How Did Southern California Become the Rehab Mecca?

How Did Southern California Become the Rehab Mecca?


This post was originally published on October 29, 2015.

Need to go to rehab and California dreaming? You’re not alone, as Malibu has become more synonymous with rehab than surfing. In short, the word rehab can make addicts recoil, unless they know you’re talking Southern California rehab. Then they picture fruit on trays and plenty of ocean waves (I didn’t plan that rhyme but damn if it isn’t lovely). And that vision isn’t completely off base. Known for catering to celebrity clientele and, well, the richest of the rich, these facilities are often a stark contrast to the bare bones bunk bedded standard for the average rehab. And how the swanky Malibu Model formed is an interesting history lesson.

Golden Coast Dry Out

The beach town of Malibu may boast over 30 rehabs but the soul searching certainly spreads inland. Southern California has long been considered an epicenter for treatment of all kinds but when did it become the world’s most premiere rehab locale? According to a recent piece in Curbed, this unofficial title has been developing for quite some time.

People started flocking to the tropical wonderland that is SoCal in the late 1870s. They were told the weather alone could cure a myriad of illnesses. I must say, as a resident who’s been here for 10 years, there is something about the constant, friggin’ sunshine in the south land that sometimes forces a person into a happy state of mind, even if he or she is not naturally inclined to be there.

Getting Sane In Sanitariums

The biggest malady thought to be cured by our perpetually temperate climate was tuberculosis. Also known as consumption or TB, this disease impacted a multitude of people in the United States in the late 19th century. There was nothing but sanitariums for days, dispersed among Pasadena, Altadena, Sylmar, Crescenta Valley and Sierra Madre Villa. And apparently, the only plan of action to treat it was R&R.

According to Dr. Drew Pinsky (yes, that Dr. Drew), former head of Las Encinas Hospital (originally a sanitarium that evolved into a medical facility equipped to handle more than just respiratory issues), “People would come to just sit on the porch and get the fresh air and the heat and get away from the cold in the wintertime.” Suffice it to say that there wasn’t the sort of official treatment plan we now know today.

Mental health-oriented facilities did start to crop up more and more, in the Crescenta Valley especially. The well-to-do Hollywood types suffering from exhaustion, stress, and let’s face it, probably alcoholism, flocked to these private enclaves which were usually empty mansions with expansive grounds and gardens. One of the most famous of these was Rockhaven Sanitarium for Women, located in LA proper. Apparently, Rockhaven offered a whole lot of garden frolicking and even more crafting. Exhausted ladies, including the mother of Marilyn Monroe, put their feet up and de-stressed. Much like those bitching about living near rehabs and sober living houses today though, residents near Rockhaven and the sanitariums in La Crescenta claimed fear of the property devaluing as well as fear of the actual patients.

Welcome Are the Weary—and the Drunk

The push back subsided in the 1930s and mental institutions offering more controversial therapies, like electroshock and lobotomies, flourished. Again though, the key ingredient for treatment at these places back then was just relaxation. And for the alcoholics, it was just getting off the sauce by way of isolation and separation. Things really took a turn with the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. By the 1950s and 1960s, 12-step rehabs started to became the norm and the American Medical Association officially called alcoholism a disease in 1955. There was a true shift from institutional hospital to a more home-like hospital when former First Lady Betty Ford opened the Betty Ford Center in 1982.

From that point forward, Southern California once again housed a number of rehabs as we think of them today. As Pinksy says, “People could spend 28 days and really get comprehensive, full service, full psychiatry, full psychological services and insurance paid for it. It was Shangri-La.” The ease of getting rehab covered by insurance unfortunately isn’t, of course, as quite as cut and dry nowadays.

Sobriety Meets Luxury

In 1988, 12-step enthusiast Richard Rogg founded Promises, first in West LA, then in Malibu. Promises was the first treatment center to collaborate luxury living with recovery and introduce the aforementioned Malibu Model. This was where the idea of both holistic and individualized treatment came to being. Other elegant, high-priced Malibu rehabs like Cliffside Malibu continued to amp the five-star hotel appeal—and the rest, of course, is history.

One may not equate recovery with luxury but for people with the resources, it certain doesn’t hurt to deal with the trials of getting sober within the confines of high thread count sheets and Pacific breezes. Of course, with so many options in so many different facilities, just heading to SoCal when one is sick and tired of being sick and tired might be the best first step.

Though of course my adopted hometown pride may make me biased.


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About Author

Mary Patterson Broome is the Editor-in-Chief of and After Party Magazine and has also written for Women's Health Magazine Online, AOL and WE TV. She has been performing stand-up comedy at clubs, colleges, casinos and festivals across the country and internationally for over a decade. Originally from southern Alabama, she now calls Los Angeles home.