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Substance Abuse on Reality Television: Pros and Cons

We all know the scenes: drug addict runaway is living on the streets, after school special child tries a drug and dies, drug dealers sit in a menacing house surrounded by scary dogs and guns. Television has traditionally depicted drug dealers as terrifying villains, drugs as instant death, and addicts as the lowest of the low. But, actual addiction doesn’t look like this for the majority of addicts, so why is this what is shown?

It’s because television likes black and white simplicity. “Media depictions of addiction are often very sensationalized,” says Mark Willenbring, M.D., Director of the Division of Treatment and Recovery Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports: “Many people do not understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. It is often mistakenly assumed that drug abusers lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop using drugs simply by choosing to change their behavior. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting takes more than good intentions or a strong will.” Television has not been known for its grasp of complexities.

But, a shift to more documentary style approaches has attempted to showcase these intricacies, for better and for worse. If you feel like you are facing a complex addiction that isn’t understood by those around you and you need to find the right kind of treatment, you need to call at 800-256-3490 and speak with someone who understands.

The Rise of Addiction Reality Television

Reality Television

Shows such as Intervention reinforce the idea that addiction is a disease that requires professional treatment.

In 2005, A&E aired a few episodes of a show they called Intervention. Audience response was through the roof. Viewership was so high that A&E sensed a hit and ordered a full season of the show. Four years later, the show would earn and Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program. It started a movement for addiction and reality television.

In each episode, the daily life of an addict is filmed. The audience sees the addiction, as well as the effect it has on the addict and those who care about him or her. At the end of each episode, an interventionist is called in to lead all concerned parties in an intervention. A qualified therapist recommends a treatment type and center that best applies to the addict’s condition and temperament. can perform a similar role; call 800-256-3490 and speak to someone about rehab and resources.

Good Things

Despite the drawbacks of the television medium, Intervention and similar shows do a wonderful job of educating people about addiction and its complexities. Yes, sometimes the stories are black and white, but the overall education is better than any previously presented on television.

Families who have been isolated by shame or difficulty communicating about the toll addiction has taken on their loved ones finally share a vocabulary with television viewers. The finally share a language that will let them connect with other people. They don’t have to suffer alone.

Addicts can watch without the defensiveness they would usually use if confronted by a friend or family member. They can see the weight that addiction places on everyone involved. They can better see their addiction through the eyes of others.

In addition, addicts can become familiar with recovery and understand how treatment works. It can be made less scary and become a more appealing option.

Bad Things

With the good, comes the bad. Because Intervention had such a positive viewer response, other networks rushed to create similar shows. As no new audience members were being made, the shows had to fight for viewers and they often attracted them with shock value.

It is important for viewers to remember that editing plays a heavy role in reality television productions and it may mean that viewers have to remind themselves of a few things:

  • In real life, family and friends may not all want to participate in an intervention.
  • Interventions need a professional interventionist and that can be costly.
  • Treatments recommended on the show tend to all be the same and there are other options.
  • Often the most dramatic addictions are showcased, but less dramatic ones still need treatment.

If you are ready to take a real look at your addiction and you want a complete picture of your options without any editing, contact at 800-256-3490.

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Calls to numbers on a specific treatment center listing will be routed to that treatment center. Calls to any general helpline will be answered or returned by one of the treatment providers listed, each of which is a paid advertiser: Rehab Media Group, Recovery Helpline, Alli Addiction Services.

By calling the helpline you agree to the terms of use. We do not receive any commission or fee that is dependent upon which treatment provider a caller chooses. There is no obligation to enter treatment.

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