Dr. Phil’s #NickGordonIntervention highlights everything that’s wrong with how we view mental illness
I have to confess my shocking ignorance of popular culture: until I read this HuffPost article from Flawless Foundation director Janine Francolini calling out popular talk show host Dr. Phil, I had no idea who Nick Gordon was. And it doesn’t really matter who Nick Gordon is. What matters is the shocking and exploitative way a young man in mental health crisis was treated on national television, by a man who has tremendous power to shape public opinion about mental illness.
I also have to confess that I have never seen Dr. Phil’s show, so I have not watched the infamous so-called “intervention.” But a friend of mine whose child was in crisis reached out to him seeking help for her out-of-control son. What she got instead was more of the same “shame and blame” that makes it so hard to parents of children who have mental illness to reach out and get the help they and their families desperately need. In one video clip I did see, my mom friend laughed nervously at her son’s explosive behavior. Dr. Phil chastised her, telling her that her cavalier attitude was contributing to her child’s problems. Newsflash, Dr. Phil: we laugh when our children lash out because we’re trying not to cry. And our children’s mental illness is not “our fault,” any more than a child’s cancer is the parents’ fault.
Dr. Phil McGraw describes himself on his website as “perhaps the most well-known mental health professional in the world.” Since even I, a television-eschewing person who once thought that Anderson Cooper was a financial services firm, know who Dr. Phil is, I’d say that statement is quite probably true. I wish that Dr. Allen Frances or Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman or Dr. Paul Summergrad, all of whom are actual psychiatrists (unlike McGraw, whose Ph.D. is in clinical psychology) were the world's best known mental health professionals. The fact that these brilliant practitioners don’t have their own popular television talk shows speaks volumes about the problems with mental healthcare in America. As The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon aptly observed about McGraw’s show, “Such a crudely manufactured look at someone else’s pain is numbing where it is intended to be affecting.”
Numbing. That is exactly the problem with mental health advocacy today. After Sandy Hook, the general public has become so numb to the horrific pain that people like Nick Gordon (and so many others) are experiencing that things like school shootings barely register anymore. When mental illness is nothing more than a spectacle for our entertainment, we become desensitized. We stop caring for those who need our care the most.
Maybe it’s time for society to have a collective intervention about the way we treat mental illness. Stop criminalizing people who are sick. Stop making suffering people into spectacles. Stop treating mental health differently than physical health. Dr. Phil has famously said, “You either get it or you don’t.” I’m afraid when it comes to mental health and stigma, America’s best known mental health professional just does not get it.