Is Dr. Phil actually a psychologist?

Article summary:
  1. Dr. Phil is a Doctor.  He has a Ph.D. in Psychology.
  2. Dr. Phil is not a psychologist.  He is not licensed as a psychologist.  
  3. Dr. Phil used to be a psychologist.  He used to be licensed.
  4. He cannot practice psychology,  and what he does is not actually the practice of psychology.
  5. Yes,  he can call him self Dr. Phil.
This article was written soon after Dr. Phil involved himself in an incident with Britney Spears.  When he stepped off the stage and into someone's real life,  he almost got himself in trouble.  

The profession of psychology has no problem with what he does,  although some disagree with how he does it.  You should judge for yourself.

No, actually he is not. But he does play one on TV. Had he not recently "stepped in it," most professionals would probably just think of him as an entertainer who happens to have a professional degree. Despite the uproar, he probably didn't cause himself any legal problems by visiting that hospital or by making a public statement. But he may have crossed over a line when he went on the air and explained himself.

Dr. Phil never refers to himself as a psychologist. He certainly knows that to do so would bring him into conflict with California law. Unless you are working for the government or working in academia, you can't represent yourself as being a psychologist unless you hold a valid license. It's the same as with an attorney or a physician. You can't act like you are a physician unless you have a medical license. If you didn't pass the bar or you lost your license, you can't say that you are an attorney.

It's not just that you can't practice as a physician or as a lawyer, or that you are not supposed to use those titles. The law says that you are not supposed to tell people that you are trained or experienced in those fields, or that you are an expert. The same rule applies for professional psychologists.

Before he went on air and apologized (or didn't) for his involvement with Britney Spears, members of the professional community accepted Dr. Phil as an entertainer who toils in the field of pop-psychology. Indeed, the American Psychological Association invited him to speak at one of its annual conventions. No one minded what he does. Some admire his success. Some envy it.

But in the statement that he made explaining himself, Dr. Phil made some errors in judgment. After being criticized for his involvement with Britney and for publicizing his involvement, the spotlight was turned on Dr. Phil, and he didn't handle it well.

Dr. Phil's statement implied that he was actually qualified to provide Britney with treatment. In his words, "I made it clear that I, of course, would not be directly involved in any treatment should that come to pass, because it’s well known that I don’t practice psychology privately anymore ..." Before saying this, and referring to his work, he said "this is serious business." He basically said that the only reason he would not provide treatment is because he only practices on TV.

Dr. Phil followed this by saying, "I listen and then suggest or refer them to the right professionals in whom I have confidence — the people who have the time and the focus to really get involved across time and work with them." In other words, he said that he does in fact practice by evaluating people and making referrals, indicating that he doesn't provide treatment himself only because he doesn't have the time. He was suggesting that he is trained and experienced to provide treatment, if he wanted to.

Following from the above comments, Dr. Phil went on to "explain" why he didn't need a license. He said that he didn't need a license because the only reason you need one is to "hang out a shingle" for private practice and to accept fees from the public. That's just not correct, and it's also misleading. The licensing law also says that you you can't act like you're a psychologist.

And then, in a comment that stunned me, Dr. Phil said: "I do, however, still have 30 years of experience, (and) a hard-earned Ph.D in clinical psychology ... I am certainly eligible to be licensed in California so far as education, training and experience." Emphasizing his point, he included the imperative: "So you still have to call me Dr. Phil."

This statement is the very essence of what California law says that someone is not supposed to do unless they are actually a psychologist. It doesn't matter in the least bit if you don't take any fees and if you aren't in "private practice." You still can't go around acting like you have the credential. His statement about the law was entirely inaccurate. The fact that he does not accept any fees for his services gets him out from underneath any complaint that he practices psychology (on TV), but it does not absolve him for misrepresenting his professional status, or lack thereof.

So what's the big deal about whether he's licensed or not?

Two things.

