I think we can all admit to at least once indulging in an episode of Dr. Phil. When I was a kid it was one of my favourite things to watch when I was home sick from school. I liked learning about all of the different people’s lives. And the part of me that dreamed of being a Psychologist when I grew up looked up to Dr. Phil. He had all the answers and knew how to help people. Or so I thought. As I got older and learned more about the field I longed to be a part of my view of Dr. Phil began to shift. I started to see him as a man who cared more about making money than helping people. A man who had no business practising Psychology let alone profiting off the adverse experiences of other people. And perhaps worst of all, a man who contributes to the stigma surrounding mental illness when he is in a positon of power that could work to alleviate it.
I appreciate that the Dr. Phil show isn’t designed to be a realistic portrayal of therapy and recovery. I also appreciate that it is a television program designed for the entertainment of viewers. But I don’t think the entertainment has to occur at the expense of the participants. The participants on the show are patronised to, dictated orders to and have their experiences of mental ill health packaged together as unreasonable melodrama for the entertainment of viewers. And a large part of the entertainment value is derived from casting flippant judgements on the lives and decisions of the participants. Often these people are in crisis and in stead of being offered any genuine counselling they are made fun of and criticised for their life choices.
I will give Dr. Phil some credit. For the more serious cases he works on he does tend to refer them to ongoing support and treatment. But even this is done in an unethical and questionable fashion. One of the cardinal rules about being a psychologist is to not direct or order your clients around. Your role is to offer guidance and help the client to figure out their own solutions. Dr. Phil is directive in the way he engages with participants in his program and leaves them with very little autonomy or self-direction in their care plan, two factors that are associated with increased compliance to and success of treatment initiatives.
In treating participants as though he knows better, Dr. Phil contributes to the narrative that mentally unwell people are impaired and lack insight into their illness. If there is one thing I have learned in my life it is that people with mental illnesses actually have a great deal to offer in terms of expertise about their own condition. To treat them otherwise contributes to the stigma that those with mental illnesses are incompetent and unreliable. Furthermore, the entire way the Dr. Phil depicts mental illness contributes to stigma. It presents the participants as ‘crazy’, impaired and unreasonable. It portrays people with mental illnesses most unsympathetically and presents them up as something to be gawked at like an animal in a zoo. ‘Look at that crazy lady, can you believe she would do such a thing?’
I think the Dr. Phil show has missed a serious opportunity. Where it could be a platform for openly discussing mental ill health and normalising these experiences, it does quite the opposite. It would be wonderful to have a TV show that discusses these issues with dignity and honesty but alas, we are left with Dr. Phil, which does less for helping people and more for exploiting people for entertainment.