“Why are you laughing?”
“It’s just, I don’t understand why they let you write this.”
“Yeah, I guess it is a bit odd.”
“It’s just…it’s so random.”
In February, I wrote an article for The Miscellany News about the Dr. Phil Show, hosted by former psychologist and self-styled mental health expert Phil McGraw. To put it mildly, the show is immensely popular—the most popular daytime talk show since Oprah. I don’t think the good Doctor deserves this success. Here’s the short version of what I wrote: Dr. Phil is a terrible person, and his show is bad. Don’t watch it. It’s that simple.
Let me get you a little more up to speed: it’s important to understand that Dr. Phil is not a licensed psychologist, nor has been for quite a while. He exploits his guests for money, a claim that has been repeatedly confirmed by former members of his staff. In one particular incident, Todd Herzog, a Survivor winner suffering from alcoholism, was given a full bottle of vodka and a Xanax before appearing on the Dr. Phil show, as to make his television appearance more dramatic. As if it couldn’t get worse, McGraw regularly leaves guests without medical help as they face withdrawal symptoms, and even directed a pregnant teenager to find heroin on the streets. He regularly promotes pseudoscience on his show, and regularly provokes controversy due to his high profile exploitation of people with mental health disabilities. If you watch his show, you should really stop doing that.
In the week or so after the piece was published, many of my friends seemed baffled by what I wrote. I heard countless comments just like those gawks and awe described above. It wasn’t that masses of people disliked the article (well, some obsessive Dr. Phil fans did), but rather readers were baffled to find an article like it in a collegiate paper. After all, it has nothing to do with Vassar College, my alma mater. And it’s not like Dr. Phil is a particularly hot button issue in elite academic incubators.
Something strange happened, however, in the few months following the article’s publication: more and more people read it. No, it didn’t go viral, but with 190 interactions on Facebook, including 31 comments to boot, it somehow became one of my most widely discussed pieces.
So, here I am, four months later. I figured it might be time to answer a question that’s been on a lot of my friends’ minds: Why did I even bother writing this?
Or, rather, why would I think that anyone would care about my thoughts on Dr. Phil? Certainly, I’ve written plenty of articles on disability over the years, and my fair share of overly aggressive takedowns. However, Dr. Phil is not an obvious target, and he’s not someone I had serious exposure to.
I never watched Dr. Phil growing up—somehow, bland mental health advice from a bald, moustached predator didn’t interest me as a kid. No one I knew watched it. I never sought it out.
I first interacted with his show a couple of years ago, when I stumbled upon an old episode that featured a girl addicted to texting while driving. The girl in question was quite young and seemed to need serious psychological help. Phil’s solution? Yell at her. That would certainly be an appropriately professional way of handling things!
By the time I watched that episode, I had already become deeply involved in disability rights activism at Vassar, both through my writing with The Miscellany News and work as president of a disability rights organization. Therefore, I was sensitive to the exploitation of disabled people, in which Dr. Phil was a ruthless participant. I decided to delve a bit deeper, and I found myself shocked, confused, disgusted and ultimately uncomfortable with a lot of Dr. Phil’s episodes. They all struck me as exploitative and trashy—a high-grade version of Jerry Springer.
What bothered me most is that Dr. Phil perpetuates the notion that mental health issues aren’t illnesses, but rather, are flaws in character. He may not always say this outright, but he promotes it by running a show that’s basically just him yelling at disabled people for thirty minutes. What’s worse: He uses this horribly unprofessional behavior to build his brand as a “tough love” spouting straight-talker, when he’s actually just a con artist—a modern-day P.T. Barnum.
Thankfully, I don’t have many friends who like him, and among the TV doctor’s biggest detractors are real life psychologists. Every person I’ve met who wants a career in psychology or medicine hates him. Even current and future psychologists try to distance themselves from him; as Dr. Samantha L. Wilson wrote for the Monitor on Psychology, “Calling Dr. Phil a psychologist demeans the very nature of this protected title.”
But, as much as my friends may assure me that Dr. Phil is an anathema among psychologists, this seems like wishful thinking. The American Psychological Association (APA) has lavished Dr. Phil with praise. Former APA President Dr. Gerald Koocher gave him a Presidential Citation, which reads, “Your work has touched more Americans than any other living psychologist.” What high praise.
Of course, there’s no shortage of articles complaining about Dr. Phil. But, I wonder whether that really detracts from how everyday Americans view psychology. In each episode, Dr. Phil promotes a warped view of mental health and therapy, that people who seek therapy are all extremely ill, that the way to help someone suffering from mental illness is to yell it out of them, and that mental health can be understood in strictly moral terms. It’s devastating to watch.
It also has a very serious impact on the real world. It’s extremely difficult to honestly discuss mental health with people’s whose views on the subject are shaped by Dr. Phil’s television show. In my advocacy, I’ve met people who have been isolated from friends and loved ones who share Dr. Phil’s views on mental health. It’s heartbreaking.
Naturally, Dr. Phil isn’t the only person who promotes outdated, ableist ideas about disability and mental illness. There’s plenty of problematic content out there that contains similar viewpoints. But Dr. Phil should know better; he was once a psychologist, after all. I know he hasn’t officially practiced, outside of television cameras, in over thirty years, but you’d think he’d retained some knowledge.
Dr. Phil presents himself as a mental health expert, someone who gives people frank but important advice that they can use in their everyday lives. That bothers me a hell of a lot more than any movie. At least when I watch Psycho, I understand that it’s a work of fiction. When I watch Jerry Springer, I know that it’s exploitation, and he’s not giving the audience life advice. When I watch Dr. Phil, I see something that presents itself as a form of truth.
That makes him particularly dangerous, and particularly worthy of being called out, whenever and however possible. If I never wrote again, never accomplished anything in my life, I could be satisfied knowing that at least one person read my article and, because of it, stopped watching the Dr. Phil Show. I could be happy knowing that one day, maybe, he’ll finally get what he deserves.
Dr. Phil is not the problem—he’s a symptom of the problem. He hasn’t created a culture in which people believe that mental illness is synonymous with immorality. He’s just profited from one, and he’s not alone in doing so. But what sets Dr. Phil apart from his peers is that he presents himself as a mental health expert. Maybe he is, but that doesn’t mean that we should believe everything he says. It means that he should know better.