It’s that time of the year where the weather turns cooler and the wind picks up dried red leaves off the ground; the time where you can buy supplies for three different holidays (at least!) in the span of four isles at Walmart; when almost everything you could eat comes in a new pumpkin spice edition; and best of all, it’s the time of the year where you can wear cozy PJ’s and binge the new fall seasons of your favorite TV shows.

But what’s that have to do with addiction? More specifically, how do the portrayals of superheroes, gossiping moms or demon-battling warriors affect those in your life who are recovering from addiction?

The Power of TV on the Public Mind

One of the biggest contributors to the stigma surrounding mental illness has to do with the way mental disorders and addiction are portrayed on the silver screen. When entertainment and media exaggerate toxic and dangerous views on the matter, it’s no doubt that public opinion follows.

In Lesley Henderson’s article on this subject, she writes about Television being a primary source for public information on mental illness. In fact, she argues that fictional TV has more power in shaping the public’s mood towards mental illness than even News Media. In the past, TV has portrayed mental illness in many unflattering and damaging situations, often depicted with dramatic camera angles, lighting, music, all geared to evoke fear in the audience.

On the other hand, the public benefits when media and television collaborate with recovery-focused organizations and other purveyors of mental health. In working with such groups, efforts are made to change the narrative to positive and realistic expectations of mental health and drug and alcohol addiction.

Surprisingly, soap operas and other TV dramas contribute to a positive outlook on mental health. According to Lesley’s article,

“Fictional rather that factual media may have a greater impact in representing the lived experience of ill health especially for audiences with lower educational levels… The genre can represent multiple viewpoints which means that soaps and drama have a definitional role in society providing ‘open’ space for progressive or unconventional representations of important societal issues…”1

A History of Bad Portrayals of Addiction and Recovery

While some shows support a healing message, others may bolster bad coping mechanisms and addictive behaviors. It’s important to be aware of the message behind a story being told on the screen and how that affects the viewer. Meanwhile, there are just some flat-out wrong examples of what recovery is like. Let’s look at most of early nineties TV with some help from our friends at The Fix. One article in particular showcases how alcoholism was actually applauded, in the earlier TV programs of the 90s, like Cheers, in which everybody was drinking all the time with little to no consequences. In these shows, being drunk was the set up and the punchline of a joke, full of “zippy one-liners and clever zingers.”2

A big trend in the industry for a long time was to use alcoholism and addiction as comic relief. Unfortunately, this plot device carries no regard to the life and death consequences of this deadly disease. A show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, leads by example. The premise of the show can’t exist without substance abuse: the absurd antics the characters find themselves in are only bred from excessive drinking and other drug use, and designed to make the viewers laugh.3

Alcohol.Org’s article states that there is an occurrence of substance abuse approximately every two minutes during the show’s 12 season run.

Hollywood and other media is even known to romanticize the use (and misuse) of drugs and alcohol. Either framed as a glorified high school house party, a silly experiment in college, a wacky adventure that the dynamic duos of TV and movie history embark on the message translates to it being “cool.” Harold and Kumar and the Hangover are both pretty good examples of that.

More and more over the past decade, TV’s attitudes towards alcohol or substance abuse have transformed, providing us with more relatable characters, realistic experiences and educational accounts.

A Turn in the Industry

Among these shows is the spectacular new Netflix original, The Haunting of Hill House, a show about a family who grew up in a haunted house when they were young, and how this affects them in adulthood, especially when the House calls for them to return. One of the brothers, Luke Crain struggles with his recovery from drug addiction and is seen attending multiple treatment centers. We see his continuous struggle with getting clean and working the 12-Step Program, particularly his struggle with Step 4, which in the show is framed as a “fearless moral inventory.”

As the show progresses through each character’s storyline individually, we see Luke in almost all stages of addiction – from his underlying trauma as a young boy, during his fall into rampant drug use, his first time in treatment, his subsequent relapse, and finally while he is 90 days clean. While there were some small inaccuracies, the portrayal was incredibly intriguing and refreshing. The new hit TV show doesn’t shy from the realities of recovery. It doesn’t romanticize the high, and it doesn’t make fun of the struggles at the addict’s expense.

Also on Netflix’s new fall roster is Maniac, staring Jonah Hill as Owen Milgrim, a troubled man who just went off his meds and Emma Stone as Annie Landsberg, a traumatized young woman who seeks out a drug study to find her next fix. While unconventional, the storyline does strive towards a brighter, healthier future for both characters, recovering from their collective pasts and afflictions.

But perhaps the most relevant and accurate recovery-centered TV show to on this list is Recovery Road. This show is a Freeform program aimed towards a younger audience that follows 17-year-old Maddie Graham, played by Jessica Sula, as she navigates her sobriety in high school while residing in a sober living home.

While the show is framed for a younger audience, the material of the narrative is very mature. The story opens with Maddie hitting rock bottom after a rebellious night out – a night of which Maddie has no memory of due to an alcohol-induced blackout. After her abuse of alcohol is revealed to her guidance counselor and mother, Maddie is given a second chance. To avoid expulsion, she is admitted to a sober living house and begins to work on recovery.

This show is particularly rewarding for our younger generation. Maureen Ryan in her Variety Magazine review writes that if Recovery Road continues down the path it’s currently on, the trajectory is leading towards a show that validates those in recovery. She states that more often than not, TV dramas patronize both teenage and adult recovering addicts, and the difference in Recovery Road is that it’s given that teens are smart, and complicated, and also good and lying and covering their tracks. The show also goes on the acknowledge that some adults are even better at concealing unpleasant truths about their families, and their unhealthy patterns can make working the twelve steps harder.4

Other TV shows that are making waves include Jessica Jones, Flaked, Intervention, Mom, Shameless, and One Day at a Time.

All in all, don’t be scared! We’re all about self-care here at Stonegate Center so kick your feet up on the couch and enjoy your fall TV. However, we encourage you to watch mindfully. Media and entertainment are constantly evolving. Be thrilled, be excited. Fun TV will make you laugh, scream, or cry. Empathize with these characters and take what you need to learn more about yourself. Learn what makes you sad; what excuses you use to engage in maladaptive coping mechanisms like Luke or Maddie; and, learn what you need to do to change, to recover and heal. I leave you with the reminder to always strive towards becoming a better, healthier person. And as funny as it sounds, watching TV can be just as much of a learning experience as anything else if you give it a chance.

“The television is ‘real’. It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!’.”
-Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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  1. (1) Henderson, Lesley. “Popular Television and Public Mental Health: Creating Media Entertainment from Mental Distress.” Taylor & Francis Online, 28 Mar. 2017, tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09581596.2017.1309007.
  2. (1) Saval, Malina. “High on TV: How Is Recovery Portrayed on the Small Screen?” Web blog post. The Fix, 18 February 2015, https://www.thefix.com/content/alcoholics-television-then-and-now.
  3. (1) “Drunker in Philadelphia.” Alcohol.org, American Addiction Centers, 2018, www.alcohol.org/guides/drunker-in-philadelphia/.
  4. (1) Ryan, Maureen. “TV Review: ‘Recovery Road’.” Variety, 25 Jan. 2016, variety.com/2016/tv/reviews/recovery-road-review-freeform-1201688194/.
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Stonegate Center - Katelyn Barnett

Katelyn Barnett is an Administrative Assistant at Stonegate Center. She has attended college for English and Fine Arts, and has several works of art and poetry published. Katelyn was on the Editorial staff at a literary magazine and has freelancing experience with graphic design. You can usually find Katelyn at the coffee shop, muttering about comic books or crying about how expensive weddings are.

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