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.
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:
"The crews that were there shooting at your house came back and reported, out of hundreds of shows, never before has a child seemed so hungry for males' attention."
Viewers then saw footage of Eric telling the camera that Dad doesn't have a fishing rod and has repeatedly promised to buy one. "Too bad he keeps on forgetting," little Eric says.
"This is not a behavior problem with a child. This is a manifestation of a family that's out of control!" Dr. Phil reveals.
"There are profiles of criminals, certain characteristics from their childhood," he tells the horrified parents, while on-screen flash nine serial-killer traits, including: torture small creatures, male, intelligent, fetishism and fire-starting.
"There are 14 characteristics of a serial killer. Your son has nine of the 14. Jeffrey Dahmer had seven."
Dahmer's mug pops up on-screen, right next to a shot of Eric.
"Does that tell you that you're raising a serial killer? No," Dr. Phil says. "But there is a connection there."
"Mind-boggling" is how Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of NAMI, describes the broadcast to The TV Column.
"Diagnosing a child as a potential serial killer on television is incredibly irresponsible. . . . Dr. Phil purports to be a mental health professional but he's diagnosing from videotape, on the air.
"To suggest the father spend more time and they should go fishing -- these are very serious disorders," he continued. "You have to take them very seriously and treat them like any other serious health problem.
"It's unethical to do that sort of, if you will, pop psychology to the point of looking at a child on videotape and saying this child exhibits most of the signs of being a serial killer. You don't do that for ratings. This is a human being."
The spokesman for Dr. Phil's show said that "Dr. Phil supports and promotes the values of NAMI. However, the [letter] is based on lack of information and inaccurate, inappropriate assumptions. Finally, to label this child as 'mentally ill' would be harsh and unkind. Dr. Phil never labeled him as such." A CBS spokesman declined to comment.
Since the special was taped in July, the spokesman for Dr. Phil said, the show has provided the family with "intensive and ongoing counseling." In addition to psychological counseling, the family has met with a clinical nutritionist and is seeing an allergist.
"Behavior with Eric has definitely improved since we met with Dr. Phil," Eric's father said in a statement provided by the spokesman. "We are taking it one step at a time. Part of what I realized is the problem didn't lie with Eric, it involved the entire dynamic of the family."