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Charlie Sheen, TV Quacks and Armchair Psychology

January 27, 2016

I'm concerned about Charlie Sheen. Like, genuinely concerned. It's not because he disclosed he is HIV positive. It's not because as of late he looks like a character on The Walking Dead. It's not because he went off his antiretrovirals to take an alternative treatment method (well, I am concerned about that, but not as much).

It's because he clearly has a mental health issue and the people in his life who are supposed to protect him are putting him in a precarious position. Especially the people with fancy letters behind their name like M.D., M.B.B.S., and F.A.C.S.

Let me make this very clear statement: I am not a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist or any type of mental health worker. I am a writer who likes how science and public policy come together (or not) in health care.

That being said, as an armchair doctor, Charlie Sheen is bipolar. He's been showing signs for years.

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Bipolar disorder is a mental health disease, also known as manic depression. People with bipolar disorder have instances of extremely high energy, a feeling of euphoria and things of that nature, coupled with periods of severe depression. It's not like when you might be down a bit because you didn't get that job or because someone called you fat. It's a severe depressive state, which can cause feelings of worthlessness and thoughts of suicide.

During part one of the two-part interview with TV huckster Mehmet Oz, M.D., F.A.C.S., Dr. Oz asked Charlie if he received a diagnosis of manic depression from a mental health provider, to which Charlie responded, "I've been diagnosed as that, I've been described as that."

"It's just people's ... certain medical people's personal opinion that I might be bipolar."

So, Kudos to Dr. Oz for recognizing, "hey, a lot of what Charlie says and his actions, seems like a mental health problem. Maybe he's a manic depressive." Yes, kudos for doing your job.

As a cardiothoracic surgeon who was trained at Harvard and with practices at New York Presbyterian's Weill Cornell campus and Columbia campus, he should be able to recognize these noticeable symptoms.

A PGY-1* who went to an off-shore medical school is trained to recognize those noticeable symptoms.

This may come as a shock, but many people with mental health issues fail to acknowledge that they need help. So often when we see our PCP or cardiologist or whomever, they ask questions to find out how you're doing. Do you think your PCP is dying to know how you're sleeping? Or why you gained 10 pounds? They might be asking because these are often telltale signs of a mental illness.

You might be saying, Dr. Oz is the host of a daytime talk show, what do you expect him to do for Charlie Sheen?

It's not what I expect him to do, but rather what I don't expect him to do. I don't expect a clinician to put ratings ahead of the health and stability of a person who is clearly vulnerable. Whether or not you feel Charlie Sheen is an asshole who's "gotten what he deserves," he still has issues that need to be addressed by the conventional medical establishment, which Dr. Oz took a pledge to uphold.

Dr. Oz was quick to question the credentials of Samir Chachoua, M.B.B.S., the alternative medicine doctor Charlie was reportedly seeing. And rightly so; this guy claims to have cured AIDS and cancer.

I'm interested to know exactly what kind of cancer since there are more than 100 known types of cancer. Maybe his cancer treatment cures all forms of cancer, which would be fascinating because last time I checked, the kind of treatment options available for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma are wildly different from those available for penile cancer.

And, as far as I know, you can't cure AIDS because you can't cure a syndrome. AIDS stands for "acquired immunodeficiency syndrome." It's considered the final stage of an HIV infection, based on several criteria. People don't die from AIDS; they die from complications related to AIDS. So to cure something that can't be cured is pretty freaking interesting.

But I found it interesting that Dr. Oz didn't question the credentials of Charlie's conventional medicine doctor, Robert Huizenga, M.D. Sure, Dr. Huizenga did go to a reputable medical school -- Harvard Medical School -- and trained at a nationally ranked residency program. But what Dr. Oz and Dr. Huizenga failed to mention was that Dr. Huizenga is a sports medicine specialist.

Now granted, he is a board-certified internal medicine physician, so he could be Charlie's primary care physician -- but that is unlikely as most HIV-positive people go to an infectious disease specialist.

Funny thing about doctors is that they are pretty useless outside of their specialty area. Don't tell them I said that.

Sure, a cardiologist or PCP might know to recognize the signs of depression, a sports medicine or doctor of any specialty should know how to care for an HIV-positive person, but that doesn't make them an expert in that area. Board certifications were invented to test a doctor's knowledge and aptitude in a particular area to ensure they are "experts" in that field.

I guess that didn't matter to Dr. Oz or his TV doctor colleague, Dr. Huizenga. This show was more about exploiting Charlie Sheen than helping him or educating the public about what it's like to be living with HIV.

Sadly, this is a trend in the TV doctoring market. TV doctors, while dashingly handsome, extraordinarily in shape and extremely affable, seem to lack empathy, basic science knowledge and just suck at their jobs.

In some cases, the mix of fancy titles, fragile patients and extraordinarily bad advice leaves you with a funky fish stew.

In March, Phillip McGraw, Ph.D., better known as Dr. Phil came under fire, yet again, for the handling of his interview with Nick Gordon, the boyfriend of the late Bobbi Kristina Brown. Despite recognizing that Nick was high on Xanax and alcohol, he continued to film the young man having a total meltdown. I guess for posterity. (BTW "Dr." Phil is not a licensed psychologist, he lost his license some time ago.)

A study published in the British Medical Journal found that about a 14 percent of claims made on the show The Doctors were contradictory to current scientific evidence, about a quarter could not be substantiated at all. What might be worse, at least for Dr. Oz, nearly 15 percent of the claims made on his show were contrary to what's been reported in scientific literature. There was no evidence to support or reject 49 percent of the claims made on his show.

David Drew Pinsky, M.D., better known as Dr. Drew, actually has a body count associated with his defunct show, Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew. Five celebrity patients died after receiving treatment through Dr. Drew's show. Dr. Drew is an addiction medicine specialist.

Of the five patients who died, four were found to have drugs in their system at the time of their death. The fifth person committed suicide. Following these events, Dr. Drew went on a rather public campaign of blaming his now dead patients for their actions. He did not, however, bring up how his method of treatment included filming people at their lowest moments and airing it on television as entertainment.

So, yeah, I'm concerned for Charlie Sheen. And anyone else who is so wounded and desperate to seek help that they see the only solution is to go to a public forum and air their dirty laundry. And I'm concerned for the clinicians who think that's OK.

*PGY-1 refers to the post graduate year numerical system used in the United States to denote the progress of postgraduate dental, medicine, podiatry or pharmacy residents in their residency programs. For some programs -- such as pediatrics pathology, general surgery, OB/GYN, among others -- the PGY-1 is called an internship.

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Charlie Sheen & HIV


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Althea Fung

Althea Fung

Althea wants to live in a world where adequate health care and health education is accessible to everyone.

As a journalist, she's written on health and health care policy for The Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, The National Journal in D.C., The Jersey Journal in New Jersey and a variety of health care organizations across the country. Althea is currently the community editor for TheBody.com, where she helps coordinate the blog contributions and reports on HIV-related news and events.

When she's not writing and editing, Althea is trying to turn her daydreams into the next blockbuster movie by osmosis.

Althea's hobbies include obsessively re-reading books by Octavia Butler, napping, pretending to be a doctor and watching police procedural dramas. Her favorite doctors are House M.D., Doc Martin and the subway skin savior Dr. Zizmor.

Email your questions, concerns and comments to afung@thebody.com. To find out what Althea's up to, follow her on Twitter, stalk her on Facebook and like her photos on Instagram. For random musings and her thoughts on health care, visit her website, altheafung.com.


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