Rob Ford's addiction: Reducing stigma or doing a 'disservice' to rehab?

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's very public addictions have sparked no end of biting commentary and late-show jokes. Rehab operators, however, are saying all this publicity is helping other addicts seek help.

Toronto mayor likened his first days seeking treatment for alcohol abuse to football camp

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has taken leave of absence while he is seeking treatment for alcohol abuse. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

When Toronto Mayor Rob Ford likened his first days in rehab to football camp and called the experience "amazing," some people clearly thought he was making light of the process. 

But others whose work focuses on helping people overcome substance abuse say individuals experience rehab in different ways, and that the public attention surrounding Ford's struggles with alcohol has increased awareness and prompted others to seek help for their own addictions.

"It's probably the words he used and how people are interpreting those [words] that maybe some people are having a problem with," Laura Bhoi, president of Bellwood Health Services Inc. in Toronto, said in an interview. 

Rehab, she says "is not an easy process. However, people do say that they form very strong bonds with the people who they're with and so maybe some people would compare that to a camp experience." 

For the true sports fan, of course, opening season training camp is an arduous affair for the athletes involved, and that may be what the beleagured Toronto mayor was thinking about.

In any event, Bhoi says that the publicity that Ford has generated around his problems is helping others who are struggling with addiction, reducing stigma and increasing awareness of the issue.

Mayor Rob Ford leaves his home on May 1, 2014, before going to rehab in an undisclosed location. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"It's creating really powerful public discussion about the illness of addiction and about treatment," she said.

"When we talk about stigma, one of the things that really feeds stigma is fear and silence. Often because people feel ashamed of their addiction, they don't talk about it and families don't talk about it and this actually helps to promote stigma."

Bhoi says Bellwood has seen more people "reaching out" over the last several months, and attributes the increased interest to the attention focused on Ford. Treatment inquiries to Bellwood were up 10 per cent in November, when there was extensive media coverage on Ford's substance issues.

A problem with alcohol

After two tapes emerged showing rude behaviour and drug use last week, Ford issued a statement saying he has "a problem with alcohol" and that he needs "professional help." He took a leave of absence from City Hall, packed his bags and headed off for rehab, somewhere outside Toronto, the exact location unknown.

A few days later, he was on the phone with a Toronto Sun reporter, telling him "rehab is amazing" and comparing it to the Washington Redskins football camp he attended years ago.

Such descriptions left Dennis Long, the executive director of Breakaway Addiction Services in Toronto, troubled by the impression the mayor's words made.

"It's a complete misrepresentation of what treatment is all about," Long said in an interview Thursday. "Short-term treatment, which presumably is where he is, is not at all like what is being described.

"When the mayor says, 'well, you know, it's a great place, I'm having a great time and I'm still able to phone my constitutents,' I don't know where he is, but that certainly is not accurate in terms of most of, or virtually all, the treatment facilities I know."

Long said the impression some people are being left with in this instance is unfortunate because when people are looking for help with substance dependency, they should have the straight goods about what's involved.

"It really disturbs me that somebody is treating this kind of treatment so lightly and to a certain extent flippantly. It isn't. It's serious business and it really misrepresents … the whole process of trying to get a handle on your drug and alcohol dependency."

Not fun

Long says some people may find treatment liberating and in some ways energizing, but to describe it as camp "does it a huge disservice."

People in rehab, he says, will be confronted by people who will take no guff from them and say "you've got to start looking at yourself and what you're doing and how come you got yourself here."

Incorrect assumptions about treatment could be damaging, Long suggests.

"Stopping the use of the substance is only a relatively small part of the treatment goal," he says.

"It's also that you have to understand that as you go through [the process] there's going to be significant changes that you'll have to make in your social networks, in your family relationships, maybe even in your job and so on, and all of that will take a significant amount of effort extending well beyond the 21 days."

Some comments on social media have suggested that Ford is making a mockery of the treatment process. But assessing what he really meant by the comment that rehab is "amazing" is not easy.

The impact of such a description is open to interpretation, says Rebecca Jesseman, a research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in Ottawa. Some people who have been through recovery will say it was an amazing experience, she says.

Rob Ford appears smoking from a pipe in a still image given to the Globe and Mail and (

"I can't speak to any one case, but I can certainly say that everybody experiences treatment in a different way, and that we know that substance abuse is a very complex issue and that everybody has their own individual risks and needs."

Portraying people with substance abuse problems as human beings opens up the chance for dialogue, she said.

But on the flip side, sensationalizing those problems and minimizing participation in a treatment program could promote denial, and cause others in a similar situation to be less confident about seeking help.

Jesseman said it's important for people to know treatment services are available for something that is a very complex health issue.

"We don't hesitate to seek treatment if we have cancer, if we have diabetes. Why should we hesitate to seek help if we have a substance abuse issue?"

Healing process

Bhoi also said that it's also important for people to understand rehab can be a powerful, life-changing experience.

People may be scared to come into treatment, or be afraid of giving up their alcohol or drugs because they've become overly dependent on them.

"But when people go through the treatment process they go through a healing process, and so it's very nurturing and a very positive experience which helps someone to ultimately change their life into a new, more meaningful, healthy direction," she said.

Howard Bragman, vice-chairman of, an online reputation and review management firm is "not a fan" of any statement that would suggest rehab is "amazing."

"It is valuable. It is important. It can change people's perspective and they can come out of it stronger and better, but they have to be willing to do the work," he says. "They have to go to the right place for the issues that they're confronting."

And with Rob Ford, he says, "the jury is still out."