The Expensive, Unregulated World of Sobriety Coaching
Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is the latest celebrity to hire someone to keep them sober, but many experts don't think that sort of coaches are necessary.
Normally, we associate the word "coaching" with things like soccer, football, or pick-up artistry, but what's often overlooked is that, in the world of addiction, coaches who stand between addicts and relapse are a real thing.
Sobriety coaches, or sober coaches as they're sometimes called, are basically the last line of defense in serious cases of substance abuse. Far past the realm of AA groups and therapy sessions, there are self-appointed gurus keeping people clean by spending dozens of hours a week with paying clients to prevent them from making harmful choices.
In Canada, arguably the most well-known sobriety coach is Bob Marier, the man who helped former Toronto mayor Rob Ford kick his myriad of drug and alcohol habits that fueled a year-and-a-half long series of escapades and outbursts that made international headlines. In a new VICE documentary about Marier, he told the filmmakers that when Ford came to him, he was not only in horrible shape but that he was incredibly reluctant to work with Marier.
"When someone's leaving post-acute care, and they want to be reintegrated back into society...a sobriety coach can make that a lot easier," Marier said. "[Ford] couldn't have been any less interested in having a sobriety coach as I was to having root canal."
While Marier wouldn't reveal any financial details in the documentary, it's clear that the job can be very lucrative. As demonstrated by the market in the US, the people who use sobriety coaches tend to be people who have cash to spare. Celebrities who have reportedly used sobriety coaches include Robert Downey Jr., Owen Wilson, and Lindsay Lohan, to name a few. From just a few clinics VICE got in touch with, most coaches charge upwards of hundreds of dollars an hour for coaching and assistance.
While it's more heavily practiced in the US, in Canada, addiction services aren't even regulated, let alone mandated by the healthcare system. Unlike physicians in Ontario, who are governed by the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons (OCPS), addiction services like sobriety coaches don't need any specific medical or professional training whatsoever.
According to Scott Jones, director of clinical care at Canadian Centre For Addictions in Toronto, sobriety coaches are not something generally recommended to patients at his clinic, or at most Canadian addiction clinics, for that matter. He says that this is due to the fact that they directly circumvent the widely-accepted model of addiction treatment—admittance to a hospital or clinic, counseling, medications—that has been used for so long.
"It is a bit of an alternative route. It's generally for people who want to take the least intrusive approach to treatment. They don't have to go through treatment, they don't have to be admitted, they can do it in the comfort and safety of their own home, provided that the coach is willing to do that," he said.
Jones notes that while sobriety coaches can be incredibly effective—given that it's like having a counselor with you 24/7—it isn't a booming industry because many addicts can't afford it.
"You have to be aware that this is for folks who can afford it," said Jones. "There's someone standing there so you don't have to make decisions for yourself or so they can prevent you from getting into high-risk situations that could derail your sobriety in some way another."
Jones said that sobriety coaches can be a "double-edged sword," as they can be a crutch for a patient with money to stay sober by having someone else make choices for them. He explained that the outcome depends entirely on the "sincerity of the person" trying to get sober.
Ford's sincerity in getting sober was questioned quite heavily in the media after he finally admitted to smoking crack cocaine and having substance abuse issues after months of lying about it. As Ford's outbursts and his grandstanding in Toronto City Hall continued, many were asking whether he was truly serious about bettering himself, or if this was all just a matter of saving face prior to an election.
According to Jones, another worry is that sobriety coaches—who could be driven by profits—may not be connecting their patient with the best resources and skills possible to stay sober long after their services are up.
"That sobriety coach isn't going to be around forever. What happens when they leave? Hopefully, the [coach] sets up a plan that, when they leave, the patient can stay sober on their own."
Jones drew a comparison between sobriety coaches and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors—former addicts who have completed the AA program and now act as mentors to newcomers—but noted that the two are distinctly different in the fact that AA is done out of non-profit motives.
Stephanie Venneri, program manager at Breakaway Addiction Services in Toronto, says she hasn't heard of anyone in Canada using a sobriety coach outside of Ford, but added that sponsors in programs like AA are more likely to be effective due to the fact that they actually have proof of conquering their addiction to some degree.
"Someone who is a sponsor is also in recovery and has generally had their own experiences, and I think that's where [programs like] AA has its successes in that it's a group of people who have lived experiences of addiction. I wouldn't necessarily say that's the case with these 'sobriety coaches,' I'm not even necessarily sure what gives them the qualification to be a sobriety coach."
Venneri told VICE that sobriety coaches are not the only thing low-income and marginalized addicts don't have access to, making note of how rehabilitation centers—like the one offered by Jones' CCFA—are privatized and often expensive. Venneri said that most OHIP-funded residential programs have waitlists that can stretch up to six months.
When VICE contacted Alcoholics Anonymous Toronto for comment on sobriety coaches, an operator, who chose not to provide their name, said that the idea of sobriety coaches will not work for most people based on the principle that the desire for an addict to become sober is "not driven from within."
"Sponsors do [their job] because they care, because they have been there and they are not asking for money... Anyone who takes money to help someone fight addiction is preying on the fact that this [person] is unsure of themselves. It will not work for that reason."
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