As Phillip McGraw, or Dr. Phil, once stated, “Every choice you make—including the thoughts you think—has consequences. When you choose the behavior or thought, you choose the consequences. If you choose to stay with a destructive partner, then you choose the consequences of pain and suffering. If you choose thoughts contaminated with anger and bitterness, then you will create an experience of alienation and hostility. When you start choosing the right behavior and thoughts—which take a lot of discipline— you’ll get the right consequences” (DrPhil. com, “Dr. Phil’s Ten Life Laws,” 07.13.2003).
McGraw is a television personality, selfhelp guru, author, entrepreneur and selfstyled mental health expert. Currently in its 16th season, the TV series that bears his name has aired well over 2,000 episodes and has gained immense popularity over the years. In August, his show celebrated a major achievement: It has ran 100 straight weeks as the number-one rated daytime talk show on television (Broadcasting Cable, “Syndication Ratings: Dr. Phil Hits 100 Straight Weeks as Top Talker,” 08.14.2018). McGraw is, if nothing else, influential. And for good reason: He’s charming, down to earth, a straight shooter and has a talent for discussing difficult and upsetting topics, ranging from addiction to mental illness to crime, in a way that the layman can understand. He has built an incredible persona.
Sadly for Phil McGraw, however, every choice you make has consequences. If you drive drunk, you do so knowing full well that the risk is that you could get into an accident and seriously hurt someone. If you don’t study for an exam, then you implicitly accept the possible consequence of failing the course. And, if you run a beloved television series—one that provides to its viewers advice on a variety of mental health issues—and you choose to break the basic ethical code of your occupation, promote bad psychology, publicly humiliate vulnerable people and willfully put your guests’ health and safety at risk, then you choose the consequences of these actions. Specifically, you choose to be “Dr.” Phil McGraw, a fake psychologist and host of a pop-psychology program that actively hurts its guests and its viewers. Like McGraw, I believe you choose the consequences of your actions—he has made his bed; now the time has finally come for him to lie in it.
First, it’s important to understand that Dr. Phil is not a real doctor. While he does have a Ph.D. in psychology and used to have a license, he is no longer a licensed psychologist and cannot legally practice in the state of California, where he lives and films his show (Everyday Psychology, “Is Dr. Phil actually a psychologist?” 01.29.2008). Why did he leave the profession? We’re not sure, but his career was marred in 1988 by serious scandal. Sara Jane Morrison, a 19-year-old client of McGraw, alleged that he carried on an unprofessional sexual relationship with her, would touch her inappropriately and intentionally kept her “totally dependent” on him (Salon, “Who’s your daddy?” 11.25.2003). The Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists investigated the accusations, along with claims that McGraw inappropriately provided her with part-time temporary employment while still carrying on a therapeutic relationship. Their findings never referenced the accusations of sexual misconduct, but they did discover that McGraw sustained an improper dual relationship with Morrison by acting both as her therapist and employer. The Board issued him a letter of reprimand, assigned a psychologist to monitor his practice and required him to take an ethics class and a complete psychological evaluation (Casewatch, “Disciplinary Action against Phillip McGraw, Ph.D.,” 12.12.2009).
Whatever the reason may be, Phil McGraw is no longer a licensed psychologist, nor has he been for some time. McGraw told the American Psychological Association that he does not see himself as his guests’ therapist, and he does not consider what he does on his show to be psychology. He also doesn’t claim that his show is a serious substitute for therapy. He acknowledged, “We do not labor under the false impression that we are doing an eight-minute cure.” Instead, he believes that the series’ primary goal is to let people know that it’s okay to treat problems and get help and deliver understable information about how to live one’s life (American Psychological Association, “Behind the scenes of the Dr. Phil show,” 10.2006). That’s a fine goal, but Dr. Phil’s show regularly exploits people with serious mental illnesses and disabilities for financial and entertainment purposes. He humiliates his guests, many of whom he and his staff put in physical danger, as exemplified by the case of Kaden Mahaffa.
In 2019, Mahaffa filed a lawsuit against Phil McGraw and CBS after what she deemed to be a disastrous appearance on the show. According to the lawsuit, Mahaffa appeared on “Dr. Phil” in 2017 to seek help for her boyfriend, who had been abused by his family. Instead, after finding out in a preshow interview that she had been suffering from significant mental health disabilities, the show spent much of its time making fun of her mental health issues. Mahaffa now accuses McGraw of aggressively interrogating her and inviting the audience to laugh and jeer at her, causing such a significant mental breakdown backstage that she was involuntarily committed to a mental health facility. Mahaffa claims that she still deals with harassment as result of the show to this day (Courthouse News, “Dr. Phil Guest Claims He Exploited Her Mental Illness for Profit,” 02.08.2019).
“[Mr. McGraw is a] powerful Hollywood celebrity who uses his fame and credibility as a mental health professional to gain the trust of mentally-ill psychiatric patients, only to turn around and publicly humiliate them for the sake of good television ratings and advertising dollars,” argued Mahaffa. Her lawyers also stated, “Any reasonable person—let alone a clinical psychologist like Defendant McGraw—would immediately recognize that Ms. Mahaffa was a mentally-ill individual in crisis, not someone to be exploited on a national TV show” (Courthouse News).
