Dr. Drew, Dr. Phil, and ‘Rehab TV’ Draw Therapists’ Ire

Empty waiting roomThe recent news that troubled country singer Mindy McCready took her own life has thrust the debate about the efficacy and ethics of “rehab” television shows and the people behind them, such as Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil, into the spotlight. McCready is the fifth cast member from Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew to die, prompting one well-known musician to take to Twitter to compare host Drew Pinsky to assisted-suicide icon Jack Kevorkian: “Same results,” Richard Marx wrote.

We wanted to know what our Topic Experts think, so we asked them the following questions: Is the criticism of Dr. Drew, Dr. Phil, and similar so-called experts-turned-media personalities warranted? Is it enough? After all, for many Americans, they are THE faces of therapy. Is that fair? Are they doing more harm than good? Is what they do simply exploitation, or is there more to it? With the popularity of reality TV on the rise, how can therapy professionals counteract any damage done by Dr. Drew, Dr. Phil, and others whose platforms extend into living rooms from coast to coast and beyond?

Here’s what they had to say:

  • Deb Hirschhorn (relationships and marriage): “Money is a problem, and even ‘real’ therapists get green eyes. I cannot count how many Internet marketers have advised me to have ‘real clients’ give video testimonials on my successful website—and I have refused. ‘But,’ they complain, ‘all the therapists are doing it!’ That may be true, but it’s still wrong. ‘But,’ comes the reply, ‘the clients want to do it. Aren’t they adults who can make their own decisions? If you don’t think so, then aren’t you treating them like children and isn’t that disrespectful?’ The question is good and deserves a response. It was my first child’s fourth birthday when my second child was born. The second needed a C-section, but that didn’t stop me from feeling the strong need to make a special birthday party for the first child. After all, I certainly didn’t want to provoke sibling rivalry by unduly fussing over the newcomer. I rushed to the grocery store and started shopping. Unfortunately, that provoked some pain and I phoned the doctor. ‘What?’ he asked, ‘You’re running up and down the grocery aisles? No ma’am! You need to sit and take it easy after a C-section.’ The moral of this story is that although I am an adult and quite capable of making decisions, I did not see the ramifications of my actions. The same is true for clients who go live on the air to tell their stories: They do not see the ways in which they may be hurting themselves by airing their troubles, their weaknesses, their mistakes, and their pain in front of an audience of strangers. Therapists, on the other hand, although not clairvoyant, have enough experience with people to be able to ‘see’ into the future and know that this is a formula for disaster. And the reason is actually quite simple: People of all ages need a higher number of positives in their life than negatives in order to go forward. They need to believe there is something good about their choices, their history, and who they are as people in order to be able to meet each day with the strength it takes to master challenges. Focusing on the problem instead of their resources is a formula for hopelessness. A good therapist will build on strengths and only dab a little drop of problem talk into the session as necessary to know what, exactly, needs fixing. Airing all this publicly does just the opposite.”
  • Darren Haber (addictions and compulsions): “I think the criticism is actually too polite by half. It would help, for starters, if these guys were experienced clinical psychologists, but they’re not. Dr. Drew isn’t even a psychologist, he’s an internist, and Dr. Phil is more practiced at expert witness work for courtrooms—which makes sense, given his sensationalizing, sometimes prosecutorial style (‘you need a backbone,’ ‘and this was a good idea why?’ etc.). The bigger problem is the awkward marrying of psychology with entertainment, a devil’s bargain to begin with. Real clinical work is slow, repetitive, ambiguous, and often plain boring. It can also be exhilarating and tremendously moving … but after the kind of slog I’m describing herein. The big Hollywood cathartic breakthrough (a la Good Will Hunting) is rare, and only occasionally leads to change. (I’ve witnessed crying jags that are forgotten the following week.) The values of entertainment—of, let’s face it, tabloid TV—are contra the values of psychology, which in its authentic form is probably better suited to something found on PBS or NPR—or, better yet, as a book or classroom discussion, etc. To take one example of how the medium corrodes the message, via Dr. Drew: Many people in recovery have narcissistic tendencies; life is itself often a ‘performance’ in a desperate seeking of approval and attention. Sticking a camera into a therapy group is exactly what so many recovering people don’t need. (It doesn’t help those who are painfully self-conscious, either.) A camera changes the equation, period. It is naive and even dangerous to pretend otherwise.”
  • Sarah Swenson (Asperger’s / autism): “Electronic communication is like any other form of communication in one very misunderstood way: Most of what is communicated is nonverbal. We can see the truth in this when we are speaking directly to someone and we incorporate tone of voice, gesture, facial expression, and other cues into our comprehension of what we hear. But when we are watching reality TV, which is a misnomer at best and an outright lie at worst, these cues are scattered to the wind. Viewers can be lulled into a false sense of reality, by design, and it would be a natural next step if they were to take these TV performances seriously and consider the outcomes of the treatments and advice as if they were valid and complete. Individuals who are less skilled at ‘reading between the lines’ to begin with are all the more vulnerable to the illusory nature of the reality being portrayed on reality TV. Even the so-called experts, such as Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil, are not working as psychotherapists, whose work takes place session after session in an environment of building interpersonal trust and a therapeutic liaison in which healing can occur. Yet these TV experts proffer advice through the airwaves, advice which often suggests that there are quick fixes to even the deepest problems, such as substance-abuse issues or mental illness. If a viewer sees someone (a celebrity, for example) take her own life after experiencing the supposed advantage these so-called experts proffer, and that viewer has an even less supportive environment than the celebrity, he or she runs the risk of thinking that if someone who has it all can commit suicide, can fail, then the odds against solving personal problems are overwhelmingly bleak. It is ingenuous to suggest that copycat suicide is an unlikely event. These TV experts do all psychotherapists a disservice. Most significantly, however, they do a gross disservice to their viewers, who are primed to fall into despair for having taking them seriously when their own clients, their so-called success stories, choose to end their lives.”
