September 30, 2004
Mr. Leslie Moonves
Chairman & CEO
CBS Television Network
New York, New York 10036
Dear Mr. Moonves:
NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) strongly protests the Dr. Phil Primetime: Family First broadcast on September 22, 2004, in which parents were essentially blamed for what may very well be the severe mental illness of their child.
Since the show aired, we have received broad expressions of outrage from NAMI’s 220,000 members, who consist of individuals and families who confront mental illnesses every day. We also have received requests for concerted action from child psychiatrists, psychologists and other colleague organizations in the professional field.
Not only did the show represent a breach of professional ethics in several respects, but also in the opinion of many, malpractice. 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 also may be subject to legal sanctions for practicing medicine without a license.
The show was especially troubling because the child’s behavior may have suggested symptoms of bipolar disorder or similar illness, 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 not only is insensitive, but also hinders a family or individual from seeking comprehensive treatment.
CBS and Dr. Phil have done a disservice to parents and children. Indeed, the impact may now have put children’s lives 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 relative to the public health crisis we face in addressing the needs of children with severe mental illnesses—including very real risks of suicide.
In the October 4, 2004 issue of Newsweek, a CBS spokesperson was cited as saying that the network was "unaware" of negative reaction to the show. In the same article, you are characterized as complaining that "interest groups now often protest before even seeing supposedly offensive programming and use the Internet to magnify and trumpet their concerns." In this instance, however, NAMI and others in the mental health community have 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 that it projects over the airwaves.
The American people deserve better. We ask that CBS immediately conduct a complete network-wide review of its standards and practices relative to mental illness. We cannot emphasize enough the seriousness of this matter.
Michael J. Fitzpatrick, M.S.W Suzanne-Vogel-Scibilia, M.D.
Executive Director Chair, Child & Adolescent