Dr. Phil McGraw is one of the most prominent mental health advocates in America. In today’s episode, our host Gabe Howard and Dr. Phil discuss transitioning out of pandemic mode and into post-pandemic mode, all while taking into account that we aren’t out of the woods yet. Topics like vaccination, distrust of doctors, and the politicized nature of COVID-19 are all examined.

With many of us struggling to understand the mental health toll of the past 18 months, it can be overwhelming to transition into the “new normal” of a post-pandemic life. Dr. Phil shares his unique blend of straight talk and folksy wisdom to help navigate our way through — and out — of this difficult time.

Dr. Phil McGraw

Dr. Phil McGraw, one of the most well-known and trusted mental health professionals in the world, is the host of TV’s #1 daytime talk show, “Dr. Phil.” Now in its 19th season, this trailblazing and award-winning show continues to provide the most comprehensive forum on mental health issues in the history of television. Using the medium of television, McGraw presents compelling stories about real people with a variety of emotional and behavioral problems, stripping away the shame and embarrassment that too often keeps people from seeking help. McGraw continues to value his academic training and professional qualifications and insists that the information provided on his show is based on evidence-based treatment options and state-of-the-art research in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and medicine.

Gabe Howard

Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.

To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast, I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to quickly thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can grab a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling into our show today, we have Dr. Phil McGraw. Dr. Phil is one of the most well-known mental health advocates in the world. His television show has garnered 30 Emmy nominations, won five PRISM Awards, and Dr. Phil himself has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And that’s just to name a few of his accomplishments. But in his bio, he listed that he and his wife are the, quote, ridiculously proud grandparents, unquote, of three grandchildren, clearly his proudest achievement. Dr. Phil, welcome to the show.

Dr. Phil McGraw: Well, Gabe, thank you for having me. Any time I get a chance to shine a light on this mental health narrative in America, I’m first in line.

Gabe Howard: And we appreciate that, you know, I’m a person who lives with bipolar disorder and the pandemic has been pretty hard on me because, well, for a significant amount of time, many of my coping skills were, well, literally illegal. Now, you add into that the uncertainty and disruption to routines and even people with no mental health issues, they began to struggle. Dr. Phil, with all of that in mind, what has been the biggest implications of covid-19 on society’s overall mental health?

Dr. Phil McGraw: Well, that’s a short question that calls for a long answer, unfortunately, because the implications are really far reaching at every age. I guess my greatest concern is the impact that we’re having on the children. The disruption to the developmental cycle in the children is profound. It’s far reaching educationally. It’s far reaching developmentally in terms of their interpersonal skills, their intra personal skills, as far as their self-confidence or self-worth. Their self-definition is so disrupted because they need the interaction, and this inability to interact with their peers have really affected this young generation. Profoundly, first, second and third graders, still prominently with fourth, fifth and sixth. And it’s a little less as it goes up the chain. But I think it’s had a tremendous impact that we’re not going to see the results for decades to come. I think it’s going to express itself now, but we’re going to be measuring this decades from now when we see the impact on employment attainment and lifetime achievement. So I think beginning with the children, I think this has had a profound effect. And we see it now in terms of increase in anxiety, depression, loneliness, all of these things. So, you know, Gabe, it has just been a really significant event in people’s lives, beginning with the children.

Gabe Howard: I think that any adult who is being honest with themselves and understands their own stress, mental health, if they’re in touch with their emotions, have suffered greatly over the last 18 months because there’s plenty to choose from on, whether it’s quarantine, whether it’s 600,000 people dead, whether it’s political rhetoric that’s coming out of this, the fear, et cetera, that’s a lot. How do we begin to shift out of the we’re in the middle of a pandemic narrative and shift into the we’re coming out of a pandemic narrative.

Dr. Phil McGraw: Gabe, I think everybody kind of thought or hoped it would be a very clear line that said, OK, this is over now, we’re OK. I was never under that delusion that this was going to be a clear transition because of all the confusion and the mixed messages that we’re getting of the example of that scene from the movie Grease. When you remember that old movie where school was out and they all came racing out the doors to the gym and the carnival was going on and everybody was running around just doing that school’s out for summer way. And I think everybody thought, boy, if when this is over, it’s going to be like that. It’s going to be this pent up appetite. Everybody’s going to be racing out the door. Yeah, we’re back into our lives. But that’s not what’s happening. There’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of intimidation. There’s a lot of trepidation to do things that people took for granted, going and getting in groups, small talk, conversations, face to face meetings. People feel awkward. They have some fear and trepidation, like who’s vaccinated, who’s not? Are we really protected? What about all of these variants that are on the scene now? And you look at all of the mom pop shops across the country that are gone and will never come back.

