What I Learned About Addiction from Attending the Dr. Oz Show

By Jami Wolf-Dolan PsyD 07/14/16

An experienced addiction psychologist concludes that Dr. Oz could use some good supervision.

What I Learned About Addiction from Attending the Dr. Oz Show
I couldn’t help but think about how Dr. Oz is really just dreadfully uninformed.

Coverage of the addiction and opioid epidemic is a daily event in this country, and we receive a constant flow of information about efforts by Federal and local governments, the criminal justice system and healthcare professionals to turn the tide of substance misuse and overdose. At the intersection of health care and media, The Dr. Oz television show is an outlet through which millions learn about disease and treatment, and so provides a forum for exploring these issues and, hopefully, bringing useful information to the public’s attention. When Jami Wolf-Dolan, PhD, an addiction psychologist, was invited to attend a taping of a Dr. Oz episode about addiction, she was curious as to what would occur. Here is her reaction…Richard Juman, PsyD

I recently accepted an invitation from The Dr. Oz Show, which was looking for people in the addictions treatment and recovery world to join as audience members for a recent taping of the show. The subject was “Facing Addiction,” that was all I knew. Given that I am a psychologist who primarily treats individuals struggling with substance misuse and dependence disorders—and my husband also works part-time as a sober coach—I figured this could be a very interesting experience to share. Plus, I had never been to a talk show before! Exciting! I promptly requested and received tickets, and “VIP” status…even more exciting! As I shared my excitement with colleagues in my office, I started to hear rumblings of an intervention to be taped on the The Dr. Oz Show, but it was unclear this was the agenda, and that was not what the show overtly advertised itself to be. The invitation noted: “Facing Addiction; Join our show if you are in recovery, or support someone who is.” I was starting to feel a bit deflated. I really hoped this was not a live intervention. It was not until I arrived at the show that I became aware that it would focus on a young mother who was addicted to heroin.  

“Did you know that the valves of the heart weaken with chronic heroin use? And this is what happens to a person’s veins when people continue to inject heroin, they constrict (flash to scary pictures of the heart and veins). So if you need medication in an emergency, and we can’t find a vein, we can’t get you the medicine!” My husband and I sat listening and watching Dr. Oz speak with a young mother of two on the set of his television show. 

On the morning of the show, my husband was asked to say something inspirational to the young mother. He let me know that he was told by the producers that the young woman involved was not part of an intervention, and that in fact, she knew exactly why she was asked to be on the show. I took a deep breath of relief. My husband and I sat and watched Dr. Oz do his thing. He asked questions, some sensitive, and some shameful. “May I see your arms?” My husband and I looked at each other. He whispered to me, “How embarrassing.” “Yes, totally disgusting,“ I whispered back. We continued to sit in the front row of the studio audience, observing the interview, which outside of the naïve “I want to try to shock you with the gruesome medical realities and risks of addiction,” and the poor taste in examining the woman’s injection sites, was actually not as terrible as I had imagined it could have been. I figured, well, it’s just Dr. Oz doing his medical man-television personality.

“Now, I would like to introduce world class interventionist…

“Oh jeez,“ I muttered to myself and turned to my husband, “I thought this wasn’t an intervention!” My husband looked at me and said, “I think it’s not, they said she knew what was up when she came on.” I took another deep breath as the interventionist introduced herself. Interestingly, she provided a nice explanation of the great aftercare which would and could be provided to the young woman—how she could learn all the skills she needed to manage her life, how she would be able to fill in the gaps that were missing in the last 6 rehab stays, and what elements of her situation all the other clinicians had missed. I was intrigued. She was speaking our language of skills and actually making some sense. It sounded hopeful. Maybe this woman was going to offer to help her find some solid outpatient treatment that would allow her to live her life with her kids. Maybe she had a sense of what was missing that could help her manage her life. Strangely, the interventionist also produced a heartfelt and heartbreaking letter written by this young woman’s 12-year-old daughter. I thought, “That is strange.” She then uttered the dreaded words “…if you are willing to accept our gift of treatment to you today…a bag has already been packed for you...” Really? The young woman looked mortified, and turned to her mom, “Mom, you told me this wasn’t an intervention. You told me that I was just coming to talk about addiction, you told me…” PAUSE. 

