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On Dr. Phil, a Dose of Bad Medicine?

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, October 1, 2004; Page C07

Dr. Phil ought to have his head examined for calling a child a serial-killer-in-the-making on prime-time television last week, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill said yesterday.

CBS, the network that aired the special, may have put children's lives at risk because of Dr. Phil's bum advice, the group said in a letter fired off to CBS chief Leslie Moonves.


Dr. Phil's show paired a shot of Jeffrey Dahmer with one of a 9-year-old boy. (From TV)



Not only did the show represent a breach of professional ethics, NAMI said, it may constitute malpractice.

"Dr. Phil's conduct is serious enough to warrant investigation by a relevant board of licensure," the organization wrote. "To the degree that he seemed to offer a definitive diagnosis, including a pharmacological assessment, without careful evaluation or referral, he also may be subject to legal sanctions for practicing medicine without a license."

A spokesman for Dr. Phil said that "over the course of the child's life, the parents had sought extensive medical and psychological evaluation, and medical experts ruled out any medical cause including mental illness."

Dr. Phil reviewed the extensive history of the case with independent psychologists and chose to focus on educating the parents on the "familial aspects," the spokesman told The TV Column. "The child's physician was consulted about the appropriateness of the family participating, and his written consent was given."

According to the Dr. Phil Web site, the talk show host has a PhD in clinical psychology and has been a board-certified and licensed clinical psychologist since 1978.

The segment under fire on "A Dr. Phil Primetime Special: Family First" involved a 9-year-old boy, identified as Eric. For this segment, as for the others in the two-hour special that aired Sept. 22, the family allowed themselves to be filmed for days. Dr. Phil is seen taking notes based on those tapes and then delivering his diagnosis to the parents.

"Acts of violence don't come out of nowhere," Dr. Phil told viewers. "Every parent should know the warning signs. For the most violent of criminals, there are 14 traits of serial killers. Now meet parents terrified of their own son, who has nine of the 14 traits."

Eric, his mother said, likes to beat up his little sister to watch her lip bleed, for which he does not show remorse. He also likes to expose himself to her. He stole a pocketknife from a friend, and he has a fascination with fire and once ignited the kitchen. He put the family kitten's head in a hole and thought it funny; he also likes to pull the legs off small animals and blow up frogs with firecrackers. He smears his feces on the walls of the house.

Dad is seen periodically on-screen, brushing off Eric's behavior as typical boy stuff, "normal sibling rivalry" and the work of "a little prankster."

That's when Dr. Phil moves in for the kill:

"Your theory is that this is biochemical or medical; you have desperately scratched and clawed to get diagnoses from people in hopes that if we'll label this and give us a pill, it will get better. But you haven't found that, have you?" he says.

In front of more than 13 million viewers, Dr. Phil then gives his diagnosis, or to be more exact, that of his film crew's:


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