Meet the Controversial Doctor Behind the Dr. Phil Empire
Frank Lawlis is an adviser to the King of Daytime TV whose practices (including a device to treat mental illness) have been deemed potentially dangerous by the scientific community: "It's predatory on people who are desperate."
Frank Lawlis possesses a deep Texas drawl, one that makes the now-iconic intonation of Dr. Phil McGraw — his decades-long friend and business associate — seem almost city-slicker by comparison. His down-home voice, along with the bolo ties, pale eyes and unkempt white hair, are a comfort to the clients who travel to his private practice from all over the country in the hope that he can help mend minds — even those minds that other doctors cannot.
The Lawlis Peavey PsychoNeuroPlasticity Center, in suburban Lewisville north of Dallas, primarily caters, by his estimate, to troubled adolescents as well as people decades older “who’ve never been able to launch themselves,” he says. A battery of tests, including brain mapping, is administered in an attempt to pinpoint the problem during a two-day visit. Only a diagnosis is provided in exchange for the $9,295 fee, not treatment.
The Lewisville center is where Lawlis screens select Dr. Phil guests as well as many clients who’ve found their way through the door because they watch the CBS-syndicated daytime show. It’s also where, in between rooms devoted to a hyperbaric chamber and a sensory deprivation compartment, Lawlis takes his seat in a remote studio for his regular Dr. Phil segments.
Lawlis, 79, holds an influential position as chief content adviser to McGraw. Drawing more than 3 million viewers each weekday, Dr. Phil has been the No. 1 syndicated talk show by a healthy margin, ahead of competitors like Ellen and Live With Kelly and Ryan, since Oprah Winfrey left broadcast TV in 2011. McGraw, who has branded himself as an authoritative voice on the nation’s public health issues, made an estimated $95 million in 2019, according to Forbes, and received a star on the Walk of Fame on Feb. 21.
Without the platform of Dr. Phil, Lawlis, who espouses ideas and treatments considered controversial and even dangerous by the mainstream medical community, might be a figure on the margins of public health. But his ability to directly impact the show’s guests, and inform its massive audience, makes him a figure of consequence.
Dr. Phil viewers recognize Lawlis from his frequent appearances as a designated expert on the show, during which McGraw treats Lawlis with notable respect, often introducing him as one the foremost authors or experts on whatever subject he’s conferring on. (Lawlis was McGraw’s Ph.D. adviser decades ago.) Beamed in from Texas and donning a white coat, Lawlis weighs in on everything from opioid dependency to autism. In a 2017 segment focused on Chase, a 19-year-old man who claimed his life had spiraled out of control after a marijuana-induced panic attack, McGraw said he was sending him to the Lewisville clinic to get a “scan of your brain.” Lawlis, who ventured that “we also might have a feature of PTSD” to explore, explained that techniques “that work very quickly” would be utilized that “will help resolve him back to where he was before.” Hearing the news back in Los Angeles on the Paramount lot, Chase and his family dissolved into hugs and tears as the crowd applauded.
While the talking-head segments are Lawlis’ most visible contribution to the show, more important is his behind-the-scenes input, acting as the guru’s guru. In coordination with producers, Lawlis vets would-be guests with psychological problems, consults with McGraw on how to advise them during their segments (despite his famed honorific, McGraw holds no license to practice medicine), examines the thorniest cases at his Texas clinic and helps coordinate treatment at favored rehab facilities. “There’s probably not a show that goes on the air that doesn’t have Dr. Lawlis’ feedback,” explains Dr. Barbara Peavey, Lawlis’ private practice partner. Lawlis also has weighed in on McGraw’s congressional testimony — the TV host has been invited to Capitol Hill to speak about mental health — and advised on his best-selling books.
Lawlis derives multiple income streams from his work with Dr. Phil — as an adviser to the show, as a proprietor of the clinic where additional services are performed on selected guests, and as a consultant to the rehab facility where many are later treated. (Guests themselves are not paid to appear on Dr. Phil.)
