“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”—The Wizard of Oz, 1939
I don’t watch much television. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when I was shocked to see my then four-year old son crash his toy airplanes into towers built of blocks, I decided we didn’t need cable television and 24-hour news anymore. All the news was bad. And the rapidly expanding reality TV genre was worse. My children were raised on a media diet of PBS (delivered via old-fashioned rabbit ears) and DVD science documentaries we checked out from the library.
That being said, I’ve been on television more than some people, usually to talk about the increasingly desperate need to address the public health crisis of mental illness (one of my children has bipolar disorder). I’ve appeared on national media including the Today Show, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper 360, Erin Burnett, and Al Jazeera America. I’ve done numerous local broadcast interviews, most recently in Bismarck, North Dakota and Cincinnati, Ohio.
I was even fortunate to be a guest on the Dr. Oz show last year to talk about my book. Though I don't watch much television, I knew who he was, mostly from his syndicated column that appears on Sundays in my local newspaper. And while I was also vaguely aware of controversy about some of the weight loss methods promoted on his show, I didn’t understand why people wouldn’t just do their own research. There aren’t many times the word “always” is appropriate, but I think it’s fair to say that “Get Rich Quick” and “Lose Weight without Diet or Exercise” promises are almost always too good to be true.
I’m a bit puzzled by the credibility that people attach to television celebrities. The medium’s first duty is clearly to entertain; daytime television never even pretended that it had an obligation to educate. What are your ethical obligations, then, if you’re a daytime television celebrity physician who calls himself “America’s Doctor”? How do you entertain your audience while also upholding your Hippocratic oath to protect the individual patient’s health and privacy?
In light of this flurry of Dr. Oz criticism, including calls for his resignation from the staff of Columbia University’s medical school, my fearless friend and fellow mental health advocate Janine Francolini of the Flawless Foundation has been quick to remind the public of the Dr. Oz show’s truly terrible 2012 series “Are You Normal or Nuts?” in which a panel of “top psychologists” evaluated audience members’ mental health concerns.
This truly tasteless show echoed an equally tacky Reader’s Digest annual feature by the same name, which trivializes the tremendous suffering experienced by individuals diagnosed with serious mental illness and their families. For example, the 2013 "Normal or Nuts" article led with this charming introduction: “Calling all neurotics, paranoids, and phobics! Our panel of experts says you might not be as loony as you think in this fan-favorite feature.”
And people wonder why there’s still stigma attached to mental illness.
Like Janine, I want Dr. Oz to use his celebrity status to promote mental health. In my personal experience with him, that’s exactly what Dr. Oz did.
“I’m a dad, and this is important to me,” he told me before we began taping a segment discussing my experience as a parent of a child who has bipolar disorder. His approach to my family’s story was overwhelmingly positive, highlighting the tremendous gains my son has made since his diagnosis in May 2013. The audience applauded when I shared that my son has now written a book of his own, a science fiction novel where the Greek gods all have a mental illness that is actually a super power. This is what the correct diagnosis and treatment can mean to parents and children suffering with mental illness. It means hope.
Dr. Oz has tremendous power to shape public opinion about mental health and mental illness. How can we encourage him to use his power for good, like he did for me and my son? When it comes to mental illness, sadly, too many Americans are still like star-struck Dorothy, believing in the all-powerful image of Oz, not willing to look behind the curtain and acknowledge the truth.
I have an idea for this season’s “Are You Nuts or Normal?” producers. Dr. Oz invites panelists to rate people like Judge Michael Bohren, who refused to authorize medical treatment for 12-year old Morgan Geyser, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and locked up away from her family and denied medical treatment for her brain disease for almost a year.
Nuts or normal?
Dr. Oz interviews the six police officers who tasered 130-pound Natasha McKenna, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and asks them to explain why she died in custody.
Nuts or normal?
Finally, Dr. Oz presents British parliamentary candidate Chamali Fernando so that experts can discuss her suggestion that people with mental illness should wear color coded wristbands.
The way we fail to treat children and adults with mental illness in this country is what is really crazy. It’s also expensive, not only in financial terms, but also in lives lost, in dreams shattered. Dr. Oz could rebuild his credibility by focusing his attention on this public health crisis, by providing help—and hope—to millions who are suffering with serious mental illness.