Former guests allege that the popular "Dr. Phil" TV program facilitated their use of drugs and alcohol while failing to provide medical supervision, according to a STAT News/Boston Globe investigation.
The report also alleged that the show featured treatment facilities in exchange for their purchase of a virtual reality product launched by host Philip McGraw.
The first controversy: Show guests, families allege staff facilitated access to alcohol, drugs
According to STAT/Globe, the show tells guests that it will provide no-cost substance use disorder treatment to guests "in return for the show's promotion." But several individuals who have appeared on the show allege that showrunners actually facilitated participants' use of alcohol or other substances, STAT/Globe reports.
For instance, Todd Herzog—who previously rose to fame on the reality show "Survivor"—appeared on "Dr. Phil" for the first time in 2013, seeking help for his alcoholism. According to Herzog, the showrunners left a bottle of vodka in his dressing room, which he drank after arriving sober. When Herzog appeared on stage, McGraw gave him a breathalyzer test, which showed his blood-alcohol level was .263, more than three times the legal driving limit.
Herzog's father confirmed in an interview with STAT/Globe that Herzog was sober when he arrived for the taping.
Herzog also claims that he was given a Xanax and told it would "calm his nerves." The mix of alcohol and Xanax can be fatal, according to substance misuse experts, STAT/Globe reports.
Herzog ultimately appeared on the show three more times. At one of those tapings, he said, there was again vodka in his dressing room. In another, he added, a handler on the show gave him a shot to stave off seizures.
Separately, the family members of two other show participants said staff members did not provide medical supervision. In fact, they said, staff helped find drugs on Skid Row to prevent withdrawal symptoms, STAT/Globe reports.
The Dr. Phil show pushes back—and substance-misuse treatment facilities respond
Martin Greenberg, a psychologist who serves as the show's director of professional affairs, denied the allegations. "Addicts are notorious for lying, deflecting and trivializing. But, if they are at risk when they arrive, then they were at risk before they arrived," Greenberg said in the statement. "The only change is they are one step closer to getting help, typically help they could not have even come close to affording."
Greenberg also said that because the show was not a medical organization, it did not have a responsibility to provide medical supervision to guests. After further questioning from STAT/Globe, he said the show does provide medical supervision—although not all of the time—for all guests with substance use disorders who have agreed to treatment. Further, he said if a patient seems likely to require inpatient rehab, the show will fly in medical personnel "to supervise and manage any medical needs."
But according to STAT/Globe, staff at several treatment centers—including Texas-based The Arbor, where Herzog agreed to get care, and Origins, which has facilities in Texas and Florida—said they are generally prohibited from providing the sort of medical supervision described by Greenberg.
For instance, Steve Thomason, the director of The Arbor, said not only did no one from his organization monitor Herzog during the taping of the show, but that his personnel couldn't provide supervision in California because they are licensed in Texas.
Show guests express mixed feelings about their experiences
As of the publication of the STAT/Globe investigation, Herzog had received treatment, was sober, and—despite his misgivings—had written a thank-you note to the show.
"I'm grateful in a lot of ways for the show. For getting me help in the nicest places in the country. That's a gift right there," Herzog said. "There are some things about the show that I don't like, and that I don't think are real. ... I should have been in the hospital, in that sense. There should not be liters of vodka in my dressing room."
On the other hand, family members of other guests expressed anger about their experience.
"It was a complete bust," Marianne Smith, a family member of an individual who allegedly accessed drugs through the show, said. "Didn't help at all. Just ratings for him. People are going to him, like us, with serious, life-threatening problems looking for help. It just doesn't happen."
The second controversy: Is Dr. Phil's VR product promoting sales by promising access to the show?
The STAT/Globe investigation also reports that a substance use disorder recovery program launched last year by Dr. Phil and his son, Jay McGraw, is marketing itself as a way to potentially get on the show.
The program, Dr. Phil's Path to Recovery, uses virtual reality sessions starring Dr. Phil. Treatment centers can purchase the program for $3,500 to $7,000 per month, according to the STAT/Globe investigation.
One potential customer says that Jim Shriner, the VP of sales for Path to Recovery, had claimed in conversation that centers using the program are a "go-to resource" for "Dr. Phil" and another program owned by the McGraws, "The Doctors," STAT/Globe reports.
Noting that at least four centers that use the product have been featured on the show, Shriner allegedly told the customer, "Our job is to get your phones to ring, and the admissions hopefully follow."
Shriner declined to comment to the STAT/Globe. The "Dr. Phil" show said in a statement, however, that only two of the more than 20 centers that use the product were featured on the show last year, adding, "Any suggestion that appearances on Dr. Phil's show are linked to the purchase or use of this program is false."
Controversy surrounds one treatment center featured on the show
Inspirations for Youth and Families treatment center in Florida uses Dr. Phil's Path to Recovery and has been featured on the show. In one episode, Dr. Phil introduced Karen Corcoran Walsh, one of the facility's owners, as running "the nation's leading family addiction treatment and dual-diagnosis center."
But according to STAT/Globe, the center has had numerous adolescent patients go missing while receiving treatment. Over the past two years, the center has submitted about 180 missing children reports, according to police records.
While it's not uncommon for teens sent to the facility to run away or end up in dangerous situations, Steven Sarduy—who worked as a private detective to recover two girls who went missing from the facility in 2016 and 2017—said, "It seems to be an ongoing problem in that particular facility."
The mother of a 17-year-old who went missing from Inspirations in 2016 said, "They touted this, 'We were on Dr. Phil'—they use that as, 'We must be a great facility because we were on Dr. Phil.' Well, that has nothing to do with how the facility is run" (Armstrong/Allen, STAT News/Boston Globe, 12/28/17; Armstrong/Allen, STAT News/Boston Globe, 12/29/17).
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