Even apart from his work with McGraw, Lawlis boasts an eclectic résumé. His sojourns have included heading a prayer healing foundation in Santa Fe for cancer patients, running a Silicon Valley institute dedicated to the study of transpersonal psychology — mystical experiences, spiritual crises, altered states of consciousness — and consulting on a mental wellness program pertaining to employee overwork in Japan for a division of Toyota. For the past two decades, he’s worked part-time, designing exams as the testing director for the American branch of the international high-IQ society Mensa. (He’s never applied to become a member: “I don’t think it makes ethical sense that I take the test that I already know about.”) There he sees the effect of Big Pharma — a perceived nemesis through much of his work — observing that the organization has been grappling with doping among applicants: “Adderall is a big one.”
Lawlis sees himself as an anti-establishment maverick. He fondly recalls the Dallas Police raiding a pain group he once ran at an area hospital circa 1980, during which — as an experiment in pain relief — he passed around a peace pipe whose tobacco included willow bark and sage. The authorities wanted to arrest him on a marijuana charge. “But three of the participants were actually cops, so it was dropped,” he says. “The [hospital] administration said never to do it again.”
In another incident at a medical facility in Fort Worth, Texas, he constructed a saltwater floatation tank for patient use that soon leaked into the cardiac intensive care unit below. “It turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened,” Lawlis remembers. “I walked in, expecting to be fired, and the chief of staff said, ‘Frank, don’t make anything! If you want something made, we’ll do it for you!’ He did — and it was beautiful.” Lawlis shrugs, amused. “I’m always looking over my shoulder, afraid of going to prison.”
Lawlis, who’s from a small West Texas town, contends his lifelong contrarianism was set in motion by a pair of character-establishing childhood experiences. By his account, he was “born dead,” or at least his folks told him so growing up: Because of birthing complications involving pain medication, he’d been oxygen deprived and brain damaged. “This notion existed in my family from that point on — even when I got my Ph.D.,” he says. “I had tremendous problems in school. Now it could be explained in other ways, like ADHD.”
The other defining feature shadowing his youth was his mother’s chronic ill health, largely gastric and arthritic in scope, which required more than two dozen operations. “As a kid, I lost faith in Western medicine,” Lawlis says. “I had the insight that many of my mother’s problems were psychological. My father [a pharmacist turned pharmaceutical sales representative] wanted me to be a doctor. But seeing the failure for her in terms of pills and surgery, I wanted to be somebody who could help through behavior.”
Lawlis, inspired in part by The Eleventh Hour, a 1960s NBC medical drama about psychiatry, compares his chosen vocation to a secular ministry and has taught at several schools, including the University of North Texas, where he met McGraw. His future boss stood out to Lawlis from his pupil’s first day in his doctoral-level class in advanced personality. “There were about 12 people in there, and all of them were writing notes down like crazy — except him,” Lawlis says. “He was looking at me like he already knew it. We would have conversations, and he did know it. I made a decision that he was either the dumbest guy or the smartest guy I’ve ever dealt with.”
The pair grew close, bonding over their mutual pasts as college football players and their hobbyists’ joy in piloting small planes. In the decades that followed, before national prominence on Dr. Phil, they teamed on business ventures, including a never-launched set of seminars for physicians.
Later, when McGraw had set up his litigation services firm Courtroom Sciences, which inspired the CBS drama Bull, his mentor was regularly contracted out as an expert witness in personal injury cases. “I would testify as to what money [the plaintiff] would’ve made as opposed to how much money he’s capable of now,” Lawlis says.
Since Dr. Phil‘s 2002 debut, McGraw has faced criticism over his credibility. He’s taken it all in stride. During a segment on the Late Show With David Letterman the following year, he pulled out a list of epithets (including “half-baked quack”) the host had called him and good-naturedly read them on-air. In 2017, medical news outlet STAT and The Boston Globe published an investigation into the alleged exploitation of Dr. Phil guests with addiction problems, asserting some had been allowed easy access to alcohol and drugs in immediate advance of showtime. Martin Greenberg, a psychologist who serves as Dr. Phil‘s director of professional affairs, denied the claims. Previously, McGraw found himself fighting a yearslong class-action lawsuit involving the psychotherapist customers of a service called the LearnDrPhil Network. The litigation claimed the service had, in exchange for their participation in the program, dangled referrals from the large pool of Dr. Phil viewers. Lawlis was part of the endeavor and named as a defendant in the case, which was settled in 2009. Lawlis says now of the service, “That’s gone away.”