Dr. Phil McGraw: So people’s livelihood has been put in jeopardy. So people have all of this to deal with at one time. And so it’s creating a sense where people don’t feel mastery in their life. You know, we learn about ourselves by watching what we do. We make attributions to other people by watching what they do. Right. If you’ve got somebody that comes to work every day and always been the first one there, they turn on the lights, they start the coffee, they kind of get everything going. And you just know there’s going to be there every day. So you attribute to them dependability, reliability, being buttoned up. You make those attributions because of what you watch them do across time. The same thing is true with ourselves. We watch what we do and we see ourselves master certain challenges, master our environment and we say, OK, well, this is what we’re capable of doing and that gives us confidence. Well, now, we haven’t observed ourselves do that for over a year and that lets doubt creep in so people don’t have the confidence that they had at one time.

Gabe Howard: I believe what you’re describing is that this isn’t just like a light switch. It’s not dark, we flip the switch and then it’s light, right? It’s slowly going to go from darkness to light. And I love the grease reference. I just had the convertible flying away, with John Travolta in it pictured in my head.

Dr. Phil McGraw: Exactly.

Gabe Howard: I can’t get that out of my head now, but what practical advice do you have for people? Because I think that you’re right. I think that people were under the delusion that it was going to be pandemic one minute, no pandemic the next minute. Life was going to go back to normal. We were all going to be OK. We were going to put it in the rearview mirror. And much like that convertible, we were just going to fly off into the sunset.

Dr. Phil McGraw: Well, I’m glad you say that because I described the circumstance and failed to answer your question, so I need to answer your question. It’s like, what advice can you give to people? And I believe in successive approximations. It’s kind of like if people have a tremendous fear of snakes, you start out by getting them really relaxed and then give the least threatening symbol of a snake you possibly can and see if they can handle that. And if they can, then you move to the next approximation of a snake and then the next. And if they get anxious, you backup a little bit. You move by successive approximations until they can — not recklessly — but safely be in the presence of the snake without running through a plate glass window to escape. And I think that’s what needs to happen here. Don’t expect yourself to leap tall buildings in a single bound. What you need to do is say, OK, look, what can I feel comfortable doing to start with? Maybe it’s interacting with people that I know their history and know their pattern. So maybe it starts with having a couple or a few couples over and you interact or you meet at the track at the high school and you walk around together some. I know several businesses in L.A. where they’re starting to go to work two days a week. They started to ease back into it. I’ve talked to so many of them personally. They said the rewards that have come from that have overwhelmed the anxiety they had about going in the first day. Everybody was looking at each other like they don’t know what to say.

Dr. Phil McGraw: And it’s like, wow, this has been crazy. You can only say that like ten times. And then it’s like, what do we talk about now? But you start out with something you’re comfortable with and then you move to the next level, then you move to the next level. You may not feel comfortable going back to live church, sitting in a pew shoulder to shoulder and the place packed. But you might go to Sunday school where there’s ten in a room or something, where you start out just a step at a time until you have some confidence built up. And people have to wean themselves from this addiction to the news cycle. Find one reliable, nonpolitical news source that will give you scientific information that you have confidence in and check in in the morning and maybe check again in the evening or check in a couple of times a week. Because let me tell you, this is not going to change hour to hour. This is something that they’re having to do studies on. It takes time to see how this is unfolding. And we’ve got to get away from being glued to that television and listening to every theory and every talking head give their spin on things.

Gabe Howard: I personally think that before the pandemic, people were distracted, people just didn’t sit and watch the news 24/7 because we had other things to do. We could go to sporting events, concerts, movies. Then the pandemic made us all stuck at home to where the only thing that we could do was watch Netflix or get an update on when the pandemic was going to be over. And then, of course, the media gave us what we wanted. We wanted information about covid. So we started to get more and more information about the pandemic. Now, add into that a basic lack of understanding of science or infectious disease control, and then, poof, misunderstanding creeps in. That’s Gabe Howard’s personal theory. I don’t know if you agree or not, but assuming that you do, how do we get people away from that? Because people are very emboldened right now to believe that they know what’s best. Ignoring years of scientific theory, scientific research and study.

Dr. Phil McGraw: Well, that’s the problem. And as I said, it’s become very politicized and whichever side you’re on, it’s really sad when we’re relying on people that have an agenda other than the science. I do agree with your point of view, and I think you have to find a reliable source. And what we’ve seen is that some of the sources that we did depend on, World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, have come under attack. And so people have started to question whether those are reliable or not. And it’s so easy to challenge yourself to take one more step and don’t let someone interpret the science for you, but read it yourself. And I’m not telling people they need to go to Harvard online and download a bunch of chemical studies about antibodies, et cetera. But there are some scholastic summaries and some scholastic articles that people can read that don’t have an agenda. They just say, here are the facts. And, you know, right now we see so many people debating whether they should get the vaccine or not. And I’ll confess my own bias in saying that I have gotten the vaccination. My wife and I both have it. My adult children both got the vaccine. We made the decision based on science that it was the most responsible thing to do, that we didn’t want to make others il. The FDA with the vaccine that we have now with Pfizer, Moderna, the different vaccines. We have more data on this vaccine now than probably any vaccine in the history of the FDA because of how many people have been vaccinated by it.

