September 30, 2004
Arlington, VA—NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) today charged CBS Television with gross irresponsibility and potential endangerment of the lives of children with mental illness as a result of its September 22 broadcast of the Dr. Phil Primetime Special: Family First.
"Not only did the show represent a breach of professional ethics, but also, in the opinion of many, malpractice," declared NAMI executive director Michael J. Fitzpatrick, in a letter to CBS Chairman & CEO Leslie Moonves, co-signed by Suzanne Vogel-Scibilia, MD, a child psychiatrist who chairs the Child & Adolescent Policy Subcommittee of NAMI’s national board.
In the September 22 program, parents essentially were blamed for "what may very well be the severe mental illness of their child." Dr. Phil’s conduct "is serious enough to warrant investigation by a relevant board of licensure. To the degree that he seemed to offer a definitive diagnosis, including a pharmacological assessment, without careful evaluation or referral, he may also be subject to legal sanctions for practicing medicine without a license," the letter noted.
"The show was especially troubling because the child’s behavior may have suggested symptoms of bipolar disorder, requiring treatment vastly different from a father being admonished to spend more time with his son to ‘go fishing.’
"Blaming the family undermines all recent understanding of the biological basis of brain disorders and is not only insensitive, but also hinders a family or individual from seeking comprehensive treatment…Indeed the impact may have put children’s lives now at risk. The show’s approach was completely contrary to the recommendations of the U.S. Surgeon General, and more recently, President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health…in addressing the needs of children with severe mental illnesses—including very real risks of suicide."
NAMI also responded to a Newsweek (October 4) article in which a CBS spokesperson was cited as saying the network was "unaware" of negative reaction to the show, and that Moonves had complained that interest groups protest before even seeing supposedly offensive programming, using the Internet to "magnify and trumpet" concerns. In this case, NAMI said, the mental health community "carefully considered the content of the show before registering any complaint, and the party that has grossly ‘magnified’ irresponsible behavior is CBS, through the power it projects over the airwaves."