McGraw’s engagement with celebrity mental health issues also has drawn criticism. Britney Spears’ parents said he violated their trust after he publicly spoke about a private visit with the troubled pop singer in 2008. Eight years later, a heavily promoted November sweeps episode of Dr. Phil focused on a disoriented Shelley Duvall. Mia Farrow and Ron Perlman called it exploitative. Lawlis stands by the program. “You can’t script what a person says, and sometimes the guests are their worst enemies. We don’t exploit a person’s problems,” he says. “I always think we can do better, but I think we do a better job than anybody else has ever done with the types of things we deal with.”
About 20 Dr. Phil guests cycle through the PsychoNeuroPlasticity Center each season. Its website notes it helps clients with ADHD, autism, mood disorders, OCD, PTSD and other challenges. “I can tell you that for the majority [of visitors],” Peavey explains, “it’s ‘I’ve heard about you through Dr. Phil.’ “
Peavey, who was once Lawlis’ student and now handles the administrative end of their partnership, says multiple show guests have confided that they initially contacted Dr. Phil with the specific intent to secure an expenses-covered visit to the Texas clinic. (Insurers may also cover a portion of the price tag.)
The customized screening includes a variety of diagnostic tests, among them the use of a medical instrument designed by Lawlis and his son, an electrical engineer, called the Bio-Acoustical Utilization Device, or BAUD. It emits calibrated sounds in each ear — think of drumming rhythms — with the intended benefit of influencing brain function. In 2006, the FDA granted Lawlis permission to use and sell the BAUD “for relaxation training and muscle reeducation and prescription use.” Lawlis, meanwhile, characterizes the BAUD as a panacea for a variety of health problems. “A person comes in with PTSD and you give him the BAUD and after 30 minutes it goes away,” he claims.
In 2014, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists disciplined Lawlis and Peavey for the same offense: Allowing one of their staffers, who was not licensed, to provide psychological services under their watch for more than a year. More recently, according to the agency’s records, Peavey was reprimanded for having signed an employee application to practice psychology in the state “that contained inaccurate and false information.” Peavey is prohibited until August from “providing any supervision of psychological services provided by another person.”
Lawlis was unwilling to substantively address his history with the Texas State Board. Peavey didn’t clarify either.
In addition to his partnership stake at the Texas clinic, Lawlis is a salaried consultant at Los Angeles-based Creative Care, an inpatient rehabilitation center that specializes in dual diagnosis cases (the overlap of substance abuse and mental illness) and is one of fewer than two dozen “Dr. Phil Preferred” facilities in the country, meaning it’s received his on-air seal of approval and is listed on the show’s website resource page. Show guests often receive treatment there, their cost covered by the program. In return, Dr. Phil publicizes Creative Care on-air, an arrangement that drives nearly a third of its admissions, according to the rehab. The facility treats 300 people each year. Between two and four Dr. Phil guests, who have often already visited Lawlis’ Texas assessment center, are in treatment at Creative Care during the show’s season at any given time.
Creative Care has operated for three decades in Malibu, pioneering the region’s so-called Rehab Riviera alongside Promises. Its facility on a 40-acre property just up the road from Broad Beach was wiped out by the Woolsey Fire in November 2018, so the center has temporarily resettled to a series of adjacent houses in Woodland Hills, where it can treat up to 24 clients. Lawlis visits for several days each month and works daily by email and phone.
Around the time of the fire, Dr. Farrah Khaleghi, the 30-year-old, recently credentialed psychologist daughter of Creative Care’s husband-and-wife co-founders, was appointed its clinical director. “Dr. Lawlis calls me ‘the phoenix,’ ” she explains during a visit to the facility in October. “I wanted to fine-tune all of our program elements. We survived. Let’s use this opportunity for a rebirth.” Though her parents have had an affiliation with Lawlis and Dr. Phil for more than 15 years, Khaleghi has leaned into Lawlis’ methods to put her own stamp on the program — a majority of the facility’s clients now utilize some component of Lawlis’ “Neuroplasticity Transformation Program,” which includes use of a sensory deprivation chamber designed to his specifications.
