Was Dr. Phil Doing His Job?

I’ll get right to it.

Dr.Phil.  What are the prevailing opinions regarding Dr. P? I have never watched his show, but I don’t live under a rock either.  It’s hard not to be aware of his no nonsense, shoot from the hip, straight talk.  Americans love gossip and drama, and they love reality television.  It’s like red meat and red wine.

“And tonight we will be having a titillating show in which Tom is caught redhanded! We will pair that with high drama best exemplified by Martha’s throwing her drink in his face, and her ex-best friend will see this and tweet about it causing the entire bridge club of the White Haven Bridge Society to stop drinking their gin and tonics for five minutes !”

Dr. Phil has made his name and money on the backs of people’s pain and misfortune.  They have agreed to it by appearing on his show and airing their dirty laundry in front of America.  I suspect that people feel better about their lives by partaking of the hidden miseries of the lives of others.  Dr. Phil has been more than happy to oblige them.

This latest show, however, has me asking questions, and I don’t know the answers.

Dr. Phil has interviewed actress Shelley Duvall most well-known for her roles in The Shining and Popeye.  She has been out of the spotlight for almost 20 years, and this is the first time she has been seen.  Duvall is mentally ill with what looks to be a psychotic disorder or dementia.  To be honest, she speaks like and has the affect of someone with a schizophrenia spectrum disorder.


Dr. Phil is under heavy fire from certain people in Hollywood for this interview and receiving press attention, too.  Is he doing this for ratings and, thusly, exploiting Duvall, or is he merely trying to help Duvall? I’m not sure.

Mental illness is no different than any other kind of illness in terms of the body experiencing disease.  There are many contributing factors.  In the case of a schizophrenia spectrum disorder, it is, like MS, a neurodegenerative disease.  The illness itself is a manifestation of a brain-based, neurological disease.

Were people all up in arms when Michael J. Fox was being interviewed, his Parkinson’s Disease symptoms on full display? What about the countless documentaries on early-onset Alzheimer’s? How many interviews have been done with people experiencing dementia? Were people protesting then claiming exploitation and cruelty? No.  What about news programs and documentaries featuring cancer patients in the throes of treatment manifesting symptoms of “chemo brain”? No one was tweeting that the directors were cruel and exploitative then.

So, what about this particular interview is pushing buttons? Duvall herself admits to needing help.  She says, “I’m sick.  I need help.”  She also answers questions that clearly reveal positive symptoms elucidating some kind of underlying psychosis.  It’s upsetting to watch.  But what if psychosis weren’t stigmatized in our society?

What if psychosis were viewed as an indicator of a disease process in the brain, and everyone knew that.  People would then see this interview and say, “Oh my.  Ms. Duvall needs a medical intervention.  I feel sad that she is ill now,” instead of reeling back in horror.  You see, I don’t think that the root of people’s outrage over this interview is related to Dr. Phil’s tendency to ride the coattails of people’s misfortune.  If everyone were authentically outraged over this, then more letters to the press would have been written sooner.  Nothing that Dr. Phil is doing is new.  He’s the same misery vampire as ever, and the American people have loved it.  His show is still on the air.  It’s in its 14th season.

I carefully submit that people are horrified by Ms. Duvall and the manifestation of her illness.  It’s shocking.  It is abnormal, and no one wants to see it.  My question is this: How is mental illness to ever be normalized as part of the human experience unless people with negative, positive, and cognitive symptoms are introduced to people who are not acquainted with them? Mental illness is so stigmatized in our world.  It is hidden and shamed.  Few people outside of the reality of it want to talk about it in meaningful ways, and, when it is discussed and put out there bluntly, those with it are pitied or referred to as undignified.  That is actually the perpetuation of stigma.

Americans are very comfortable with mockery and making that which is quotidian and quite normal profane.  Disease in America is the norm.  It has become normal, and mental illness is normal as well because it is a disease process; but most Americans distance themselves from it through objectification and mockery.  How many Halloween costumes involve mocking those with mental illness–straight jackets, references to mental illness in the costumes themselves, and movie and comic book characters who are anti-heroes due to a mental illness e.g. The Suicide Squad.  It is an hyberbolic surreality that proliferates due to distancing behaviors rooted in stigma and fear.

