Should TV Shows Work So Hard to Normalize Support Groups Like AA?

By Jonita Davis 06/07/19

People get their information from TV, so any misrepresentation can be dangerous.

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woman watching aa meeting on Shameless
AA is depicted as the magical cure for any afflictions experienced by the person with addiction; however, not everyone responds to the AA and 12-step recovery format. Ocusfocus | Dreamstime.com

Whenever some character on your favorite television show or film has an addiction or experiences a major tragedy, they turn to a support group. Audiences recently saw Steve Rogers, the alternate identity of Captain America (played by Chris Evans) turn to a grief support group in Avengers: Endgame. The group was comprised of other superheroes, who are all grieving loved ones lost after Thanos killed half the world’s population.

The practice of seeking help in support groups is more prevalent on TV: both Alcoholics Anonymous and group therapy are commonly shown as the healing modality of choice. In fact, “going to a meeting” is normalized, but is that accurate? We expect any storyline that has a character—major or otherwise—suffering with addiction or a major loss to include a few scenes of a bunch of folks in a dank hall drinking bad coffee and spilling their souls over the addiction or grief. The Hollywood styling of this form of recovery may be doing more harm than good.

Support Groups Are All Over TV

There is more than one way of depicting a support group on television. Fortunately, the variety of shows using the recovery group option do show some diversity. Support groups can occur in a clinical setup, like the one we see in New Amsterdam on NBC. Dr. Bloom (played by Jane Montgomery) is checked into a posh rehab for her Adderall addiction, and a support group is a part of her recovery.

The alternative is a nonclinical setting — usually a church or school. The CBS sitcom Mom makes frequent use of this type of group. In fact, the group is central to the show’s storyline about the multigenerational damage caused by addiction. Characters Bonnie (Allison Janney) and Christy (Anna Faris) are the mother-daughter duo at the center of the story and each meeting. There’s also Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) and her food addiction support group on NBC’s This is Us and James Roday’s character Gary who leans on a breast cancer support group on ABC’s A Million Little Things.

There are so many different depictions of these groups and new ones being introduced to new shows all the time. The Fox show Proven Innocent debuted this spring and introduced a support group for character Levi’s (Riley Smith) anger management. This support-group-as-solution message is hammered home by so many shows in a variety of genres, on a variety of networks, and covering several different topics. In this way, television is actually helping the normalization of support groups. If these portrayals motivate a viewer with a problem to join a group and get help, they’ve done some good. But by using them as the go-to solution, these shows do a disservice to people who need other kinds of treatment.

Erasure and Magical Recovery

Unfortunately, like any other television depiction, there are some liberties taken in fictionalizing the use of support groups for recovery. These liberties include the magical treatment of AA and the meetings. There’s also the erasure of licensed therapists and the mischaracterization of support groups in situations where there is a secondary issue fueling the addiction.

On so many of the shows, with a few exceptions (such as New Amsterdam and Mom), there is no distinction between the therapist-led groups and the ones led by participants in the group. The lack of a licensed professional in these settings gives the idea that a traditional therapist, and even individual therapy, isn’t needed for recovery. This is a huge misconception. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Treatment Protocols Series 41 stresses that a licensed therapist, recovery specialist, or doctor is necessary for successful recovery when group members are facing more than just the issue that brought them to the group. People with multiple substance or behavioral addictions, or addiction accompanied by mental health conditions or trauma, for example, would be better helped by treatment that includes individual therapy or a therapist-led group.

The “magic” of an AA meeting that permeates the shows is also damaging. AA is depicted as the magical cure for any afflictions experienced by the person with addiction; however, not everyone responds to the AA and 12-step recovery format. Those are not the only forms of recovery. AA meetings are also largely participant-led, which can be problematic in itself for some people.

Examples of this problem are found in shows like Grey’s Anatomy. The show often blurs or erases the role of the therapist in messy support group situations. This season, for example, characters Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) and Dr. Webber (James Pickens Jr.) use their AA meetings as the cure-all for whatever ails them, including grief, anger issues, and PTSD. These conditions should be treated in individual therapy and/or therapist-led groups. The characters on Mom and Shameless also only turn to magical 12-step programs and AA. They fail to show other options for group support in fighting addiction.

So Should TV Continue Normalizing Support Groups?

Is all this normalizing of support groups actually good for people? According to SAMHSA’s Treatment Improvement Protocols, humans benefit immensely from support groups because we are social creatures. “The natural propensity of human beings to congregate makes group therapy a powerful therapeutic tool for treating substance abuse, one that is as helpful as individual therapy, and sometimes more successful.” So it's natural to seek out others for recovery.

The protocols go on to say that the groups work because we can see others as they progress through therapy and hit the same milestones that we hit. This is a form of witnessing as motivation. The groups also fight isolation and loneliness, which are relapse and mental health triggers. Another effect is the recovery culture, the opportunity to be surrounded by like-minded people. The atmosphere alone is so conducive to recovery and community, with the participants all sharing their journeys. The positivity alone is a benefit to anyone participating in support groups, no matter the reason for the support.

So, Showtime’s Shameless may be accurate when Lip (played by Jeremy Allen White) finds his relapsed sponsor nearly naked and injured in a freezer and tells the man they need a meeting before they do anything else. Getting into a familiar environment which he associates with sobriety and wellness can help the man back on the road to recovery and will improve his immediate mental state, or so they hope. When the ladies on Mom go through any hardship at all, someone from the group suggests going to a meeting. In fact, on both shows, the friends that the characters met in the support groups also became friends in the real world. These friendships deepen with every milestone hit in recovery, even in relapse. In these ways, the shows are very accurate in the benefits of group support.

So while they do sometimes provide accurate representations of the help found in groups, television shows also need to be more responsible about their portrayals of support groups as the only treatment for addiction and mental health conditions. People get their information from TV, so any misrepresentation can be dangerous. TV shows still have some work they must do and quickly, because many people already naturally assume that 12-step groups like AA are the only solution for people with addiction.

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Jonita Davis is a writer, avid reader, and writing instructor based on the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, Redbook, and Romper. Follow her on Twitter at @SurviTeensNtots or check out her website www.jonitadavis.com.

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