Gabe Howard: Dr. Phil, one of the things that you said there is that you and your family chose to get the vaccine not because you were worried about your own health, but because you were worried about the health of those people that you come in contact with. This is often missed. When I hear about people not wanting to get the vaccine, they say, well, I’m healthy or I already had COVID or I’m not in a risk group. Is there a way to help people understand that there’s a secondary argument? Because, as you’ve pointed out, people are very entrenched in their positions when it comes to the vaccine. But we really do need this to get out of it. I mean, it’s literally the cure for what we’ve all been going through for the last 18 months.

Dr. Phil McGraw: Well, I think you’re right, and Pfizer has tens of millions, Moderna has maybe half that, and AstraZeneca is maybe 10 million. Think of all that. There’s no vaccine in history that has that much data generated before it was ever authorized. So we have a lot of information about this. And what gets reported in the media are the anecdotal situations where someone takes the vaccine and a week later they have a blood clot and die. Well, they don’t report how many people get blood clots and die, whether they have the vaccine or not. They just take the anecdotal study and they scare the bejesus out of people by saying, look what happened. But they don’t say what the incidence per thousand or for a hundred thousand would be if you took the vaccine away. Did it increase the likelihood or the occurrence of that? They don’t report on that. They just say, oh, here’s a headline grabber. So they put that out there. And I think it scares people, but I do think that they’re going at this wrong psychologically. I am an incurable optimist and I do think that as a society, we are made up of caring and empathetic people. And I think instead of trying to challenge people to get the vaccine for their own health, I think people are more willing to take a risk with themselves than they are willing to take a risk with other people.

Dr. Phil McGraw: And I think if the emphasis was on look, look at your orbit, how many people in your orbit, where you go to the store, you go to work, you go to church, you go to community activities, how many people in your orbit are in an at risk group and how many of those people could you decrease the likelihood of a bad covid outcome if you were vaccinated? I think if you really ask people to audit their own lives and ask how many people they could lower the risk for if they got the vaccination, people really don’t think about that until you help them think about how to quantify that in their own life. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just that’s not their point of view right now. And I think we need to help them focus on that by doing that kind of an orbit audit is what I call it. See who you’re exposed to and how you can help.

Gabe Howard: And we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors.

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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with mental health advocate and TV host, Dr. Phil McGraw. The pandemic has seen a huge shift in how society views mental health and while that is a good thing, we still have the same barriers to care that we always had. Can you discuss the challenges we are facing not only in encouraging people to be willing to seek out mental health care but to be able to assure that they receive it if they do seek it out?

Dr. Phil McGraw: I think the biggest challenge that we face in society in general, well, really break it into two, I guess, and that’s stigma and access, because I do believe there still is a very active stigma in society about mental illness. There’s a lot of shame still associated with being labeled as having some kind of mental illness. And people are loath to say, I need help, I need to go see a psychiatrist or psychologist or some type of mental mental health worker. In their own mind, they label themselves as broken or less than. I always encourage people to think about that in a different way, because to me, having worked in it for the last forty five years, there is no judgment. There is no stigma. I mean, I look at an anxiety neurosis or a psychosis no different than I do a kidney infection or a knee problem. It is part of our functioning. And if something is needing attention, it deserves attention and also that it’s not one dimensional. So many of our mental illnesses, so many of the diagnoses have neurological components to them as well. So you just have to try to get people to understand this is not something to be ashamed of. They’re not going to put up a big red “M” on your forehead, mentally ill, and walk around and people are going to judge you.

Dr. Phil McGraw: It’s OK. These are things that you can manage. You can eliminate from your functioning. And if it’s something you can’t eliminate, there are people that have psychiatric diagnoses that are married and happy and they’re moms and dads and have careers. It’s not like that’s the end of your life. And I think there’s that stigma. And so we really have to challenge people to not judge themselves and judge others if they think there’s a mental illness involved, a challenge. And second, I think there’s a terrible access problem in the United States. We have to increase access and we’ve got to have education about it. We’ve got to reduce risk factors and we have to increase diversity of providers because of the culture and sensitivity. One of the big problems we have, and it shows up really big in rural counties, 65 percent don’t have a psychiatrist. Forty seven percent don’t have psychologists. Eighty one percent don’t have a nurse practitioner. And half of these counties, which accounts for like a hundred and eleven million adults, have no mental health practitioner at all. And that’s why I say access is such a big problem and we’ve got to fill that gap.

