Dr. Phil’s public brand of tough love sometimes makes him tough to love, particularly among mental health professionals who are accusing television’s self-help guru of making an uncalled-for house call on Britney Spears this week.
Although Dr. Phil - whose full name is Phillip McGraw - announced Monday that he is shelving plans for a show on Spears’ latest breakdown, some in the mental health community say just showing up at her hospital room last week was going too far.
“It’s true people sometimes need to be placed under involuntary mental health treatment because they can’t take care of themselves,” veteran psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Sugar said of the 26-year-old Spears. “But there’s a difference between being detained involuntarily for psychological treatment and being forced to endure Dr. Phil involuntarily.”
Spears, who appeared to have enough trouble already, saw McGraw barge into her life Saturday when he showed up at her room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center as she was about to be discharged. She had been taken there Thursday after an hours-long standoff with police that was triggered by her custody dispute with ex-husband Kevin Federline.
A court commissioner on Friday gave Federline full custody of sons, 1-year-old Jayden James and 2-year-old Sean Preston.
McGraw said he was invited to the hospital by Spears’ family.
Sugar, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry, crisis and emergency service for the University of Southern California, said that isn’t good enough. Late adolescent or not, he said, Spears is still an adult who has the right to decide who she lets into her hospital room.
In a statement posted on his Web site Monday, McGraw said he had hoped to film a show this week that might help other families facing the same troubles as Spears.
That’s assuming, of course, they have been in and out of rehab in recent months, arrived in public in short skirts and no underwear, shaved their heads bald, run over a photographer’s foot, banged up a car in a parking lot and left without notifying the owner, and attacked another car with an umbrella.
But in the end even McGraw, never to shy to blurt “What were you thinking?” to a troubled guest, seemed to agree that putting Spears or her family and friends in front of the cameras wasn’t wise.
“Because the Spears situation is too intense at this time, and out of consideration to the family, I have made the decision not to move forward with the taping,” he said on his Web site. He didn’t say whether he planned to do a show later, and a spokeswoman for the show declined to elaborate.
“Certainly I think it’s a good idea to stop that show dead,” said Dr. Richard Harding, professor of neuropsychiatry at the University of South Carolina. “This isn’t the time to be exploiting anybody and making examples out of anybody.”
UCLA sociologist Julie Albright, an expert in family therapy, agreed with Harding that while McGraw’s sometimes bellicose approach can be helpful under the right circumstances, Spears is in perhaps too fragile an emotional state for it.
“It looks as though her behavior has been unraveling for some time now. Frankly, it’s reached a point of being pretty frightening,” she said, adding that Spears should be on a suicide watch.
“People may have thought it was entertaining or funny, but really it’s a cry for help, and I hope people around her will respond and get her the help she needs,” Albright said.
Also, Albright said, the tough-love therapy that McGraw practices is really only the first of many steps therapists must take to change destructive behavior. What’s more, she said, it really only works when the recipient is receptive.
“It’s hard to do therapy or intervention in a half-hour or one hour-spot,” she said. “They have these longer interventions that they follow up with. That’s where important change will occur, not necessarily in the one-hour sound bite of a show.”
Still, at least one pop psychologist couldn’t fault McGraw for trying.
“I’m sure Dr. Phil does not want to exploit her. He has all this experience in helping people get over problems,” said Dr. Joyce Brothers, who herself has been dispensing psychological advice to TV viewers for more than 30 years.
But Brothers, who like McGraw has a Ph.D. in psychology, acknowledged that key for any therapist is getting the person to listen to them.
“He has a lot to offer,” Brothers said of McGraw. “But only to the person who wants it.”