Entertainment Shedding an Unrealistic Light on Addiction | Center on Addiction

Entertainment Shedding an Unrealistic Light on Addiction

Entertainment Shedding an Unrealistic Light on Addiction


As America moves toward a more accurate understanding of addiction as a disease and not as a moral choice, there’s hope that popular culture will reflect this shift. Unfortunately, this is not the case with many popular television shows currently on the air. 

Addiction is a complex disease that can bring out the worst behaviors in people. And it’s this aspect of addiction that seems to be exaggerated all too often in popular media, casting an unrealistic light on the disease itself and those who struggle with it – turning it into a form of entertainment. Channel surfing on any given night exposes just how many programs attempt to make addiction scandalous for the audience’s viewing pleasure. This is especially the case with the Emmy-award winning show Intervention, a series that was cancelled after its 13th season, but brought back due to popular demand by the Lifetime network.

Episodes of Intervention follow a particular formula: the audience is introduced to an individual who admits to having a substance use disorder or behavioral addiction, and then the show takes a sharp turn, attempting to expose their harmful actions. Family and friends are interviewed, and the person’s life story is laid out for all to see. Viewers watch the person’s day-to-day life, pieced together by the most dramatic moments from months of footage. Usually, a trauma is unearthed – often from childhood – which is said to have “caused” their addiction.

The commotion of these individuals hitting “rock bottom” is put on public display, all while they are under the impression that they are participating in a documentary on addiction. This emotionally charged presentation leads to a large intervention with family, friends and an interventionist, who often gives the individual a chance to go to rehab (at no cost to them), or face major consequences from their loved ones.

Intervention has certainly made watchers more aware of the dangers of addiction and its profound impact on the individual and his/her family. However, by continuing to find more and more extreme cases, editing episodes down for entertainment, and using a confrontational intervention style that is not considered best practice in addiction treatment, but is instead inherently dramatic, Intervention perpetuates the stigma surrounding addiction.

Based on what we know from current research on evidence-based practices, very little of the particular kind of intervention used in the show has been shown to have long-term effectiveness. In addition, the rehabilitation facilities featured are prohibitively expensive and not effective unless they are completed and then followed up by extensive outpatient treatment when the person returns home.

The dramatic depiction of addicted individuals heading off to rehab surrounded by their relieved families makes for a good story. Social media comments about the show confirm this, and make it clear that people tune in to see Intervention deliver what it promises in its ‘About’ page: to “capture the drama” of someone on the “edge.”

The current television environment demonstrates that much work needs to be done to overcome the stigma and stereotypes of people suffering from addiction and provide better guidance to families about how to obtain evidence-based treatment for their loved ones. Now that we have an emerging national conversation about addiction, it is clear that substance abuse deserves a more serious and less dramatized presentation.

 Alana Ribowsky

  Alana is a Grants, Contracts and Special Project Assistant at Center on Addiction


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