The Problem With ‘Dr. Phil’?

January 4, 2018

Dr. Phil says he rescues people from addiction. Others say his show puts guests’ health at risk

LOS ANGELES — He had won “Survivor,” the reality TV test of grit and strength. But Todd Herzog was so drunk when he appeared on the “Dr. Phil” show in 2013 that he had to be carried onto the set and lifted into a chair.

“I’ve never talked to a guest who was closer to death,” show host Phillip McGraw declared on camera.

TV viewers, however, didn’t see the setup for this shocking scene. Herzog, who was battling alcoholism, told STAT and the Boston Globe that he was not intoxicated when he arrived at the Los Angeles studio. In his dressing room, he said, he found a bottle of Smirnoff vodka. He drank all of it. Then someone handed him a Xanax, he said, telling him it would “calm his nerves.”

America’s best-known television doctor presents himself as a crusader for recovery who rescues people from their addictions — and even death. But in its pursuit of ratings, the “Dr. Phil” show has put at risk the health of some of those guests it purports to help, according to people who have been on the show and addiction experts. Guests have been left without medical help as they face withdrawal from drugs, a STAT/Boston Globe investigation has found, and one person said she was directed by a show staff member to an open-air drug market to find heroin for her detoxing niece.

While McGraw has been buffeted by controversy and lawsuits since he broke out as a celebrity on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” two decades ago, the show’s handling of guests seeking treatment for substance abuse disorders has largely escaped scrutiny.

McGraw declined an interview request through a “Dr. Phil” show representative. Martin Greenberg, a psychologist who serves as the show’s director of professional affairs, said guests have never been provided alcohol or directed to where to buy drugs.

In a statement, he denied Herzog was left alone with a bottle of vodka in his dressing room, or given Xanax. “We do not do that with this guest or any other,” he wrote. He called the allegations “absolutely, unequivocally untrue.”

“Dr. McGraw has a very strong sense of trying to not exploit people,” Greenberg said in an earlier interview. “Now it is a television show. These people volunteer to come on. They beg to come on. And he tries to treat them with respect … and to give them the opportunity to get help if they want to do that. It’s not a complicated formula.”

But in interviews, show guests and their families described a different reality.

Guests confront a painful and potentially dangerous detox as they wait up to 48 hours in hotel rooms for their scheduled taping, leading some to look for illegal drugs. One guest bought heroin with the knowledge and support of show staff, according to a family member. Another guest, who was pregnant, was filmed by a show staffer while searching for a dealer on Skid Row in L.A.

“It’s a callous and inexcusable exploitation,” said Dr. Jeff Sugar, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Southern California. “These people are barely hanging on. It’s like if one of them was drowning and approaching a lifeboat, and instead of throwing them an inflatable doughnut, you throw them an anchor.”

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