First, getting a license is a way of proving that you know the laws and the regulations relating to the profession. It's like getting a driver's license. You have to prove that you know the rules of the road. Dr. Phil was real careful not to say that he actually was a psychologist, but if he knew the laws, he would have been a whole lot more careful. He would have been more careful about giving people the impression that he is a psychologist, saying that he has the training, experience and expertise.

Second, when you get a license, you are binding yourself to a specific set of ethical guidelines and standards of behavior. If you are not actually a member of the profession, you don't have to answer to anyone other than yourself. You don't have to consider anyone else's judgment. Had Dr. Phil been more cognizant of professional standards, he probably wouldn't have gotten himself into that mess down in Los Angeles in the first place. And I wouldn't have had to read that Oprah is angry with Phil while I stood in line at the grocery store.

So is Dr. Phil going to be disciplined?

You probably heard that someone filed a complaint with the California Board of Psychology (the BOP). We don't actually know that. What we know is that someone filled out a complaint form and leaked it to the media. The BOP would never actually release any information about whether or not they received a complaint, or were investigating one, before taking formal action. If someone actually did file a complaint, and if the investigation of the complaint warranted action, the Board could refer it to the Attorney General, or it could simply issue a warning letter. If the AG were to get the complaint, there could be a citation, and possibly a fine.

What's probably going to happen?

Here's my guess, and it's only a guess.

I don't think anything is going to come of his having visited Britney. There is too much confusion and ambiguity about the relationships that existed, and about the role that he played. I think it ends with his having said that if he had it to do over, he wouldn't do it again.

About his apparent violation of California's psychology licensing law - the fact that he represented himself as being trained, educated and qualified as a psychologist? My guess is that at most, the BOP might issue a warning letter and probably won't even do that. Psychologists and the BOP are in fact concerned on a daily basis with serious business. Dr. Phil is in the entertainment business and the field of pop-psychology.

The BOP's job is to protect the public and to protect consumers. If Dr. Phil gets out of line, the media and the market will take care of him. If need be, Oprah will slap him down. In misleading the public, Dr. Phil offended the profession. But the BOP protects consumers, not the profession.

Did Dr. Phil really and intentionally mislead the public?

He did mislead the public by suggesting that he is a psychologist.

He also misled the public about why he doesn't have a license. His statement was: "I retired my license ... I don't need a license ... I’ve chosen instead to pursue another course and use of my education." It's true that for what he does on TV, he doesn't need to actually be a psychologist. But there is more to the story about his having "retired" his license. He was in fact disciplined by the Texas Board of Psychology in 1989, and it appears that he may have "retired" his license, rather than responding to their disciplinary requirements. We don't know for sure, but it may have been a little bit different than an ordinary retirement.

But still, I don't think he was being dishonest. I think it is more accurate to suggest that he was trying to cleverly walk a fine line. If he were adequately familiar with the law, I think he would have done a better job of walking that line.

Shouldn't he just do the right thing and get a license?

That's hard to say. We don't really know why he decided to leave the profession, and we don't know what hurdles he would face if he were to try to return. He has been in the public eye, and so there are controversies that surround him. To practice psychology on TV as he does, he doesn't actually need to be a psychologist, and as I said, the media and the public are available to hold him accountable. His style and his methods are a bit out of the mainstream, but I have never heard it said that he has done anyone harm (and we would quite certainly hear about that). He practices pop-psychology and entertainment, and people get to choose whether or not to watch.

Dr. Phil is not actually a psychologist, but he does play one on TV. That was never a problem. But then one day, he decided to walk off the stage and into someone's very real life. And that was a mistake.

As to how he should conduct himself, he summed it up by saying: "I have to own my own choices."

Update: Dr. Phil has gone on the Today show to explain again. Matt Laurer referred to him a number of times as a "psychologist." Dr. Phil didn't correct him.

My guess is that if I started a broadcast on the internet, and I called it "The Today Show," I would hear from some attorneys real quick.

California's own Dr. Marty Greenberg, former President of the BOP also appeared. His opinion: the hospital visit and the public statement about it isn't a matter that the law covers or will be concerned about.

As I suggested, nothing will come of any complaint.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.