  • Moushumi Ghose (sexuality / sex therapy): “I have asked myself this question, too: Did media kill psychology, or did it bring it to life? I think Dr. Phil and Dr. Drew definitely have a lot of insight, advice, tips, and suggestions to offer the greater public, and to help many to make changes in their lives. However, in the field of psychology, one of the rules of thumb is that the client is the expert. So, in this medium—whether it be Internet, TV, or otherwise—the client is an audience of millions subscribing to the same views. With the plethora of self-help and coaching, it seems that there is a lot of advice out there being misconstrued somehow as psychotherapy. Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil are educators giving insight into the process of self-growth, and should be seen as such. Their work is to reach a broader audience to get the ball rolling but in no way should be seen as a substitute for working on yourself. Media to reach a larger audience is great, but it’s too easy to fall into the trap of seeing their word as gospel. These shows don’t encourage individuals to find a path of growth that is unique to themselves; it encourages a sheep-like mentality, which is not the goal of psychotherapy at all. We also have an overabundance of coaches nowadays who base their teachings on personal experience and their practice on advice giving. I believe all of these have a tendency to water down the field of personal growth. There is a lot of information out there and much of it is free, so one must weed out the self-help information and TV shows, decide what is entertainment and what is real, and recognize which do not suit their needs and which ones may actually prohibit their own journey of personal growth.”
  • John Sovec (LGBT issues): “As the market for reality television shows expands, many more therapists are being asked to step up to the plate and represent the field of psychology, with all of its benefits and challenges. The major players in the television field often seem to be playing for the television ratings rather than looking out for the best interests of the clients. The well-known television therapists are often represented in an omnipotent role with an expertise in every subject that is presented to them. The reality is that therapy is a personal and ongoing experience and that it is virtually impossible for a client’s issues to be resolved in 50 minutes and then neatly wrapped up in a bow. Clinicians need the time to establish rapport, learn about the challenges that are facing their clients, and then work together with their clients to find the appropriate tools for success. As a therapist who has appeared on television, it can be a very tricky balance to respond to the needs of the clients you are working with and at the same time create a sense of safety in the middle of a chaotic filming experience. Much of what the television audience sees is only a small part of the actual therapeutic process that goes into the making of these shows. The challenge is that most people are now viewing therapy as a sensational, dramatic, and immediate solution to their issues, and place unrealistic expectations on the process and their relationship with their therapist. Are media therapists doing harm? Maybe to the perception of what therapy is and how the process works, but at the same time, if television therapists can remain ethical and authentic, they can demystify the experience and open the doors for more people to consider the benefits of seeking therapy.”
  • Jill Denton (sexuality / sex therapy): “ ‘Good therapy’ in the truest sense is therapy that provides safe, private, confidential space for a client to truly ‘go deep’ and explore their hopes, their fears, and their dreams. I’m deeply saddened when someone equates what Drew, Phil, or ‘rehab TV’ offers to the healing work that happens in my office, which is sacred space. What these charlatans are doing is downright reprehensible!”
  • Sarah Noel (person-centered / Rogerian): “I have very mixed feelings on this issue. In some ways, the Dr. Drews and Dr. Phils of the world have increased the awareness of mental health issues and normalized seeking treatment. This decreases stigma and has probably led some people into therapy who may not have considered such a thing in the past. That said, what gets good television ratings and what qualifies as good, quality psychotherapy are, more often than not, very different things. While that seems an obvious distinction within the professional community, it is quite possible that your average viewer is not making such a distinction and therefore they believe what they are seeing on television is what psychotherapy is supposed to look like. This seems to lead to very dangerous territory that could be the tipping point into doing more harm than good.”
  • Judith Barr (power: healing to the root): “For television personalities to be the face of psychotherapy—even TV personalities who were once practicing medical doctors or psychologists—is a huge disservice to the essence of psychotherapy. And it is a limitless disservice to members of the public who don’t yet know the best of what psychotherapy can be and who need, want, and could be deeply helped by real depth psychotherapy. Having TV personalities be the face of psychotherapy coast to coast and even abroad is not only a disservice, but also a misuse and abuse of power. The true essence of psychotherapy is “soul work.” It originally meant the healing of soul or spirit. With the best of psychotherapists, it remains so today … but that is in the privacy of the therapy room. Once someone takes psychotherapy into the public media for the purposes of entertainment, financial exploitation, and money generation off the backs and hearts of vulnerable people, the essence and process of psychotherapy becomes disfigured, and the healing of the person’s soul becomes secondary or tertiary to showbiz. A huge part of my intention and commitment of my energy has already been to help people widely get a better sense of how deep psychotherapy is and can be, when the therapist does his/her own inner healing work to the root, and then offers the same depth to his/her clients. I am not sure how else to fulfill this intention and to help counteract the damage of the abuse done to therapy and its name in many ways—including by TV personalities. Perhaps if those of us who are like-minded work together, we can help educate the public on the possible dangers of ‘TV therapy’ and help to give a more accurate representation of the best therapy can be.” For more from Judith Barr, click here.