This blunder is bad, but it is far from the most high-profile case of Phil McGraw exploiting someone’s mental health disability for his own benefit. In 2016, McGraw’s show tracked down famed actress Shelley Duvall, most well known for her work on films such as “The Shining” and “Popeye.” However, it became clear during their conversation that Duvall’s mental health had been deteriorating. The interview got slammed by the public for exploiting her mental illness for cheap laughs and ratings, and many people demanded that McGraw apologize to Duvall and her family. Vivian Kubrick, the daughter of Stanley Kubrick, wrote that the show was, “purely a form of lurid and exploitive entertainment.” Journalist Ronan Farrow tweeted seven times about the interview, which he called “shameless” (Variety, “Dr. Phil Shelley Duvall Interview Prompts Criticism for Exploitative Entertainment,” 11.18.2016).
In addition, his treatment of addiction is also horrendous. In one instance, Todd Herzog, a former winner of the hit reality television series “Survivor,” appeared on McGraw’s show in 2013 to discuss his drinking problem. However, he was so drunk that he had to be carried onto the set and lifted into a chair. Before you wonder why a supposedly trained psychologist did something so cruel as to put a man too drunk to walk on national television, first consider the horrendously immoral and unethical actions that led to this situation. According to Herzog, he was set up: His dressing room came with a full bottle of vodka. After drinking all of it, a staff member supposedly handed him a Xanax, which he took before he came on stage. Herzog also claimed that, when he appeared on the show again in 2014, he once again found vodka placed in his dressing room (STAT, “Dr. Phil says he rescues people from addiction. Others say his show puts guests’ health at risk,” 12.28.2017).
McGraw, of course, denied the allegations, but the claims are backed up by staff accounts. Leah Rothman, who accused McGraw of locking employees in rooms and screaming at them over leaks to the media, said that, “His primary interest was not about helping people on the show, but rather, done for the sake of ratings and making money. Dr. Phil often embarrassed guests on his show in their darkest hour, leaving the staff to pick up the pieces of the broken people who had put their trust in Dr. Phil” (STAT).
In another case, Kaitlin King-Parrish appeared on the show in 2016, hoping that McGraw would help her with her heroin addiction. As a six-months pregnant mother, she expected the show to provide her with medical supervision for her detox. Instead, she was left to fend for herself. When Kaitlin tried to go to the hospital, she didn’t receive any attention from medical personnel, and ultimately left after waiting for four hours. Then, a “Dr. Phil” staffer accompanied Kaitlin as she went into the city to buy heroin. Before the show, staffers told Kaitlin’s mother not to question what McGraw tells her. If she did, they warned her that McGraw may not provide her daughter the services she needed to recover. So, she shut up and let herself, her daughter and her unborn granddaughter be manipulated by a predator (STAT). McGraw abused his power over an addict and her family for ratings, and in doing so put not just Kaitlin’s life in danger but also the life of her unborn daughter.
That doesn’t even scrape the surface of the accusations of misconduct and bad psychology that have followed this man throughout his career. In 2012, he promoted the “psychic medium”—otherwise known as a fraud who exploits grieving people, kind of like our good friend Phil—John Edward on his show (Dr. Phil, Skeptics Beware: The Psychic Intuitives Are Here,” 08.02.2012). In 2003, his weight loss supplement line, “Shape Up,” resulted in a class-action lawsuit against him as well as an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for false-advertising (Los Angeles Times, “Class Status Sought for Dr. Phil Diet Case,” 08.03.2005). In 2008, a staffer for his show bailed out a Florida teeanger who brutally beat up another girl and posted the video on YouTube, just so that she could appear on his program (NY Daily News, “Dr. Phil staff bails out Florida girl charged in videotaped teen beating,” 04.14.2008).
In the era of of the #MeToo movement, it is time to call out all kinds of predators. McGraw is a predator, one who preys on vulnerable people who look to him for guidance. He likes to tell his guests that they choose the consequences that come with their actions. Well, Phil, let’s look at your choices and your behavior throughout your long career. You chose to engage in an inappropriate relationship with a client, and thus, the consequence of getting yourself in serious trouble with Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists. You chose to make a career humiliating mentally ill people on live television, and therefore chose the consequence of leaving them with emotional scars that may never heal. You chose to put addicts in serious danger, and chose the consequence of causing them severe injury. You chose to feature John Edward on your show, and thus the consequence of supporting a known swindler. You chose to peddle a fake weightloss supplement, and thus chose the consequence of a class-action lawsuit and federal investigation.
Phil McGraw has chosen to make the world a worse place. He has chosen to make a career exploiting and hurting people. In turn, we need to choose what the consequence for his actions will be. Will it be 16 more years of success, fame and money? Or, will it be finally getting what has been coming to him for a long, long time?