TV psychologists: Do they provide actual scientific help for viewers and guests? Or do they merely entertain the masses with other people's tales of woe?
This perennial question has surfaced again in the psychology community in response to a complaint issued last month with the FCC about the "Dr. Phil" (search) show, on which guests are given what's billed as life-changing advice over the course of a one-hour program.
Professionals are divided on the value of Dr. Phil McGraw's quick-fix, in-your-face approach. But at least one mental health activist wants audiences to be warned that what happens on the show is entertainment, not therapy, and does not apply to at-home viewers.
"The disclaimer they have now is wonderful, but it's at the end of the show and virtually illegible. They need to put the disclaimer at the beginning of the show," Neal David Sutz (search), who filed the complaint with the FCC, told Foxnews.com.
The "Dr. Phil" show is currently on hiatus and producers could not be reached for comment. But a spokeswoman for Paramount Domestic Television, which produces the show, recently told The Associated Press that Dr. Phil has always been explicit about the nature of his advice.
"Phil has said on the air many, many times that we are not doing therapy here," said Terry Woods, Paramount's executive vice president of programming.
Still, Sutz, 33, says people at home with mental illness are likely to think Dr. Phil's advice is for them, even though he warns that it's only for his featured guests. He also thinks Phil's tough-talking approach is too aggressive for the fragile and impressionable.
"Those of us suffering from mental illness always hear 'Get over it. Why can't you just get happy?'" says Sutz, who has suffered from bipolar disorder.
"To tell them to 'just get over it' makes them feel like a loser — and viewers see people 'getting over it' within the hour. Serious issues take a long time to get over."
Sutz's original complaint to Paramount led to the current disclaimer at the end of the show.
But psychologists, who have long contended with other pop psychology trends in the form of self-help books and newspaper advice columns, are divided on whether what Dr. Phil does is helpful or not.
Oregon psychologist Dr. Marilyn Sorensen, author of “Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem,” said she doesn’t watch “Dr. Phil” because she didn’t like the way he treated women when he used to appear on “Oprah.”
“He just berated them — to me that’s like abuse. He gives the impression that he has the answers. And since he’s a psychologist, how can [viewers] not assume then that it’s therapy of some sort?”
Sorensen said Dr. Laura Schlessinger is another example of a pop psychologist who belittles her callers and assumes she knows better than they do.
"Therapy is sensitive... you give some direction but you don't tell people what to do. It's like when parents tell kids what to do — they don't teach them to think," she said.
But Dr. Michael Broder, executive director of the Albert Ellis Institute in New York City, which practices a type of cognitive-behavior therapy, countered that there are times when being tough on a client can be helpful.
"As opposed to letting them ruminate and go on and on and on and not change," he said.
Indeed, Phil’s “tell-it-like-it-is” style (as it's described on the show’s Web site) and snap-out-it philosophy (“Get real, get smart, get going”) are exactly what many people find appealing about him and his show.
"I give it [the show] nine out of 10," said Ridgewood, N.J., resident Paul Manni, 54. "It does so much more of what I think TV should do: help solve problems and maybe others with similar problems can glean something from it."
Manni said Phil's pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach seems very effective in many situations.
"Sometimes people need to hear [the advice] in a tough way, otherwise they don't take it," he said. "When he takes the offensive and pushes people into a corner, I feel like he's doing it for a reason."
Manni cited a recent episode in which Dr. Phil counseled a family whose teen daughter was pregnant, advising the girl to give the baby up for adoption.
"In the case of that family, he helped try to show to them they were [making decisions] based on emotion, rather than facing the facts," he said.
Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a professor of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, thinks viewers are intelligent enough to know the difference between made-for-TV drama and actual therapy.
“I think that most people think that if something’s on television, it’s another venue for entertainment. It takes a bit of gullibility to confuse it with real therapy."
Some people will be confused — but some people are confused by everything, Fischoff said.
"Some people will also think Wonder Bread really works wonders."