Phil McGraw’s infamous talk show is a reflection of how our country deals with mental illness and healthcare.


digital art by Julia Poppa

Phil McGraw is exempt from medical ethics laws because he is not recognized as a licensed therapist in the state of California.

Kristen Kinzler, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Quarantine left us all homebound and binging TV shows, perhaps none more so than deplorable day-time television programs. Between online classes or during the weekdays when there simply seemed to be nothing to watch, the Price is Rights and the Judge Judys were there for us. However, during my time at home, no show frustrated me more than Dr. Phil. 

The talk show, currently airing its nineteenth season and averaging almost four million viewers a week, is hosted by Dr. Phil McGraw and features people struggling with mental health, addiction, and familial estrangement. The guests have ranged from children who claim they want to harm their parents to abusive spouses to teenage runaways to older men who do not realize they’re being catfished on the Internet. 

The premise of the show involves McGraw “fixing” these people and solving their troubles. Basically, he delivers some tough love and tells the guests to grow up and face the music.

Dr. Phil’s business model is simple– its guests trade their dignity and risk public humiliation in exchange for proper mental health treatment and rehabilitation. The show paints the guests as pathetic and stupid, and the live studio audience laughs as McGraw says some sassy one-liner. 

From a financial standpoint, it makes sense. He degrades these people and makes them feel paranoid by exploiting them in front of a large group in order to get them to do or say something outrageous. Then, once the guest gets upset, McGraw can easily market them as crazy and hysterical. These eccentric stories boost his ratings and contribute to his exponentially growing net-worth.

Ethically, it’s disgusting. The fact that this system has been so effective speaks to just how stigmatized the average American’s perception of mental illness is and how lacking our healthcare systems are when it comes to treatment.  

I’m not saying that the guests on Dr. Phil are always good people or that they make the right decisions, but they are primarily featured because of their mental illnesses. While McGraw occasionally acknowledges this, he does little to offer them compassion or account for these issues when “treating” them.

When someone has another severe disorder — if they don’t fit in the box that we categorize as acceptable– they get laughed at on TV.”

There are posts all over social media about being more accepting of mental illness and ending the stigma associated with it. People share several messages saying that it’s okay to struggle and that everyone feels sad sometimes. While these sentiments are true, they present an extremely narrow view of mental illness. For the most part, we have gotten to the point as a society where we allow some dialogue about depression or anxiety — illnesses that are stereotypically quiet and falsely categorized as nothing more than some intense emotions. But when someone has another severe disorder — if they don’t fit in the box that we categorize as acceptable — they get laughed at on TV. 

Mental illness isn’t always not being able to get out of bed in the morning or being plagued by incessant thoughts. In fact, many disorders are ugly and traumatic or even violent. It’s not pretty. It’s not what most people would consider to be normal. It’s painful and messy and hurtful to the person struggling and all of their loved ones.

Even if the guests on Dr. Phil signed up for it, and even if they are doing horrible things, they’re still human beings. So, when McGraw makes a snarky comment or points out the obvious flaw in the guest’s logic in front of that audience and on national television, he’s mostly being cruel.

That kid who says that he wants to harm his family isn’t just a jerk. That teenager who ran away and clings to an abusive boyfriend isn’t just foolish. The man who weighs six hundred pounds but can’t stop binge-eating isn’t just gluttonous. The alcoholic who blames all his problems on his parents isn’t just ignorant. 

Obviously, not every person on the show suffers from mental illness because that would also be a false stereotype, but the majority of them are dealing with some kind of disorder or trauma. And they aren’t receiving the help they need.

The only ways to condemn Dr. Phil and its questionable morals are to change our attitude towards people with mental illnesses and address the severe lack of equal access to healthcare in our country.”

One could argue that the guests sign up for the show on their own accord, and, after the show is over, they do get real assistance. Dr. Phil almost always offers its guests free therapy, access to medical care, or a stay at a rehabilitation center after filming ends. These two points may look like they absolve McGraw of any wrongs, but they actually go hand-in-hand.

On average, therapy costs $60 to $120 per session. Americans pay four times as much for pharmaceutical drugs as citizens of other developed countries do. Hospitals act as profit centers in the United States — a simple surgery to open a blocked blood vessel costs between $6,000 to $7,000 in the Netherlands and Switzerland compared to a whopping $32,000 in the United States. Without proper insurance, outpatient detox costs around $1,000, and inpatient rehab can range from $6,000 to $20,000 per month.

Our healthcare system is fundamentally broken. People are hurting. It’s not surprising that someone suffering would turn to Dr. Phil, even if they knew it meant public humiliation, in order to receive free treatment. In most cases, this is care they would not be able to afford otherwise.

Just because someone is desperate and doesn’t know where to turn doesn’t mean we can treat them like less of a human being.

However, while I personally find it both selfish and pathetic, I can’t really blame McGraw for conducting his show the way he does. He’s become a successful TV personality, author, and podcast host, and it’s all earned him a net worth of $440 million. He’s even managed to do it without acquiring his therapist license in the state of California, where he currently works and lives, so he is exempt from medical ethics laws. Why should he quit now?

I place much more of the criticism on our society — the people who feed into the show and continue to make it such a hit. If we didn’t hold such prejudice against mental illness, I have a hard time believing that Dr. Phil would have all those viewers. If our healthcare system actually functioned as it should, I cannot imagine the show would get as many guests coming in with various conditions. 

Dr. Phil is a product of our environment. The only ways to truly condemn it and its questionable morals are to change our attitude towards people with mental illnesses and address the severe lack of equal access to healthcare in our country. It’s incredibly easy to judge someone through a TV screen, but we have to remember that, no matter what someone is struggling with or how those issues may present themselves, they still deserve basic empathy and understanding.