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He became a national phenomenon on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," but Phil McGraw, PhD-television's "Dr. Phil"-envisioned more than fame when he left Oprah Winfrey's show to start his own, he explained in an invited presidential address at APA's 2006 Annual Convention. McGraw wanted to create a national forum for mental health issues.

"What if you could deliver common sense, understandable information about life and living and deliver it to the safety, security and privacy of people's homes every day for free?" asked McGraw. "I knew that if I could pull it off, it would be a forum unlike any I'd ever seen before."

Show standards

On his show, McGraw sees himself not as his guests' therapist, but as a moderator who hopefully gives people who are suffering in silence some steps they can take toward finding help. The show lets people know that "it's OK to identify and treat problems," said McGraw.

McGraw explained the steps he takes to make sure the show is useful as well as entertaining. Viewers suggest topics, which are vetted by a 12-person advisory board of physicians, nurses and psychologists, he said. The most common issues are parenting, relationship and money problems, he continued. The show's research team does "exhaustive" literature searches to make sure the content is cutting edge and sound, and the team gathers binders full of information on each guest prior to filming.

The show has very strict guidelines for guests, he emphasized. Anyone currently in treatment cannot appear on the show unless McGraw receives a written statement from his or her therapist saying it would not be harmful for the guest to appear. People who are on medication or have been hospitalized for mental health reasons also cannot appear on the show. The same is true for those who have attempted suicide or demonstrated suicidal ideation, unless the show is specifically about suicide.

After the show, his staff arrange therapy for guests who want further help back in their communities, and monitor their progress.

No substitute for therapy

McGraw acknowledges that the show is just a start. "We do not labor under the false impression that we are doing an eight-minute cure," he said. The show could "never be a meaningful substitute for therapy."

McGraw also emphasized what an important role practicing psychologists play in the community, citing the aid professionals continue to give in New Orleans, where the "water has receded but the disaster isn't over." In fact, his show filmed from New Orleans the entire APA convention week, giving McGraw a national platform from which to talk about mental health policy with decision-makers such as President Bush and members of Congress.

McGraw's work highlighting mental health issues earned him a Presidential Citation, given to him by APA President Gerald P. Koocher, PhD. "Your work has touched more Americans than any other living psychologist," Koocher read from the citation.

"I have received no more valued honor," said McGraw, whose late father was a psychologist. "I wish my dad was alive to see it."