Saturday, March 20, 2004
Los Angeles 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 advocate 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," Sutz said. "It is pure entertainment, and he should stop insinuating that it is anything but that, especially not real counseling."
The 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 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 audience of about 6 million.
McGraw offers blunt, unequivocal advice to those who take the stage with him to share family problems, weight issues and other woes.
"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 site passage.
The site includes a "Legal Disclaimer" that reads, in part, "All material provided on the DrPhil.com Web site is provided for entertainment, educational or informational use only, is not necessarily created or approved by a certified mental health professional ..."
Simmermon and other psychologists said they expected 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.
McGraw "certainly smooths the way for people to feel they can speak with a psychologist," said Xavier Amador, a Columbia University adjunct professor. "But the danger lies in the people who do need professional help and confuse what he's saying with that help."