Yesterday, country singer Mindy McCready was found on her front porch dead of an apparent suicide. Having appeared on VH1's Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew in 2009 for her addiction to alcohol and painkillers, she is the fifth person from the series to die in the last two years. Of the nine cast members from her specific season, she is the third to die. So are these deaths indicative of how the show wasn't really therapy but an irresponsible exploitation of trainwreck celebrities? Or are these stories just sadly typical of a chronic disease? And what the hell is Dr. Drew doing?
For its five seasons on air, Celebrity Rehab was the subject of criticism for years before VH1 finally yanked it from its schedule in 2011. A main point of contention was that the show placed "entertainment above recovery." Others called bullshit on the counselors on the show allowing the celebrities to diagnose themselves (like Garey Busey, who insisted that he checked into the Pasadena Recovery Center on the show to "help" others); some took issue with patients being paid handsomely to get treatment (sleazy manager David Weintraub used to actually acquire down-and-out celebrities and package them for the show, in return for a fee). Dr. Drew Pinsky himself came under fire for succumbing to the same "fame addiction" that he says is what drives the "celebrity narcissism" that contributes to substance abuse. Additionally, not long after the show first premiered in 2008, Dr. Drew's rehab facility went under investigation after three non-celebs died in a five-month period.
All of those concerns resurfaced recently after four of the show's 43 participants died within 18 months. The first was former Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr—a cast mate of McCready's from 2009—who was found dead in his home of a prescription drug overdose in March 2011. Two months later, actor Jeff Conaway—who appeared on the first and second seasons of the show—passed away from complications attributed to opiate addiction. In June 2012 Rodney King (second season), who had a year of sobriety under his belt, died of an accidental drowning, with alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana listed as contributing factors. Later that summer, Real World alum Joey Kovar—who was also on the third season of Celebrity Rehab with McCready and Starr—died of a drug overdose. He was just 29 years old.
Since appearing on Celebrity Rehab, McCready was never fully able to get her singing career back on track. Instead, she made headlines for overdosing, a sex tape scandal, kidnapping her son, and most recently after her boyfriend was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head (he was also the father of her youngest child). Authorities were not convinced that his death was a suicide and opened an investigation. McCready wasn't officially named as a suspect, but it was implied that she was part of that investigation. After checking herself into a treatment facility, McCready's children were removed from her custody and placed in foster care. Evidently, McCready checked herself out of rehab too soon.
Dr. Drew, who says he hadn't seen McCready in years, spoke on CNN last night about the tragedy. He admitted that although she was on Celebrity Rehab, he did not actually treat her (okay?). Unprompted, Dr. Drew spoke out on what's seemingly his poor track record with treating addiction among celebrities:
One of my hopes was, in bringing Celebrity Rehab out, was to teach people how dangerous addiction was. If I was doing a show on cancer there would not be much surprise when my cancer patient died. In fact, we'd celebrate a few years of good quality life. People don't understand that addiction has virtually the same prognosis.
And he's right. Relapse rates for addiction for people who experience a period of recovery range from 50% to 90%, and are comparable to the relapse rates of other chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, or asthma. And like diabetes, addiction is a treatable disease that involves behavioral changes and constant management.
In Dr. Drew's defense, addiction recovery rates are depressingly low; five deaths out of 43 people is, unfortunately, not as unusually high as it sounds. And the silver lining here — if we must find one — is that these high-profile tragedies really shine a spotlight on how dangerous and serious addiction is.
However, the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) does list some principles for effective treatment, of which Celebrity Rehab falls short. For instance, "Remaining in treatment for an adequate period of time is critical." CR cast members were in treatment for only a couple of weeks—and they were compensated financially for their time. Also: "An individual's treatment and services plan must be assessed continually and modified as necessary to ensure that it meets his or her changing needs." And it would seem that the treatment offered on CR failed to do this, since being on TV, and playing out very private issues in front of cameras only fed into that "celebrity narcissism" that Dr. Drew identified as being so problematic.
So while the statistics were already working against these particular five addicts, something like substance abuse is probably too complex and personal to treat on a television show. That being said, did being on the show really make their problems any worse than they already were? It's a question to which we'll never get a definitive answer.