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The Best (and Worst) Parts of Dr. Phil's Interview With Sinead O'Connor

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s Mental Health Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway. 

I’m not a frequent (or objective) viewer of Dr. Phil’s show, and I won’t pretend to be, but when I saw Sinead O’Connor was going to appear on the premiere this Tuesday, I was curious. The Irish singer made headlines in August after posting a heartbreaking video on Facebook revealing that she was alone and suicidal.

I was interested to learn more about O’Connor’s story, but I didn’t have high hopes for how the interview would go.

But, damn, it really wasn’t that bad. It also wasn’t great either. Here’s what I found to be OK, but also what annoyed me, about how this interview went down.

The good:

1. It’s important for us to hear the voices of adult survivors of childhood abuse. 

For me, the most important part of the segment was when O’Connor discussed the sexual, emotional and physical abuse she endured from her mother as a child. Although the show spends an unnecessary time going into the horrid details, because you know, TV (they cut to commercial just after Dr. Phil asks, “Tell me what happened, what did she do?…), the mental health of those who experience emotional abuse is a topic that does need more attention. 

Child abuse and mental health go hand in hand. About 80 percent of young people who were abused as children meet the criteria for at least one psychological disorder. Even those who don’t meet the criteria for a mental illness, like post-traumatic stress disorder, should feel like they’re able to get help for any emotional scars they still have. Also, when adults like O’Connor speak up about the abuse they endured during childhood, it assures other adults that even when there are many years between you and what happened — it’s OK if you still struggle. No one simply “gets over” abuse.

2. The interview did a great job highlighting the complicated relationship between those who experience abuse and their abusers.

O’Connor says she experienced abuse from when she was born until she was 13 years old, when she left her mother’s home. Later, when she returned home, she said her relationship with her mother improved until she died suddenly in a car crash when O’Connor was around 19.

Throughout the interview, we can see O’Connor’s complicated and conflicting feelings towards her mother, who she said ran a “torture chamber.” She repeatedly expresses how much she misses and loves her mother, but also says she’s thankful that her mother is dead, and describes how she seemed to get joy out of abusing O’Connor and her siblings. O’Connor actually shows a lot of empathy for her mother, explaining that she knew her mother was sick and needed help. According to O’Connor, her mother never changed her clothes, didn’t clean the house and stayed in bed for long stretches of time.

These conflicting and c0-existing emotions might be confusing to an outsider looking in — but it’s OK for people who have experienced this kind of abuse, especially from a parent, to feel these kinds of mixed emotions. Bringing that to the forefront might make other abuse survivors know they’re not alone.

Now, for the parts I didn’t like….

3. Dr. Phil completely dismisses her “edgy” critique of religion.

Dr. Phil went Freudian on O’Connor’s now infamous “Saturday Night Live” moment when she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II during her live performance.

He asked her, rather condescendingly in my opinion, “When you tore the Pope’s picture up on Saturday Night Live, whose picture were you tearing up?”

“Uh, the Pope’s,” O’Connor responded.

O’Connor then went on to explain she ripped up the photo in protest of the sexual abuse covered up by the Catholic church. But Dr. Phil pushed, and O’Connor finally admitted that well, the picture may have represented her father.

On some subconscious level, sure, the picture of The Pope she tore up could have represented her father. Who knows? It does appear she came to her own conclusion.

But besides finding an excuse to bring up a controversial moment in O’Connor’s life, why does her act of deviance need to be the result of some deep-rooted childhood issue? Childhood abuse is something she was personally affected by, so it makes sense that she would protest against the Catholic church during this time. Why must we question that just because she has a mental illness?

I think O’Connor has every right to psychoanalyze her own motivations, but this line of questioning implies to me that when people with mental illnesses do extreme acts of advocacy or make strong statements (no matter how controversial they may be), it somehow has to be a result of their mental illness.

O’Connor said after the SNL incident, that’s when people started treating her like she was “insane.” But that’s not what she needed help for. I think it was unfair of Dr. Phil to make that moment defined by her history of abuse.

4. Dr. Phil as mansplaining “savior.”

Dr. Phil gives himself a lot of props for “taking Sinead in,” and at the beginning of the interview, reads messages from his viewers who said things like, “I know Dr. Phil won’t give up on her,” and, “Dr. Phil, I know you can help her out.” At one point, the doctor says, “I’m really sorry it took me this long to find you.” Gag. (Is my bias coming out?)

But despite such the big build up, Dr. Phil himself doesn’t offer much insight.

Towards the beginning of the segment, O’Connor explains that she really started feeling suicidal two years ago after getting a hysterectomy. She said the hormonal changes, the triggering procedure (her mother’s abuse often targeted areas close to her womb) and the fact that she wasn’t able to see her children, all contributed to her being suicidal.

Dr. Phil, towards the end in his final analysis, basically repeats this information back to O’Connor, as if he had figured it out himself.

“Yes,” she said, agreeing with him. “Exactly.” She gives him a high-five.

We’re meant to believe that Dr. Phil provided this ah-ha moment, but O’Connor, rightfully, doesn’t seem phased by it at all, despite what the music cue would have you believe. This is because she knew all this already. That power, and that knowledge, was already inside of her. Instead of mansplaining something O’Connor already knows, Dr. Phil could have used his “ah-ha” moment to provide some insight into what might help her heal.

And that — I think — is one of the core issues with this show. It was good to see child abuse get a platform. It was important that O’Connor got to tell more of her story, and that now she’s getting help, but I wish there was more of a takeaway. I wish the lesson wasn’t, “child abuse happens, and let’s all give a round of applause for Dr. Phil.” This was an opportunity to give people more information about abuse. But no resources were provided, not even a hotline. It’s as if the only path to healing is to find a “savior” doctor who will put you on TV and place you in a nice treatment center.

Not everyone has that access, not everything works that way, and you don’t need a Dr. Phil to save you.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Lead photo via The Dr. Phil Show

Originally published: September 13, 2017
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