Wearing Racist Blackface Makes National News, So Should Stigmatizing Americans With Mental Disorders

pete earley on dr. phil

(Photo: Robert Sebree for USA WEEKEND)

(2-8-19) From My Files Friday: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and our state’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, are in political trouble because they wore “blackface”  which invokes our racist and painful history. Whenever outrage about an abusive slur or hateful action by a public figure gains national attention, I think about everyday slights that I hear, read or see about individuals with mental illnesses.  Even professionals have engaged in hurtful, stigmatizing speech as this Op Ed that I wrote for USA Today in July 2013, shows.  (Postscript: Dr. Phil never apologized.)

Dr. Phil insults the mentally ill: His remark that the insane ‘suck on rocks and bark at the moon’ stigmatizes people.

“You won’t believe what Dr. Phil just said on his show,” my wife, Patti, told me. “He said insane people ‘suck on rocks and bark at the moon.’ “

“Dr. Phil said what?” I replied.

“Insane people suck on rocks and bark at the moon. He also told a young woman who was stalking her boyfriend that she wasn’t some ‘crazy psycho’ because of her obsession,” Patti said.

I turned on our DVR when I got home from work to watch that same Dr. Phil episode called Obsessed With Love, which focused on a 19-year old girl named Victoria.

Within minutes, Dr. Phil mouthed exactly what Patti had quoted him as saying. After underlining the word “insane” in a letter that Victoria had written to him seeking his help, he brushed off her worries by declaring that her obsession did not mean that she was “insane” because insane people “suck on rocks and bark at the moon.”

When celebrity cook Paula Deen admitted using the N word, she drew public censure. Dr. Phil’s ignorant slur drew a big laugh from his audience.

During the coming hour, Dr. Phil repeatedly assured his audience of millions that he understood both the importance and power of words. He scolded Victoria, telling her that she needed to stop playing word games and “get real” about her obsession — a reference to his trademark moniker.

Let me “get real” with you, Dr. Phil.

My adult son has a mental illness. He has been psychotic, delusional and he has been arrested and booked into a jail. He has been shot by the police with a taser and repeatedly hospitalized. As a psychologist, I’m certain you are aware that 2.4 million Americans have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, 5.7 million have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and another 14.8 million have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Those are just the ones who generally fall into the category of having a serious mental illness or, in your crude terminology, the “insane.”

 When you make these 22.9 million individuals the butt of your remarks, you are marginalizing them and their illnesses. Declaring that insane people “suck on rocks and bark at the moon” discourages them from seeking medical treatment for brain disorders that are not of their choosing and certainly not their fault. It makes them feel embarrassed and ashamed. Would you have said that individuals with Down Syndrome like to suck on rocks and bark at the moon?

In June, the White House held a mental health summit during which President Obama declared that our nation has to rid ourselves of the “embarrassment” associated with mental illnesses. “We’ve got to get rid of that stigma.”

Dr. Phil, your careless words promoted embarrassment and stigma toward mentally ill Americans such as my son and others who often are abandoned on our streets delusional and homeless because our mental health care system has failed them and us.

By the way, Dr. Phil, when one of those “insane” individuals gets treatment most recover. My son did and today he helps others who are “insane” by working as a “peer to peer” specialist much like a recovering alcoholic helps those fighting their own alcohol addiction.

He’s a hero, not someone who sucks on rocks and barks at the moon.

Pete Earley is the author of CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.



About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.