The chamber is a heated waterbed in which clients, cloaked in darkness, speak to their therapist or listen to music. Close to half of those in treatment at Creative Care also make use of the BAUD: “It’s an extra layer of support,” says Khaleghi. “For our population that’s so acute, with really serious mental health and addiction issues, the more tools the better.”
By Khaleghi’s account, her staff’s use of Lawlis’ techniques as a complement to the overall treatment regimen has been helpful in convincing clients not to self-discharge during their first month in residence, a common challenge for inpatient rehabs. “Sometimes people that really struggle with nervous system agitation — itchy people that are always kind of fidgety — neuroplasticity is a way to regulate them, to settle them down so they’re not acting out as much and leaving,” she says. “The first three or four weeks are super-vulnerable and this is soothing.”
Khaleghi notes that the clients often find Lawlis’ methods appealing because they’re a departure from prescription treatment. “It’s not invasive, it’s not ‘artificial,’ it’s really present-focused and organic,” she says.
Creative Care has its own troubles, past and present. In 2012, the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes produced a report, “Rogue Rehabs,” about how the state “failed to police drug and alcohol homes, with deadly results.” Creative Care was a key case study. The report noted that the facility had “offered medical care, contrary to state law, for 10 years.”
In December, after THR‘s visit, California’s Department of Health Care Services suspended its license following two client deaths. According to the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, on Feb. 16, 2019, a 54-year-old woman died by suicide on-site, and on July 4, a 26-year-old man died of a fentanyl overdose. (A representative for Dr. Phil says that neither was a show guest.) “We have no comment,” Khaleghi wrote by email when asked about these developments.
Lawlis and McGraw have recently cut ties with Creative Care, and the rehab has scrubbed its website of Dr. Phil material at the TV host’s request. “Phil doesn’t want anybody to think that he sent anybody to a program that has had its license suspended,” Lawlis explains.
McGraw — who declined to participate in this story — wouldn’t say why the facility had long persisted as a preferred provider of care despite its public record. He also wouldn’t elaborate on Dr. Phil‘s vetting process for the treatment facilities it directs its guests and viewers toward.
A CBS spokesperson for the program did, however, provide a statement. “The platform provides the opportunity for guests to connect with and avail themselves to a variety of health care providers, including individual therapy, outpatient and inpatient facilities,” it reads. “In doing so, guests meet with the resource representatives and decide for themselves if they choose to participate or not. By forming working relationships with hundreds of quality professionals and facilities, it is expected that these independent resources comply with the laws and regulations of their governing licensing or regulatory agencies. Upon being notified of alleged activity that raises significant regulatory concerns regarding any of these resources, the working relationship is terminated until the matter has been resolved within the rules and guidelines governing state agency or board.”
Lawlis is strikingly confident about the BAUD, comparing his breakthroughs to Charles Goodyear’s discovery of vulcanized rubber. By his account, 86 patients were treated by 19 therapists in a study he conducted, and “all were significantly improved, with most having no more symptoms in three sessions or less,” he wrote in his 2015 book Psychoneuroplasticity Protocols for Addictions. (He’s published more than a dozen books on various subjects.)
Yet despite such an impressive suggested outcome, other researchers have since ignored the device. This is because, Lawlis acknowledges, his own study was never accepted for publication. “Credibility is an issue,” he says.
Lawlis — who has been published in peer-reviewed outlets like Spine and the Journal of Psychosomatic Research — blames conflict-of-interest policies for his inability to gain scientific traction for the BAUD. “I can’t get it through a review committee,” he says. “They say, ‘I’m sorry, you have a self-interest in this. That’s a problem.’ “
Dr. Stephen Barrett, a psychiatrist and peer-review panelist for several top medical journals, has been skeptical of the BAUD for years, listing it as a questionable medical instrument on his anti-fraud watchdog website, Device Watch. “Conflict of interest isn’t a legitimate reason not to be published,” he says. “If the study is appropriate, journals simply disclose the conflict. The more likely reason he hasn’t been published is that his research hasn’t been adequate.”
Lawlis contends the BAUD is useful for addressing not just PTSD but drug addiction, ADHD, depression, anxiety, phobia and pain. Barrett believes this transgresses the FDA’s allowance, observing in particular that use for depression could be dangerous. “If the device is not effective, and you represent that it treats depression, you may be dealing with people who have the potential for suicide,” he says.
