When Therapy Isn’t

There have been a couple of interesting articles on therapy in the past two weeks, each taking a fairly skeptical view of the healing powers of the…discipline? field? trade? What is therapy really?

In this one in the CHE Carol Tavris elucidates the gulf between clinical psychology and therapy on the one hand, and scientific or research psychology on the other, pointing out a number of ironic and/or horrifying facts along the way. For instance there is the fact that in many of the United States it is against the law to call oneself a psychologist unless one ‘has an advanced degree in clinical psychology and a license to practice psychotherapy’ but it is entirely legal to set oneself up as a ‘therapist’ with no training at all. The results are what one would expect, which leads to another fact that shocked me profoundly: that so-called rebirthing therapy is still legal in Colorado. Silly me, I thought it had been outlawed after what happened to Candace Newmaker who was tortured to death in a ‘rebirthing,’ suffocated in her own vomit despite her cries and pleas which went on for…hours. (All because the poor child, age ten, didn’t bond with her adopted mother; gee, imagine that, she must be sick, she must have ‘Reactive Attachment Disorder,’ a fanciful ailment which can actually be found in the notoriously ever-expanding Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, don’t get me started on that…) But no, therapists kicked up a fuss, so the dangerous cruel quackery is still allowed.

The two therapists convicted in Candace’s death are now serving time in prison, but efforts in Colorado to prohibit all forms of “restraint therapy” were defeated by protests from “attachment therapists” in the state and throughout the country. After Candace’s death, one member of the Colorado Mental Health Grievance Board noted with dismay that her hairdresser’s training took 1,500 hours, whereas anyone could take a two-week course and become “certified” in rebirthing. Yet the basic premise — that children can recover from trauma, insecure attachment, or other psychological problems by “reliving” their births or being subjected to punitive and coercive restraints — has no scientific validity whatsoever.

Tavris’ point is that the therapy industry, being completely divided from psychology as a science, does a bad job of checking its own beliefs, and has a great many of them that are discredited by evidence. Therapists are not trained in skepticism and evidence-testing the way scientists are, they don’t correct for their own confirmation bias the way scientists are supposed to, they don’t worry about falsifiability. Tavris also says, however, that clinicians have a depth of insight that is rooted in their work:

I agree that therapy often deals with issues on which science is silent: finding courage under adversity, accepting loss, making moral choices. My clinician friends constantly impress me with their deep understanding of the human condition, which is based on seeing the human condition sobbing in their offices many times a week.

But it is clear that therapy and clinical psychology, and the people they treat, would benefit enormously from much closer connections with research psychologists. But Tavris sees no reason to think that’s going to happen. The split between science and the rest of the world does more harm than we generally notice.

Comments are closed.