Dr. Phil Dangerously Wrong on PTSD
Posted by Moran Banai on May 7
Dr. Phil owes our country an apology. In an era when less than one percent of Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, many of us learn about the experiences of our veterans through the media. Books, movies and television help us see the world through veterans’ eyes and fill a void in our understanding that stems from ten years of a small population bearing the burdens of war. Writers, directors and producers must be thoughtful and responsible in how they present today’s veterans. Dr. Phil crossed the line in a recent episode of his show entitled “From Heroes to Monsters?” – which was retroactively changed to “Heroes in Pain” – about veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Despite the change in title and posting a blog responding to criticisms, Dr. Phil did serious damage to veterans and to our entire country with his show.
The original title of the show speaks to its core problem. It posed a question: are the veterans on the show now monsters, inhuman and people to be feared? With ominous music interspersed with pictures of violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, Dr. Phil took difficult personal stories and turned them into entertainment. That may be what he does every other day of the week, but when the stories are about veterans with PTSD, the ramifications are far-reaching. Dr. Phil piled on the stigma that veterans’ advocates have fought to end for years. Instead of giving insight into the challenges veterans with invisible injuries confront, he sensationalized and simplified their experiences, both overseas and back at home.
That stigma is dangerous. PTSD and other mental health injuries are treatable. With proper care veterans, and the millions of other Americans who suffer from PTSD, can live full, rich lives. Yet the stigma of being seen as weak, or as a crazy vet, has been a major barrier to veterans seeking the care they need. Further, despite the fact that research shows that there is a weak link between PTSD and violence, the stigma has made it harder for veterans to reintegrate into civilian society—employers and others fear a veteran will “go Rambo” on them. Twenty-eight percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seen at the VA have been diagnosed with PTSD, and what they need is support, not stigmatization.
The same week Dr. Phil aired his show, the Pulitzer committee awarded two journalists, David Wood and Craig F. Walker, prizes for their work chronicling veteran reintegration, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof brought the suicide epidemic among service members and veterans into the spotlight. Meanwhile, Dr. Phil was demonizing veterans to his audience of almost 4 million Americans – and the only pushback he got was from blogs and comments on his own site. That pushback may have gotten him to change the name of the show, but not the content. We should expect stories like Kristof’s from the media, and hold them accountable when we got shows like Dr. Phil’s instead. Dr. Phil needs to actually apologize for his thoughtless and damaging show.
Moran Banai is IAVA's Senior Research Associate in Washington, D.C. She leads IAVA’s research program and works closely with our policy director and legislative staff to define the most urgent issues facing new veterans.
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