What do you think about so-called “rehab TV”? Do you agree or disagree with our Topic Experts? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Fallon

    March 12th, 2013 at 2:24 PM

    While I agree that this is probably not the best use of someone’s talents, if there really wasn’t a market for this kind of programming it wouldn’t be on the air. The fact of the matter is that this is something that a lot of people enjoy watching and it makes money and if that is the case then the networks are going to keep them on, period.

  • val t

    March 13th, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    I have a real problem with these men and women promoting themselves as something that they aren’t! Good grief, I had no idea that Dr Drew was not even a psychiatrist or a psychologist. My question is how so they even get started in something like this if they lack even the basic credentials to be offering advice such as that that many of them peddle? It frustrates me because even though I do not work in this field, it must almost feel as if it is demeaning those who have done the training and who are good doctors but are ignored for the celebrity advice that these guys dole out on radio and tv.

  • Gregory

    March 14th, 2013 at 3:56 AM

    maybe the masses who watch aren’t the problem
    but rather the brains who are promoting all of this crap as “reality tv”

  • Jude

    March 14th, 2013 at 1:15 PM

    Maybe we can’t stop these people from making such shows. But we can get people to see that this isn’t real therapy. How? By promoting the true meaning of therapy better. We hardly have any awareness of what therapy actually is and all the benefits it can provide. Once people know the real therapy then they will know this is all a show. Someone who has not seen a real fight is going to think the sports entertainment show on TV is the real thing. The same happens here.

  • Ellen Curtis

    March 16th, 2013 at 3:01 PM

    Alcohol/drug addiction is a brain disease! Addicts are sick people who need medical and psychiatric care. They are no different than people with Diabetes or Heart Disease and I don’t see any shows exposing people with these chronic diseases. Shows about addiction should educate people so that the public understands that people don’t choose to have addiction and that the reward system in the brain is driving addicts to think only about the reward not the consequence. Educational shows would be too boring so there are shows like Dr. Drew and Dr. Phil which are just vehicles to make money and entertain a public who seeks to see that other people have a worse life then theirs. Treatment for addiction and psychological problems is hard work for the client. He/she needs a team of a psychiatrist, a therapist and possibly other service providers to help them on the road to a better life. There are no quick fixes! These Dr.’s are not helping people! They act like they know what they are talking about, but there is no one that would exploit addicts as they have done.

  • Rose

    October 12th, 2013 at 12:16 PM

    I believe Dr. Phil (never watched Dr. Drew) does much more harm than good when it comes to the disease of addiction. He only brings on families who have a lot of problems and drama. This leads people to believe that addicts come from dysfunctional families. This is simply not true. With the opiate epidemic that exists today, kids from all walks of life and from all types of homes are becoming addicted. Dr. Phil is increasing the stigma and making it harder for people to ask for help lest they be judged as being bad (or bad parents). He may help the one guest that he has on the show that day but he throws a million others into the depths of silence. He also mocks the parents and is rude to them in the beginning but softens towards the ends. I guess its good for ratings but I feel for them. As a family with an addicted child, we are none of the things that Dr. Phil presents. We also know the pain that parents go through and his treatment of them is completely unacceptable.

  • Jane

    September 30th, 2015 at 5:46 PM

    I would really like to see a TV discussion panel of reputable psychologists and therapists work with this issue on an ongoing basis– giving ‘rehab TV’ a different, less slanted image. I dread TV shows like this at home because of my family’s tendency not to think critically about what is being presented to them. I really believe that TV shows are not what therapists intended as a safe, confidential environment and that they cause more harm than good. Talk show radio is the same. Why wouldn’t panel shows be a good answer to this kind of problem? I know it might be pie in the sky because of the formulas that TV producers use to decide about what kind of entertainment they are willing to finance, but really good TV sells, too. In fact, while I’m on the subject, why isn’t there a Peace Channel, focusing on world-wide peace-efforts? And, why couldn’t “Race around the World” be “Charity Races?” This kind of show could show teams raising money for charity, the winner’s donation amounts for his or her charity being matched by the show. Where’s “Green TV,” a channel on ecological issues?, and I’d like to have a voter’s channel with ongoing public education on voting and politics…

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