Columns, Opinion

Social Science Weekly: How “Dr. Phil” exploits the mentally ill for public amusement

I don’t want to suggest that a talk show can be hideously immoral, but I can imagine a few candidates. A Dutch reality TV program “De Grote Donorshow” made dialysis patients in need of transplants compete with other contestants for a kidney donation. 

For the season it lasted, these contestants would audition with moving speeches, making their case for why they deserved to live. This grim matter was left to the viewers, who sent in their decisive votes by text. But here’s the catch: the producers gave everyone a kidney at the end. 

That makes it okay, right?

I hope you can still see the problem. Is this the kind of entertainment we should enjoy — watching the terminally-ill panic as we dangle a life-saving procedure in front of them? 

Of course, American television has yet to stoop this low. We know better.

Or do we? Phil McGraw, host of the “Dr. Phil” show, admittedly doesn’t quite rise to the level of abusing the terminally ill. But, at least in the “De Grote Donorshow,” the guests leave with what they came for. 

Dr. Phil essentially therapizes a guest who’s brought in by their family’s goading and a careful selection process by the show’s producers. But, he doesn’t actually have a license to practice being a therapist. He asks questions in an “everything-I-say-is-profound” tone of voice and offers some personal observations. The guest is then given a few opportunities to respond. 

Most episodes don’t raise any alarms, and he connects the guests with licensed doctors afterwards. If you’re wondering, “Why not skip the middleman?” you’re already seeing the problem.

I get why people watch it. Dr. Phil’s a clever guy and his tenor has an air of fatherly authority and good will. But there’s more to the story. 

There are a few episodes featuring apparent cases of mental illness that some psychiatrists and clinical psychologists have found seriously concerning. In one episode, a girl believes she is being pursued by terrorists, being targeted with poisonous gasses and other paranoid delusions. 

You might wonder, “Why let her go on the show?” Okay, she volunteered. But why accept that?

In an interview with ABC News journalist Rebecca Jarvis, Dr. Phil was asked, “If you were in a doctor’s office and a patient came to you and said I want to go on a TV show and talk about my problems and air them to the world, would you say ‘Good idea?’” 

“It depends on what the show was,” he answered.

Your show,” she clarified, and he calmly replied, “Absolutely I would.”

Projecting the most private details of your life into every living room of the English-speaking world is no way to improve your mental health. But, it gets worse. Dr. Phil has been known to bully his guests, taking full advantage of the fact that the crowd is on his side. 

In the aforementioned case, he dissects every minutia of the guest’s delusions, appealing to her sense of reason — a strategy that, for obvious reasons, isn’t the standard procedure for helping a delusional person. He then unleashes a torrent of questions before allowing her to respond. This isn’t what you’d do if you were looking for an answer. 

If you can’t see what’s concerning me, here’s an example of a typical dialogue on the show when things get heavy. But, I’m going to substitute the psychological disorder for a physical one.

The patient is the father of four kids and suffers from involuntary, full-body paralysis because of a motor accident:

Host: “Have you ever considered how your selfishness, how your condition, has affected your family?”

Guest: “I… don’t know.” 

Host: “Don’t you think that this is inconsiderate? Have you considered what your ‘condition’ might be costing your family? How long are you going to keep this charade up?”

Guestt: “You’re right. I’m a failure.”

Host: “That’s not acceptable! I want to hear an apology!”

Guest: “I’m sorry, Rebecca.” 

Imagine saying, “Dr. Phil’s on. This time he’s going to steamroll a terminal cancer patient! I’m laughing already!”

Now replace “paralysis” with “clinical depression” or “paranoid schizophrenia”; throw in wisecracks from the show’s host and a jeering crowd. These are the occasional episodes of the that worry me. 

You may have heard of the “Hippocratic Oath” that healthcare professionals make to never compromise on a patient’s quality or promptness of care for any reason — especially for personal gain.

But that doesn’t stop people from enjoying the show. The public’s appetite for seeing people get “roasted” is insatiable. And who could be a more vulnerable target than the mentally ill?

And who better to find their weakest point than a former clinical psychologist? Who would’ve guessed a degree in treating mental illness could amount to one in exploiting it, given the right person? 

Dr. Phil, it turns out, is the right person.

One might argue that he only administers his “services” to people suffering from emotional distress and damage. But, that only pushes the problem back a step: should watching emotionally wounded people receive pseudo-clinical advice be entertainment? 

He’s an entertainer, and has disavowed the idea that he is providing therapy. But then, what is he doing? It seems like therapy; the only moments where it diverges are when he gestures to the crowd for praise or finds a way to draw its ire.

It’d be different if his guests left feeling informed and ready to take on the world, but that’s hardly the case. Often, the show portrays deeply wounded individuals embarrassing themselves on national television — and Dr. Phil’s a party to this. 

It’s hard to believe he doesn’t know this.

What starts as “non-therapy” gathers the viciousness of a lawsuit but, unlike the normal sort, it’s carried out in the court of public opinion. And, when it comes to public opinion, there is no harsher judge, there is no appeal, and no verdict could be more final.

As Dr. Todd Grande, a professor of clinical psychology at Wilmington University, said, “Mental health clinicians have a deep respect for people who suffer from mental health disorders. Some who suffer from mental disorders are among the most vulnerable in our society. They deserve our protection and our care. They deserve more than the Dr. Phil Show.”


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