Every now and then someone asks me what I think of Dr Phil. The answer is simple: not very much.
When I explain how deeply concerned I am that he appears to be widely accepted as a role model of how psychologists ought to be, I am met with incredulous stares. Here's why I feel this way.
So I've been doing some digging into the background of this over-confident and bumptious guy, to see if the available facts and commentary match my own perceptions. I dislike his over-directive, bossy style, which always makes him seem so certain of exactly what everyone else ought to do. He also seems to do most of the talking, and very little of the listening.
My strong impression is of someone seriously lacking in self-criticism, and who sounds oddly inexperienced in the wide world of human suffering and troubles. He mostly seems to concentrate on relatively trivial problems of rich or at least upper middle class folks. This cannot represent the majority of Americans, let alone folk in the rest of the world.
A brief bio
He was born in Oklahoma, a curious state where I was once offered a rather nice job - where there were oil wells between the wings of the medical school building. Phil grew up among such wells, his father an equipment supplier. He went to university on a football scholarship, and after a BA in psychology in 1975, did a Master's degree, and a PhD in 1979. The topic of his PhD was "Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Psychological Intervention".
While studying, he owned a construction business with his brother-in-law. He seems to have practised only rather briefly, in a private practice in Wichita Falls, Texas, while running "life skills seminars" at $1,500 per session per person, with his father and one other person.
Now here it gets interesting. He was found wanting by the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists for unethical behaviour, and stopped providing therapy. A young woman patient made a formal complaint against him, and after prolonged negotiations, the matter was settled in 1989. He was publicly reprimanded, and a requirement imposed that his practice be supervised for a year. He was also required to take an ethics class, pass a jurisprudence exam, and complete a physical and psychological evaluation.
A wake-up call?
Apparently he didn't like this idea, and closed his practice, moving to non-clinical work. Numerous stories allege that he has remained unlicensed to date.
Instead, he set up, along with a neighbour, Courtroom Sciences Inc, a firm which consulted to trial lawyers. He advised major companies and various injured plaintiffs, in negotiating settlements of claims. It's not clear where he gained the special expertise for such consulting work. He later left this company.
Beefing it up with Oprah
But he was enormously lucky. In 1995, he became involved, with others, in assisting with jury selection, to help Oprah Winfrey to prepare herself for her bizarre trial in Amarillo in a case brought against her by Texas Beef interests. The trial ran for some three to four years, and she was profoundly impressed with Dr McGraw.
She asked him to appear on her show, and he soon became a weekly "Relationship and Life Strategy Expert" on the show. Again, it's not clear what formed the basis of his specific expertise in these areas. By 2002 he began his own daily TV show, produced by her studios. He moved to Beverly Hills. And he transformed himself into an industry, writing numerous self-help books.
The book titled "A biography: The Making of Dr Phil", by Sophia Dembling and Lisa Gutierrez, has been rather critical of the ethics of his business practices in an earlier gym business, and claimed that he was abusive to his first wife (who is quoted as describing him as a "control freak"), and also to staff.
When Phil was not so Phat
Then he got into trouble after his 2003 entry into the weight-loss business, selling the "Shape Up" line of products such as shakes, energy bars and supplements. Hardly an area where psychologists have recognisable expertise, yet the labels stated that: "These products contain scientifically researched levels of ingredients that can help you change your behaviour to take control of your weight." This was widely criticised.
The Federal Trade Commission prepared to investigate these claims, and he pulled them off the market in 2004, which put an end to the probe. In 2005, some people who had used his products announced a class-action lawsuit against him, claiming that the stuff didn't stimulate weight loss. In 2006 he settled the suit for $10.5 million, though, curiously, I read that much of the settlement will be paid out to these folks in the form of vitamins! There are reports of other lawsuits being filed, by guests on his show who claim to have been misrepresented or manipulated.
Early in 2006, he was again in trouble: in a segment on "Extreme Disorders", Tourette syndrome and Asperger syndrome, he gave wrong and potentially harmful information about the diagnosis and treatment of these disorders, involving the use of brain imaging. A range of organisations, including the American Psychiatric Association, advocacy and patient groups, complained about this.
In 2005, it was reported that he created a tantrum on the set of the very popular late-night Letterman TV show, when told that he would follow the tennis champion Roger Federer, rather than automatically taking the more important place as first guest.
Then there was his eager bandwagon-leaping after national attention was focused on the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. It was announced that he visited New Orleans and helped to counsel some of the rescue workers, and to film a special edition of his show, called "Rescuing The Rescuers".
Apparently he advised victims that they had to "talk about this" (something they just might have thought of without his assistance) and he hugged the New Orleans chief of police for about five minutes. Though America has many very distinguished specialists in trauma work (also able to assist traumatised rescuers) I have been unable to discover any basis for Phil having any recognisable expertise or previous experience in this field at all. Was the visit perhaps more useful to his show and its ratings, than to rescue workers?
One online commentary (SHAMblog) quotes Phil himself as commenting that he was "the world's worst marital therapist you've ever seen" in part because "I had no patience for my patients." A site called: "Psych Watch: Documenting Psychiatrists Behaving Badly" has other interesting comments on the man. A mental health activist who sought to attend a show to ask for project assistance from McGraw, found that " 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" and warned that his statements shouldn't be considered therapy or a substitute for any form of therapy. Odd, I thought.
To a population grown used to misleading advice about "getting in touch with their inner child", he provides an Outer Adult, of a rather harsh and scolding sort. And with an ego the size of Texas. He can barely wait for the troubled people to stop talking, so he can jump in with his heavy-weight opinion, voiced firmly in his cute "Good Ol' Boy" drawl. He's relentlessly certain and lacking in self-doubt (that's one of the reasons I suspected he had little clinical practice, as enough practise generally teaches you to be more humble than he ever seems to manage to be ).
He comes across as aggressive, controlling, arrogant and insensitive. After exposing himself so badly in the Britney Spears case, has he at long last received his own "wake-up call"? It doesn't seem likely.
References: Dembling, Sophia (2005). The Making of Dr. Phil: The Straight-Talking yet Bullshit Story of Everyone's Favorite Therapist. Wiley. ISBN 0471696595.
(Professor M. A. Simpson, 2008)