full of self-loathing. There is no real problem-solving or support that takes place onscreen. In reality, a great deal of time is spent around identifying triggers and developing better problem-solving skills. While sessions may be emotional, the goal appears to be that participants leave feeling more positive, not full of negative thoughts.
  • Peer support groups are a place to flirt and pick up sexual partners … or manipulate others and obtain sensitive information to use against other members. On the big or small screen, characters are often seen flirting and quickly engaging in intimate relationships with other group members. In reality, that type of behavior is discouraged and is perceived as counter-productive to healing. Confidentiality is also highly respected — participants do not take sensitive information obtained in group sessions and use it to later manipulate other members.
  • Peer support groups are a place for criminal predators to stalk potential victims. Criminals are everywhere, but they do not generally hang out in group therapy looking for people to exploit.
  • Treatment Centers are luxury retreats accessible to everyone. Shows like “Celebrity Rehab and Intervention” often show rehab centers that look like exotic vacation spots. While luxury rehabilitation centers exist, they are generally pricey and not as accessible to most people earning an average wage. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a luxury rehabilitation center if it is accessible to you. The issue is that film and television depictions of these types of treatment centers often create unrealistic expectations about the average rehab experience.
  • Problems are solved in 90 days. Again, reality television shows tend to portray individuals going into therapy and experiencing breakthroughs, and after 90 days, all troubles have passed and everything is “fixed.” There is not a lot of discussion about how the individual actually received help and moved through various phases of treatment, or if their recovery was sustained for any significant time post-treatment.
  • Doctors and staff are incompetent, vindictive, and otherwise ill-equipped to manage patients in crisis. There are countless movies and television shows that have depicted doctors and treatment center staff that are either miracle workers, or evil vindictive autocrats. In reality, treatment staff members are trained, competent, professionals who seek engagement, connection, development and growth from patients to ensure that treatment is effective. Sometimes the work is hard and protocols may seem harsh, but the goal is not to torment individuals in treatment, but to help them grow and heal.
  • Psychologists/psychiatrists have more “problems” than their patients. For the sake of drama and entertainment, film and television often depict therapists at treatment centers as harboring their own deep-seated issues that are nearly spilling over into neurosis or psychosis. In a recent Psychology Today article, doctors commented that, while they find these types of shows entertaining, they are also a bit cringe-worthy. Psychologists/psychiatrists are concerned about the potential for a person in crisis to opt out of seeking help for fear of getting a problematic therapist.
  • They don’t show their hard work. A critical issue with portrayals of substance abuse, treatment centers and the rehab experience in film and television is that they do not focus on actual therapy. Few movies have done it, including “28 Days” and “Clean and Sober.” Generally, the treatment process takes a back seat to the drama, which means that the audience doesn’t get a full understanding of the treatment process.
  • 12-step-based substance abuse treatment is readily available to everyone. The economic realities of addiction treatment programs are largely ignored, as are alternative and less expensive paths to recovery. And often, minority addicts are disregarded or stereotyped.

  Sources: Does TV accurately portray psychology? Script(ing) Treatment: Representations of Recovery from Addiction in Hollywood Film

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