Before the talk shows and celebrity, before best-selling books and Emmy nominations, even before receiving a doctoral degree and practicing clinical psychology, Dr. Phil McGraw was a Psi Chi member. His profession has certainly evolved since his days as an undergraduate student, but Dr. McGraw’s passion for raising awareness and helping others remains just as strong. Whether destigmatizing mental health issues through the media, private practice, or as a Psi Chi member, he believes psychology is the key to progress. Dr. McGraw is Psi Chi’s Distinguished Lecturer at this year’s APA convention, and he was kind enough to answer our questions over e-mail:
Where did your interest in psychology come from?
I have always been curious about people, but nothing stands out more than when I was twelve years old, playing football in Oklahoma. Unlike other teams, we had a great coach and all of the right equipment. Before one specific game, the players from a Salvation Army team showed up in two pickup trucks, looking like kids from the Great Depression dust bowl. The kid who lined up across from me had blue jeans rolled up for football pants, tattered loafers for football shoes, and a stained, torn shirt with masking tape for a number.
My team was in our huddle snickering like a bunch of spoiled brats because we had such great uniforms and equipment. But when the ball was snapped for the first time, that kid in loafers hit me so hard that my shoulder still hurts when it rains. They beat us like a rented mule—50 to nothing.
That day, my interest in psychology was born. I just couldn’t figure out how they beat us so badly when we had so much, and they had so little. I think that was the first time I realized that attitude and determination trumped just about everything else. I have spent my life studying and trying to figure out “why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do.” It has been quite a journey. I’ll let you know when I get it figured out.
At what point did television become part of your plan?
Being in television was never a part of my plan. In fact, I resisted it when I first had the opportunity. I worked in a variety of settings early in my career. I was trained in clinical and forensic psychology, and developed one of the first litigation consulting firms in the country. We represented Fortune 500 companies in many high-profile cases, including representing Oprah Winfrey. As a member of that team, part of my charge was to prepare Oprah for testifying in court. She is an amazing lady, and we established a very close relationship that continues today.
Oprah thought I had an effective way of bringing common sense language to technical issues. She basically twisted my arm to be a guest on her show, and who says no to Oprah? For five years, I was a regular guest, and eventually I launched Dr. Phil.
When I was in practice, I could see eight to ten patients a day. Now, I have the chance to reach millions of people every day with the only show in the history of television dedicated to mental health issues, delivered in a common-sense format. Now, 15 years after Dr. Phil aired, I am proud to say we have the number one daytime talk show in television, but I’m even more proud of our show’s content.
How do you stay positive at work, especially after stressful episodes?
I have the most professional and passionate staff you can imagine. These people work extremely hard to make sure we deliver high-caliber shows with an unquestionable commitment to the best interests of our guests and to the quality of information provided to our viewers. When you are a part of this team and fortunate enough to have this platform to help people, being positive is a natural consequence.
How do guests benefit from being on your show compared with seeking local, private counseling?
Actually, they benefit from both. What we do on Dr. Phil is not therapy. Our guests request to be on the show for all kinds of reasons, and they know they are going to be a part of something much bigger than the problems they bring.
We certainly deal with serious mental health issues—our guests are often at a point of desperation in their lives—but our main purpose is to use the show as a teaching tool for our viewers, informing and educating them about critical mental health issues. We get thousands of e-mails from viewers thanking us for dealing with important subjects in meaningful ways; because of what they saw on our show, they, or their family members, took the first step to seek help for similar problems. Inspiring viewers is the big win for us.
And as far as guests on the show, we offer every person access to mental health services, usually in their own communities and at no cost to them. I know what is involved in professional therapy, and progress cannot be made in an hour. It takes a lot of time and hard work to bring about meaningful change.
I think our show educates and hopefully inspires people to take those next steps. The hard work happens in the trenches, and I am grateful for the work of psychologists and other mental health professionals. All our show can do is shine light on the issues and point guests and viewers in the right direction.
In what ways has the representation of mental health evolved in the media?
I think the overall trend is positive. First, there is more recognition and acknowledgment that it is normal to have problems. The main emphasis on Dr. Phil is to de-stigmatize psychological and behavioral problems. We have to bring problems out of the darkness so people are not afraid or ashamed to seek help.
This positive trend is noticeable on television shows and movies, as well. The representation of mental health in the media will always be a passion of mine. I have witnessed first-hand, on so many occasions, the benefits that psychology and the media working together for the right reasons and in the right ways can have on individual lives.
Where do you see the future of psychology heading?
