The 8 Minute Cure
Can Watching Dr. Phil Change Your Life?
by Michael Ventura
You sort of know who he is, even if you don't know who he is. You may not watch afternoon TV, you may be in bed by the time The Tonight Show airs, you may not like talk shows in general, but our media-infested world buzzes certain names into our ears until they're inescapable--names like Leno, Oprah, Dr. Phil. So you know, by a kind of osmosis, that Leno is a comic, Oprah is a force of nature, and Dr. Phil is some sort of therapist. And you know he's "huge," as we say of "hot" celebrities. You see his name at the top of bestseller lists, you see his face in bookstore displays--a genial, ruddy, not unintelligent face. There's something accessible about his presence and he's . . . some sort of therapist.
For those aware of him only out of the corner of the mind's eye, so to speak, it may be something of a shock to learn that, for millions, Dr. Phil is the therapist, paying daily house calls via TV to countless living rooms. His TV show is watched by an average of 6.6 million people every day, and five of his books have been number one on the New York Times bestseller list. He not only offers celebrity endorsements for weight-loss products and regularly goes on sold-out speaking tours around the country, but even has a muppet on Sesame Street named after him--"Dr. Feel." So you might ask yourself, as I asked myself, "What's going on in this world when the dominant male star on daytime TV is a clinical psychologist?"
A few months ago, The Economist shed some light on why a therapist might command so much attention: "About one in five Americans now suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than 13% of Americans--over 19 million people between the ages of 18 and 54--suffer from anxiety disorders, 9.5% from depressive disorders and millions of others from conditions ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder." In addition, "in 2001, 5.5 million more Americans were taking prescription drugs for mental health problems, or problems of substance abuse, than was the case only five years earlier."
Of course, statistics on psychiatric diagnoses are questionable at best. How many people who are simply going through a hard time are classified as "depressive"? How many recovering from traffic accidents have "post-traumatic stress"? Still, there's no denying that in post-9-11 America--with its color-coded terror alerts, two continuing wars, rising gas prices, and an uneasy economy--the general level of anxiety is higher than it was during the boom years of the '90s. So, while it may be an exaggeration to state that one out of five Americans suffers from mental disorders, it's a safe bet that the general level of fear and uncertainty is higher than it's been in the memories of most people born after the Depression. The social climate has never been riper for a TV therapist. It's no wonder that many are calling out (as they do every day on his show), "Help me, Dr. Phil!"
Who then is Dr. Phil? What sort of help does he offer? How did he show up on the scene, and what is his scene?