Gabe Howard: And it’s important to point out that those were the statistics before the pandemic when, for whatever reason, there was less interest in mental health care. So demand has gone up to a system that was already not able to handle lesser demand.

Dr. Phil McGraw: Exactly, and I think one of the things that we’re going to have to do is awareness is one thing, but putting money behind it and funding these agencies is critical. We’ve got to divert funds to these places so we can have those professionals available. And I think that’s very, very important.

Gabe Howard: You know, Dr. Phil, many of us, myself included, feel like we’ve just been tossed around for the last 18 months. I really feel like I spent three rounds in the octagon with a heavyweight UFC fighter. How can we start to regain some sense of agency over our lives?

Dr. Phil McGraw: And that’s one of the biggest issues, right, Gabe, because when we feel out of control, that’s where we start feeling depression and anxiety. People want to feel that they’re in control of their own destiny. And when they realize they don’t have their hands on the wheel, they’re not in control of their career, their economics, their children’s developmental activities, their ability to provide for their family, they get very anxious about that and they get passive because there’s really nothing they can do. And I think we need to challenge people to say, OK, look, I need to maximize the things that I do have control over. I need to sit down and say, what can I do? And if during this pandemic you lost your job, then you need to work as hard at finding a job as you would if you had a job. If you worked 50 hours when you had a job, you should work at least 50 hours looking for a job. You should get up every morning, shower, get dressed and get out there looking for a job.

Dr. Phil McGraw: You need to get back in the game. And I think that’s so important for people’s dignity and self-esteem to say I’m doing something to help my family. If people can sit down and say, look, OK, there are things I can’t control. But there are things I can and let me focus on those things and maximize that control, they’ll feel so much better about themselves. And we need to think about this in terms of role modeling as well, because their children are watching them. What are they doing? Are they being passive in surrendering to this or are they saying, no, look, we make our own way here, let’s grab a hold of this and do what we can. That’s great role modeling for the children.

Gabe Howard: Dr. Phil, thank you so much for being here. Now, you had mentioned that you’ve been a mental health practitioner for 45 years, so I want to give you the last word. What wisdom or advice do you have for all of us as we turn the corner and move into 2021, 2022 and beyond?

Dr. Phil McGraw: I don’t mean to be Pollyannish about this, but I believe in the spirit of people in America, that we have the ability to land on our feet. If you look historically, we’ve been through the Great Depression. We’ve come through difficult times as recently as the last 20 years when there was an economic collapse. And we’re a divided country right now politically. And they say, oh, this is the worst it’s ever been. Well, apparently, they forgot about the civil war. No, this is not the worst that’s ever been. We come through these things and the only person you control is you. The others you can inspire, but you control you. You’ve got to ask yourself, what can I do in my life and my family to make things better? People say politics are local. No politics aren’t local. Politics are personal. Ask yourself, what am I doing to improve the rhetoric? What am I doing to improve the dialog? And then what am I doing to improve my family? If I know that I’m waking up at three o’clock in the morning hyperventilating and staring at the ceiling, get help. You’re not in this alone. And I think the most important thing people can do is to talk about their feelings because they will fastly find out that their neighbor, their aunt, their uncle, their friend, shares a lot of those feelings. Monsters live in the dark, Gabe. And if we give these things a voice, then all of a sudden they don’t seem quite so overwhelming. We give it a voice. I say a lot of people feel this way and together we’ll climb out of this. I believe in the American spirit. I believe in the American people. And I think we’ll get through this if we just decide we’re going to take action and put one foot in front of the other and stay the course. I think we will climb out of this. I really do.

Gabe Howard: Dr. Phil, thank you so, so much for being here. It’s really appreciated.

Dr. Phil McGraw: Gabe, thanks for having me. You ask wonderful questions, and I hope I was at least somewhat responsive. I go off on tangents.

Gabe Howard: Oh, tangents are no problem, I go off on them all the time. And to our listeners, if youwant to learn more about Dr. Phil, like where to get any of his nine books or what time and channel his television show is on, please visit his website, DrPhil.com. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of the book Mental Illness Is an Asshole, as well as a nationally recognized public speaker who is available to speak at your next event. You can, of course, get my book on Amazon or you can get a signed copy with free swag by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please take a moment to rate, rank and review. Also follow or subscribe. It’s absolutely free, and that way you won’t miss any future episodes. Thank you for listening and I will see everybody next Thursday here on Inside Mental Health.

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