First, I see the profession advancing in terms of the science of behavior. Our research is getting better, and we continue to see the practical application from research to evidence-based practices. I believe professional psychology has a role to play in solving some of our most serious social problems, including racism, violence, and economic disparity. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but progress is a game of inches; it is a game in which professional psychology must play a pivotal role.
Psi Chi is currently leading the “Help Helped Me” initiative. What advice would you give to college students who are afraid to ask for help?
I am glad you asked this question. The best advice I can give to anyone, who for any reason needs help but is afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed is this: NEVER WORRY ALONE! Reach out to friends and family. And, of course, reach out to mental health professionals. There is almost always a benefit to reaching out, because struggling on your own can cause your thoughts to run in an endless loop of misery and fear. Open that loop to those who care and can help. I often say, life is short, but it is very wide. Make room in your journey for the love and support of others.
What are you most excited about in your life right now?
That’s easy. I am most excited about my family. I have been blessed with the gift of being married to my best friend. We have two incredible sons who turned out to be great human beings with lots of talent and passion for their work, and I get to be a part of that on a daily basis. I also have two lovely grandchildren who have added more purpose to my life than I would have imagined possible. I love the work I do, and not a day goes by when I don’t feel like the luckiest man in the world. I know this may sound a bit corny, but truth be told, I actually am a bit corny.
What do you remember of your experience with Psi Chi in college?
Being a member of Psi Chi was my first experience feeling like I was a part of the profession of psychology. As an undergraduate student, there were precious few opportunities to feel included because it was a privilege more available to graduate students and faculty. Being a member of Psi Chi changed that, and gave me a chance to be a meaningful member of a meaningful profession.
Do you have any mentors? What is the value of mentorship to you?
I am very fortunate to have a career that has spanned a variety of areas, from clinical practice, both inpatient and outpatient, to litigation support and forensic psychology, to media and the law. Nothing is more important than having mentors who can teach, guide, and support you along the way. I have had the honor of being mentored by some of the best and brightest people. Not only are they at the top of their respective fields, but they are some of the most decent and caring people I have ever met, and I am proud to call them my friends:
Dr. G. Frank Lawlis is an outstanding neuropsychologist. He was my major professor and dissertation advisor over 40 years ago and continues to provide guidance for me on a regular basis. I value his knowledge and friendship, and I am pleased to have him serve as chairman of the Dr. Phil advisory board.
Dr. Marty Greenberg has also been a valued mentor, colleague, and friend for many years. His expertise in forensic and regulatory psychology is an ongoing source of valuable information in the areas of legal and ethical issues in psychology.
Within the legal arena, I have been mentored by two of the finest trial lawyers in the country. William B. Dawson and Charles “Chip” Babcock have schooled me in the dynamics of “trial by jury,” and they have never failed to provide guidance, support, and the ability to see around corners.
With regard to my career in the media, who could possibly have a better mentor than Oprah Winfrey? A trail blazer without peer, she has taught me so much about succeeding in the ever-changing world of television, publishing, and all forms of communication with the public around the world. She is a clarion voice of reason, compassion, and intellect.
From Psi Chi to daytime television, Dr. McGraw’s perspective on the future of psychology is sure to interest Psi Chi members everywhere. Raising awareness for mental health can happen through chapter meetings, obtaining graduate degrees, working in private practice, doing research, and hosting daytime talk shows. The possibilities are endless with passion and empathy for others. You never know where psychology will take you!
Dr. Phil McGraw is the host of TV’s #1 daytime talk show, Dr. Phil. Now in its 16th season, this trailblazing show continues to provide the most comprehensive forum on mental health issues in the history of television. It has received 29 Emmy nominations and won five PRISM Awards for the accurate depiction of drug, alcohol, and tobacco abuse and addiction.
Before blazing his television career, Dr. McGraw founded Courtroom Sciences, Inc. (CSI), a groundbreaking trial science firm specializing in all aspects of litigation support. In 2006, Dr. McGraw was honored with a Presidential Citation by the American Psychological Association for his significant contributions to the field of psychology.
Dr. McGraw and his wife, Robin, are well-known for their tireless advocacy for children and families. In 2003, Dr. McGraw established the Dr. Phil Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization funding many worthy projects benefitting disadvantaged children and families. He is also the author of nine #1 New York Times bestsellers, published in 39 languages with more than 33 million copies in print.
Dr. McGraw earned a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from the University of North Texas, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship in forensic psychology from the Wilmington Institute. Dr. McGraw was a licensed psychologist in the state of Texas where he practiced clinical psychology and developed one of the country’s first multi-modal protocols for the treatment of chronic pain. For more information about Dr. McGraw, visit his website at drphil.com
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