What Dr. Phil is doing, while distasteful, may not be a bad thing.  The only thing that I might question is Ms. Duvall’s agency, and this is where dignity and potential exploitation come into play.  When we lose our agency to a disease, our dignity becomes dependent upon our caregivers.  Was Ms. Duvall acting on her own behalf, or was someone else acting on her behalf when the agreement was made to do this interview? Was her fundamental right to privacy violated by someone else acting as her power of attorney?

At the same time, do people ask these questions of other people manifesting diseases who participate in interviews? If not, then why? Why is there a double standard? Once again, I think that it may be due to the lack of societal normalization of mental illness perpetuated by stigma.  Someone has to go first and show the world what it looks like–and not in a movie for the purpose of entertainment.  Then, someone must go second, third, fourth, etc.  The world must get comfortable with what it has always chosen to hide and avoid.

Why? 75% of Americans will, at some point, require help for mental illness of some kind.  That would probably be a smaller number if 100% of Americans were willing to support them.

Further Reading:

Exploitative or Empowering? Dr. Phil’s Interview with Shelley Duvall Sparks Controversy


16 thoughts on “Was Dr. Phil Doing His Job?

  1. Not sure if this fits perfectly.
    Dealing with my boy and his mental illness has found one dead end after another in the system. I won’t say the system has failed those with mental illness as that would imply there used to be substance to the system.

    I think it is fair to assume that things in the mental health arena are not important enough maybe, I am not sure how to word it without coming off bitter or just angry with no knowledge of what really happens on the local government level. I can’t describe it out of fact only observation, I get the impression that those with mental health illness are not a top priority and maybe they shouldn’t be, I am not suggesting that the government stop everything until it fixes this issue. I am confused though, if there are so many with mental health issues, it would seem there should be some simple tweaks that could be made but again, I am sure I don’t see the entire picture. Medicine for instance seems to get a lot of attention, drug stores, psychiatrists, flourish but when I walk into the county mental health facilities, they seem to be barely making it.
    As for the stigma, I am at a loss, when my wife was alive we took our boy everywhere and dealt with the fallout when it happened. We could imagine what people around us thought but what do you do? Staying locked away inside was and is not an option, now it’s not so bad as he is on a good med regimen, I just wish Lauren were here to see him now.
    Anyway most of that was about my family and barely on topic so thanks for letting me vent. 🙂

    • Well, I write about this idea in another post. The idea that mental illness isn’t legit even among providers. I bumped into this in a hospital billing department when the hospital would not bill insurance because our daughter was in the hospital for something that was not considered to be an illness. I got into an argument with them over it. She was admitted. What was she admitted for then? And the woman on the phone continually said, “Well, it was not an illness. You know, something that makes you sick.” Schizophrenia isn’t an illness? Then what is it? She refused to discuss it. She just refused to bill insurance. So, I did. And insurance paid. It was the weirdest conversation I’ve ever had with a hospital billing department, and that refusal to bill insurance based in the idea that mental health isn’t really legit IS one of the primary reasons why even hospitals and doctors don’t take it seriously. Frankly, it’s why we need more research because when we can point to an fMRI and say, “See? it’s literally all in the head. Every mental illness starts in the brain. It’s all neurological and you must treat it,” then these practitioners will stop acting out of bias. And that’s what it is.

      You are on topic.

      • You know, that gets me thinking, I am going to see if I can get the list of codes uncle Sam produced for medical billing, if my information is evendors correct on this topic and see how many fit mental health illness, how nice would it be to have the codes for people like the one you had to deal with.

        I can’t insurance to pay for standard blood work that my boy needs for the clozapine, which is a federally controlled substance, how crazy is that?

      • You can look up the codes online. That’s what I did. And then I sent a claim directly to insurance. It’s a tedious PITA, but it’s worth trying.

  2. I can’t quit thinking about one more thing. In the book, The Hobbit, when all the dwarves are there and they start to talk about the plan, they sing a song, the writing is so vivid, I can feel it. Hahaha! Does that make me a weird’O?
    Please, call me George, if you would like 🙂

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