The audience then started chiming in with applause and shouts of “You can do it! Take the gift!” The young woman, clearly overwhelmed and pissed off, was trying very hard to keep her composure and asked firmly for some time to think. “I need ten or fifteen minutes, I need to think, ” to which Dr. Oz answered back sharply, “DO you think you are an addict?” He asked her, “What do you need ten minutes for? What will change your mind in fifteen minutes? What is the difference between now and fifteen minutes from now?” She replied, “I want to call my daughter.” He said, “You have all the info you need. You have your daughter’s letter right there!” And he continued to pressure her. Meanwhile, the audience started yelling at the girl, “No excuses! Your mother is an enabler! That letter in your lap should be enough!” In that moment, I was literally biting my tongue to not say anything. My husband touched my arm. I leaned to him and said, “I wish I could just tell her, ‘It’s okay, take your time, you are so overwhelmed…such a hard decision…especially with all of these people yelling and you were taken by surprise.” I asked my husband what he would say. He replied, "I would tell her to not listen to all of this noise right now…try to tune it out…and whatever you do, don’t give up on yourself and follow your heart."  

After the show, I couldn’t help but think about how Dr. Oz, who is supposedly educated, informed, and apparently “charged with the responsibility of bringing knowledge of the heroin epidemic to the American public” is really just dreadfully uninformed and grossly dogmatic. Why is it that people still think one size fits all? Why do people still believe that traditional modes of confrontation and surprise, forcing and shaming people into making decisions, is the preferred approach to get someone to go to treatment? For some, yes, confrontation can be helpful. Even mandates have been helpful in motivating treatment, especially when it’s leveraged with legal consequences (sometimes) but the fact is that change comes about by many different routes, and people have different motivations to change. 

Despite the ratings, this could have been an opportunity to actually educate people and to make a difference. What Dr. Oz neglected to acknowledge is that ambivalence is a normal part of any conversation around change. It’s a push and pull process between resistance and willingness. And how we react can definitely influence how people engage in the conversation. Ever push someone really hard to do something they don’t want to do? They usually push back harder and dig their heels in deeper, and understandably so. Of course, I would imagine this all could be answered by “It’s television, and there are ratings!” However, I wondered why Dr. Oz wasn’t doing a show on Motivational Interviewing, or at least why he didn’t do his homework on Motivational Interviewing, or at the very least, why Dr. Oz didn’t invite some actually reputable psychologists or MDs on his show to properly assess this young woman, and to maybe ASK her a few questions about what she wanted for her life, what she wanted to be different and how she imagined things might be different. What things were important to her?

Why he didn’t reflect back to her, “Yes, you have two young children, and it is such a hard decision to leave them right now,” and maybe even explore that ambivalence, “You really are unsure about wanting to stop using right now. I understand that opiates have been really helpful in managing your anxiety, that makes sense,” while also acknowledging her fears, “I am hearing you say you have health concerns and you want to be more present for your children.” Or even, “It’s so hard to imagine what it might be like to stop using.” Or even, (GASP) “You are not ready to stop right now, you don’t want to stop using right now.” I wonder if statements like that might have been met differently versus, “I am not sure what will change between now and fifteen minutes from now,” or “No more excuses!” I wondered what it might have been like if they had asked a skilled psychologist or MD to come on the show to OFFER her a first step consultation, or assessment, versus packing her bags and shipping her off. What ever happened to meeting someone where they were at? I guess we will never know.  

In the end, after a dramatic exit, with the good doctor following her out, the young mom agreed to go to treatment. He stood outside for a good five minutes watching her SUV drive off into the distance. It was very dramatic. Maybe we will see a follow-up episode, and maybe this will even work—the intervention, that is, and her journey through this treatment. I hope it does work. 

Jami Wolf, PsyD is the Director of Co-Occurring Disorders Services at the Center for Motivation and Change in New York City. Her primary clinical focus is the treatment of substance mis-use disorders, compulsive behaviors and trauma. She works with individuals, families, and groups. Dr. Wolf is also in private practice and is the President-Elect of the New York State Psychological Association Division on Addictions.

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Jami Wolf, PsyD is the Director of Co-Occurring Disorders Services at the Center for Motivation and Change in New York City. Her primary clinical focus is the treatment of substance misuse disorders, compulsive behaviors and trauma. She works with individuals, families, and groups. Dr. Wolf is also in private practice and is the President-Elect of the New York State Psychological Association Division on Addictions. Find Jami on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.