Reality Rehab: Good Idea or Bad Medicine?

Experts disagree on whether public rehab is exploitative or a cautionary tale.

Jan. 22, 2008 — -- A defiant, but clearly conflicted Dr. Phil McGraw said he stands by his decision to visit troubled pop starlet Britney Spears in the hospital during her highly publicized breakdown earlier this month. But the syndicated talk show host said he regrets his public comments after the visit.

"I certainly do not apologize," he said on his television show Monday. "My intentions were good, and I wish it had good effect."

The tough-talking Texan said he wanted to clarify what happened.

"I'm not perfect. I do in this situation know what happened," McGraw said. "I did — at the request of her parents — visit Britney and some family members."

The incident is not the first high-profile intervention undertaken for a troubled star, but a couple of new TV shows are capitalizing on the phenomenon.

One show called "Celebrity Rehab" follows D-list stars as they struggle to overcome their addictions. And A&E's "Intervention" documents everyday people dealing with drug-addicted family members.

Some have criticized these shows for exploiting the problems of sick people for entertainment value, but not everyone agrees.

Michael Welner, a New York University School of Medicine associate professor of psychiatry, said such public interventions could be helpful.

"I think it has enormous promise. We have a problem of widespread abuse and addiction. One of the biggest problems is that the people who are abusing and who are addicted have no idea how pathetic they look, how ruinous their abuse is on their lives and people around them," he said on "Good Morning America" today.

"It may be a spark to get them into treatment because that's so much of a problem to get someone to cross that threshold and actually get help," Welner said.

In "Celebrity Rehab," Drew Pinsky, an addiction expert who frequently appears on television and has his own radio show, takes on the substance abuse and emotional issues of quasi-celebrities such as actor Daniel Baldwin, actress and reality star Bridgette Neilsen and former "American Idol" contestant Jessica Sierra.

But the tragic, deteriorating condition of actor Jeff Conway, who starred in the TV show "Taxi" and movie "Grease," is almost too unbearable to watch for some. Conway uses a wheelchair, shakes uncontrollably and moans in pain as he goes through detox from his painkiller, alcohol and cocaine addictions — with the cameras following him every step of the way.

"Given the nature of recovery, an addict needs to be in a safe place to thrash out the issues underlying their disease," wrote Boston Herald television review writer Mark A. Perigard in a scathing review of the show. "There's no sugarcoating this pill. 'Celebrity Rehab' is heartless, exploitive and downright toxic."

Role of the Doctor Important

Welner said it's important the television doctors are more concerned about the patient and not the recognition.

"The qualities that really gives a therapist a therapeutic presence is that you're always thinking about your patient or needs of their loved ones," Welner said. "Is he directed by the patient? Is he directed by the family? And if he's not, he's directed by himself, that's all you need to know."

The physician responsible should act like a physician, Welner adds, "and not like someone who is possibly celebrity-seeking or possibly fluffy because with your most serious and most crucial, most sensitive life issues … you want to put your fate in the hands of someone who is serious, professional and who you can trust."

At least one McGraw critic said he failed to exhibit those characteristics.

"I would call him an opportunist," said Sophia Dembling, the author of "The Making of Dr. Phil." "It seems like he saw a case of high-profile mental illness possibly and thought, 'Here's an opportunity to bring celebrity and celebrity together and make some hay.'"

A complaint has been filed with the California Board of Psychology claiming McGraw was practicing psychology without a license.

The complaint alleges that McGraw acted beyond his capacity when he visited Spears in the hospital after a bizarre incident at her home where she reportedly refused to turn over her children to ex-husband Kevin Federline.

McGraw, who scrapped plans to do a show dedicated to Spears' troubles, objected.

McGraw says it is well known he doesn't practice anymore. However, he holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and practiced for many years in Texas.

"I don't need a license. I do, however, still have 30 years of experience," he said. "[I] didn't go there as counselor. [I] went as a friend and ally for this family."

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events