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‘Dr. Phil’ critic says doctor isn't in for all

The "Dr. Phil" show should be taken as entertainment, not real counseling, says one mental-health activist.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Neal David Sutz walked through the Paramount studio gate, he was looking forward to seeing a psychologist he respected, talk show host Phil McGraw.

Sutz didn’t know he was about to get caught in the awkward intersection of entertainment and counseling where “Dr. Phil” holds ground.

A mental health activist who himself had undergone treatment, Sutz hoped to attend a taping and connect with McGraw afterward to enlist his help in a public information campaign.

Instead, the Mesa, Ariz., paralegal student was stopped short by paperwork. He and other would-be audience members were asked to sign a waiver attesting they didn’t suffer from mental illness and weren’t under psychiatric care.

The waiver also said that McGraw’s statements shouldn’t be considered therapy or a substitute for any form of therapy. Talking to a show representative, Sutz was told he could attend but couldn’t talk to Dr. Phil or participate in the show — for Sutz’s own protection.

He left instead. The incident, which occurred last fall, has weighed on him; so much for “Doctor” Phil, he said in an interview.

The disclaimer signals “that his advice is not real medical, psychological advice at all,” said Sutz. “It is pure entertainment and he should stop insinuating that it is anything but that, especially not real counseling.”

An uneasy mixThe blend of Hollywood and psychology in TV shows like “Dr. Phil” offers cause for concern, said Atlanta psychologist Robert Simmermon. “It is important to distinguish between entertainment and actual treatment. It’s not done very well,” Simmermon said.

It’s likely that some of the millions of people who tune into “Dr. Phil” ignore disclaimers and view it as therapy, Simmermon said. “I think it does need to be studied.”

McGraw has always been explicit about his show’s intent, said Terry Wood, executive vice president of programming for Paramount Domestic Television, which produces the syndicated “Dr. Phil.”

“Phil has said on the air many, many times that we are not doing therapy here,” Wood said.

He makes it clear “on the air every day that you should not substitute his judgment for your own. ... I think he makes it very clear to the viewer that he’s dealing with what’s going on in the (studio) and he’s dealing with the people who have come to him for help,” she said.

McGraw, also a best-selling author, is the current star of an advice industry that includes TV shows, radio programs with hosts such as Laura Schlessinger and self-help books.

“Dr. Phil,” created by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, is the No. 2 daytime talk show behind Winfrey’s own gabfest and draws an average daily audience of about 6 million viewers.

McGraw regularly appeared with Winfrey before winning his showcase in 2002. He offers blunt, unequivocal advice to those who take the stage with him to share family problems, weight issues and other woes.

His Web site speaks with equal force to visitors.

“You cannot dodge responsibility for how and why your life is the way it is. If you don’t like your job, you are accountable. If you are overweight, you are accountable. If you are not happy, you are accountable,” McGraw said in one web passage.

The site includes a “Legal Disclaimer” that reads, in part, “All material provided on the Web site is provided for entertainment, educational or informational use only, is not necessarily created or approved by a certified mental health professional ...”

Keeping it in perspectiveSimmermon and other psychologists said they expect viewers, even those with mental problems, to keep such shows in perspective.

“A mental health struggle doesn’t affect the ability to be independent, decision-making people,” said Leon Vandercreek of Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. They can make “that judgment call that TV is entertainment.”

But it’s not unusual for patients to mention McGraw’s comments — or therapy they’ve seen on HBO’s mob drama “The Sopranos” — in their own sessions.

That’s fine, said one New York psychologist.   ”I think there’s more concern about people who have problems and aren’t in therapy and (lack) someone to talk to about it,” said George Stricker, a research professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y.

Studies show the majority of people with mental problems don’t seek help, said Xavier Amador, a Columbia University adjunct professor and a board member of the advocacy group National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

McGraw “certainly smooths the way for people to feel they can speak with a psychologist,” Amador said. “But the danger lies in the people who do need professional help and confuse what he’s saying with that help.”

Sutz, 33, who was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder (manic depression), called on “Dr. Phil” to add an on-screen advisory that McGraw’s advice is not intended for those with a mental illness or in therapy.

That’s a substantial group: An estimated one in five adults — 44 million Americans — suffers from a mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

McGraw’s limits should be clearly spelled out for them, Sutz argues.

“Too many people in this country think Dr. Phil’s words are the gospel for him to be mistreating the mentally ill, either directly or indirectly.”