When it comes to giving an issue attention, it’s hard to imagine a duo with more star wattage to contribute than Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey.
For an issue as important as mental health, the combination of their massive celebrity appears to be a very good thing. Breaking news that the two will be joining forces to create a show about mental health and wellness for Apple TV would seem to be cause for celebration. Reducing the stigma around mental illness, giving people more information about their own mental health, and directing people toward resources they may not have known existed are all worthy goals.
Yet I greet this news with no small amount of skepticism.
Oprah’s track record on health information is riddled with missteps. While it’s too early to tell what the show’s content will eventually include, looking back at the voices she’s chosen to amplify and people she’s chosen to elevate gives me serious pause.
With a measles outbreak in New York City severe enough to lead to an emergency declaration, it’s hard to think of a more glaring source of medical misinformation than Jenny McCarthy. McCarthy is one of the most famous faces of the movement pushing the fallacious link between vaccines and autism, going so far once as to say “we will stand in line for the fucking measles” rather than accept a vaccine she wrongly considered unsafe. Reports of parents holding “measles parties” to infect their kids (and thus put them at risk of a progressive, incurable neurodegenerative disease years later) show just how dangerous that message can be.
Yet Oprah was all set to give McCarthy the huge platform of her own syndicated talk show several years ago. The deal eventually fell through, which according to McCarthy was because she walked away, not because there was any objection to the kinds of things she was likely to say. Even now you can read all about her “warrior spirit” on Oprah’s website, in an article rife with misinformation about how her son’s autism was supposedly cured through a combination of an elimination diet, organic foods, and vitamins.
Had things panned out with McCarthy, she’d have followed on the heels of two other famous names whose celebrity is due almost entirely to Oprah. Both Dr. Phil McGraw and Dr. Mehmet Oz owe their success to the exposure they got on her program, eventually leading to deals with her production company for shows bearing their own names. Neither are encouraging predictors for what may be in store for her.
Dr. Phil’s often exploitative, confrontational, intervention-heavy approach has led to some troubling outcomes, including a much-criticized decision to show up at Britney Spears’ hospital during an earlier mental health crisis. Several years ago he advised a mother whose son liked to play with Barbies to correct his “confusion” by only buying him “boy things,” advice that as a pediatrician I firmly reject. Dr. Phil’s capacity to deliver harmful messages like these to a wide audience is directly linked to Oprah’s decision to promote him in the first place.
Few people have more thoroughly trashed their credibility as medical professionals as Dr. Oz. His show is a steady source of pseudoscience and oversold health claims. The misinformation he has dispensed on his show was egregious enough to land him in a Senate hearing where he was lambasted by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). The degree to which he has leveraged his credentials as a physician to promote quackery once led a group of doctors to send a letter to the dean of Columbia University’s medical school requesting it rescind his faculty appointment there.
Without Oprah, none of this would have happened.
Where she will get material to include in the new show is reason for concern. She’s chummy enough with Gwyneth Paltrow, touter of vaginal steaming and no slouch in the medical misinformation department herself, to be the first guest on the GOOP podcast. (Where is it filed on the website? Under “wellness.”) A celebrity-driven approach to the topic of mental health could go awry in all manner of ways.
If my concerns are unfounded, and Oprah takes an evidence-based approach to the content she features on her show, I will be the first to applaud it. (The effect of Prince Harry’s involvement is hard to determine, but he clearly takes the issue of mental health very seriously, and has been refreshingly open about his own history.) Mental illness affects millions of Americans, and far too many lack access to appropriate care. I’m all for a show that draws focus to this problem, with the hope that some may find their way to care they’d otherwise have lacked.
But I’m not ready to celebrate yet. Oprah has too often amplified messages and promoted messengers more deserving of scorn than attention, and it’s too early to know if the announcement of this new show counts as good news.