Lawlis and Peavey have other views that counter prevailing accepted science. They question childhood immunization scheduling standards that have been established by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “My theory is that if the child is still dealing with the mother’s immune system,” ventures Lawlis, “maybe in some instances the vaccines confuse the whole immune system. But if you wait a little longer, where you have more of a balanced person that can incorporate it, that might be the solution.” The pair also express unease about what they perceive as the pernicious effects of mercury in vaccines, principally the MMR inoculation (scientific consensus has determined it’s safe), believing such shots may be responsible for some of the problems their clients face.
Lawlis’ belief that mercury may, as he put it in his 2010 book, The Autism Answer, induce “a cascade of poor auto-immune reactions which produce autistic behaviors,” has led him to advocate for an unproven application of chelation therapy, a detoxification process in which heavy metals and minerals are removed from the body. The FDA has approved chelation therapy for heavy metal toxicity, such as lead poisoning, but warns against unapproved use for autism disorders.
Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a toxicology expert and co-head of the National Capital Poison Center in Washington, D.C., is alarmed. “Putting aside that the idea that vaccines cause autism has been widely discredited, this treatment approach is both unreliable and may even have negative effects,” she says, noting that chelation also can have the deleterious consequence of extracting nutrients, from electrolytes to potassium. “There is no medical basis for it.”
While Peavey speaks of chelation as an active component of the Texas practice, Lawlis claims “we have not used it for the last three or four years at all.”
Lawlis ventures other arguable contentions as well. In 2008’s Retraining the Brain (which McGraw blurbed, touting “groundbreaking techniques that can dramatically improve our lives”), he connects exposure to TV and video games after the age of 7 to ADD diagnosis. “The dust that comes from the heat shields and sound-proofing in the back of color television sets has been shown to have very negative effects on hormone levels and disruption of cognitive abilities,” he writes. When asked about the evidence, he responds: “Well, let me just say this. I’m not at liberty to reveal the sources. But it has to do with some people I know in Washington that have been studying these waveforms, especially that come from cellphones and other sources.”
At a Tex-Mex restaurant north of Dallas, Lawlis sweepingly dismisses the legitimacy of double-blind studies, the placebo-controlled, randomized trials that are a cornerstone of medical research. He argues that humans are too complex to provide a true control group. Regardless, “I read through the journals and they’re not making any headway,” anyway. “If you read the [studies’] titles, it’s amazing how stupid the findings are: ‘Children From Conflictual Families Don’t Do Well.’ ” He goes on, “We haven’t learned a goddamn thing from that particular approach.”
Lawlis’ wife, Dr. Susan Franks, a neuropsychologist on the faculty at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Worth, contextualizes his view. “Where he gets frustrated is, because the double-blind trial puts everything in a box, how do you start moving out of the box?” she says. “How does science advance? He’s just so outside the box. He’s bringing in concepts and integrating everything and coming up with creative approaches.”
As a contrast, Franks points to herself and other academic subspecialists. They’re “very focused on the science and the numbers, and we’re not the most creative people.” She adds, “the data can’t show everything.”
Dr. Nina Shapiro, an extensively published UCLA surgeon and author of Hype: A Doctor’s Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims and Bad Advice, takes issue with the couple’s outlook. “It’s predatory on people who are desperate, on people who are seeking some sort of ‘alternative,’ ” she says. “If you’re someone with charisma and a following, it’s enticing to a captive audience. But it’s sad.”
Lawlis’ latest book, Healing Rhythms to Reset Wellness, will be published in April. He wrote it last year following “an a-ha moment when I was studying string theory and, at the same time, I was reading about Egypt’s ancient medicine.” The treatise, which underscores his break from the strictures of hard science — “double-blind research,” he writes, “doesn’t take into account how human healing happens” — contends that treating illness is about balancing circadian rhythms. “The reason we get sick,” Lawlis says, “is that we get out of tune with our rhythms.”
McGraw penned the book’s foreword. “He offers works of magnitude, not frivolity, not pop psychology, not trends,” he writes of his mentor, going on to extol their half-century relationship. “In everything he does, Dr. Lawlis’ impact has been profound.”
Email Gary Baum at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.