Defending Dr. Drew: Pinsky Not to Blame for 'Celebrity Rehab' Deaths

Defending Dr. Drew: Pinsky Not to Blame for 'Celebrity Rehab' Deaths

Dr. Drew Pinsky has arguably the biggest media presence of any physician today, including his new Carolla Digital podcast, the long-running Loveline radio show, and HLN’s Dr. Drew on Call.

Pinsky doesn’t use those platforms to hawk ab-blasting equipment or miracle diets. He primarily talks about addiction, a dialogue the country desperately needs but rarely sees fit to start. His recent work on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew makes him a plump target whenever a series “patient” succumbs to his or her addictions.

The suicide of troubled country crooner Mindy McCready, who appeared on season three of Celebrity Rehab, inspired a fresh round of sniping against Dr. Pinsky.

Singer Richard Marx compared Dr. Pinsky to Dr. Jack Kevorkian on Twitter before conditionally walking his comment back, part of a social media assault on both Celebrity Rehab and Dr. Pinsky’s credentials. McCready’s passing marks the fifth former reality show patient to die, and the third from season three alone. Those numbers are undoubtedly chilling.

Dr. Pinsky never sugar coats the addiction treatment procedures. He’s blunt about their failure rates and doesn’t condemn patients who fail time and time again to stay sober. He warns us of the grip addiction has on people and the adrenaline rush addicts demand. The unspoken message built in to his appearances is clear–the media in general does a lousy job of addressing the issue.

For example, the tabloids and respectable news outlets alike feed on struggling starlet Lindsay Lohan’s behavior, from her being habitually late to work to any number of embarrassing nightclub incidents. Dr. Pinsky is quick to remind us of her psychological and addiction issues, while news reports focus solely on her misdeeds, not the root causes.

News consumers subsequently cluck their tongues in disapproval without learning why she behaves as she does. Lohan is a walking “teachable moment,” but most media outlets can’t be bothered to so much as start a helpful conversation.

Dr. Pinsky has been warning the public about the horrors of addiction for some time now, mostly via his Loveline program. That show, which he first participated in as a medical student decades ago, finds him touching base with mostly young, often troubled souls grappling with either their own demons or those of their loved ones. They may not listen to their parents, their teachers, or immediate family members. But the avuncular Dr. Drew and his comic sidekick of the moment are less threatening.

How many callers has Dr. Pinsky helped over the years? It’s impossible to quantify, but for every caller who publicly thanks him, there must be many more who silently took his advice heart.

Loveline once featured Dr. Pinsky with Adam Carolla, the comedian who went on to revolutionize the podcast format. Their medical advice went down easier with the combination of Carolla’s funny jibes and his partner’s serious counsel.

Celebrity Rehab charted a similar, albeit flashier, course. Would the average viewer tune in week after week to watch people they never met battle to stay sober? Throw in the lovable star of an old sitcom, or a rocker trying to reclaim his mojo, and it’s far more compelling–and educational–content.

The very notion of Celebrity Rehab can seem tacky. A reality show featuring former stars struggling to stay alive, let alone resume their entertainment careers, with video editors potentially dramatizing their struggles? It’s a rough concept to embrace. What we don’t know is how many show regulars might have skipped treatment entirely if not for what Dr. Pinsky and his staff offer, or how many viewers gleaned hard information about addiction they never knew before.

Dr. Pinsky likely banked more than a few checks from his connection to the show. Is he profiting off of these falling stars, the folks who have either hit rock bottom or can see it coming straight ahead?

His image took a hit last year when he was accused of taking money to promote the use of Wellbutrin, a medication aimed at treating depression. Some celebrities, like Lohan, have chafed at him making quasi-diagnoses of their conditions during his many media appearances. Signing up for Celebrity Rehab, however, was likely more damaging to his media brand.

That’s a shame, since it isn’t just addiction where he shares his knowledge with pop culture consumers. He’s been a sane voice regarding AIDS over the years, debunking earlier myths that the disease would spread rapidly across the country. He also shoots straight when it comes to drugs like marijuana. He’ll quickly tell a podcast caller that a pregnant woman shouldn’t touch it, but he won’t oversell the drug’s negative consequences to scare listeners straight. He also dared to warn the country about Obamacare’s consequences at a time when most media voices held their tongue about the new system’s flaws.

Dr. Pinsky recognizes we all have free will, and whether an addict appears on Celebrity Rehab, enrolls in traditional addiction counseling, or simply tries to live with his or her situation–they are out of his, or any caring specialist’s, reach. All he can do is steer them toward the best resources and tools at his disposal, continue contact with the show’s regulars once the cameras depart (which he routinely does) and hope their inner strength is equal to the grip addiction holds over them.

Dr. Pinsky walks a precarious line between allowing people the freedom to choose their path to sobriety and doing all he can to illustrate the life and death struggle that is addiction. The work all but invites criticism. He should be applauded for his efforts and held responsible should he give out unethical advice. Even those who disagree with his media-savvy approach would do us all well by keeping the conversation about the dangers of addiction alive and the knee-jerk name calling to a minimum. It’s what any thoughtful physician would prescribe.