On October 2, 2009 a Newsweek article caught my attention that I just can’t stop thinking about. Granted, I am a few weeks behind in my reading so I really just read this about 2 weeks ago, but that’s beside the point. In this particular artical (Ignoring the Evidence) Sharon Begley makes the assertion that therapists do not understand nor use evidence based treatments in their practice. She also asserted that Clinical Psychology programs did not teach students how to be consumers of the literature. In addition, she implies that cognitive and behavioral techniques are the only interventions that can work in therapy. By the time I finished this article, I was incensed. Since that time, I have been ruminating about her article and decided to take some of my own advice and journal (or in this case blog) about it.
I think the main reason this article made me as angry as it did was that it only perpetuates the feelings that are already out there among people considering therapy. They’ve seen every episode of Law and Order where the therapist is sleeping with her clients and killing their spouses. They’ve seen all the news stories that talk about rebirthing “therapy.” All Ms. Begley, who, by the way, does not hold a degree in psychology, did with her article was create yet another stereotype. This is the therapist who despite the science, continues to use treatments that do not and will not work. Along with this stereotype, Begley also seems to be saying that psychology consists mainly of hocus pocus and maybe a little bit of luck.
To me, this was an extremely dangerous article that had the potential to dissuade someone on the fence about therapy from getting the help they need. Of course, as in every profession, there are some therapists who don’t know what they’re doing or who use interventions that harm rather than help their clients. Contrary to what Begley would have us believe, this is not the norm. Here are the facts about therapists and their training in research. Every doctoral level therapist has completed at least two courses in research design and statistics, most have three. They also have to complete a research project in which they either conduct their own original research or use the research of others to propose a new theory. If there therapist graduated from an accredited program, they also learned to consume the research of others and apply it to the work that they do. And what of Begley’s assertion that cognitive and behavioral therapy is the only therapy supported by research. That is blatantly not true. In reality, the bulk of the research shows that the strength of the relationship with your therapist is what really determines outcome, not which technique said therapist uses. Does this mean that if you have a good relationship with your therapist that any technique will work? Absolutely not, and I don’t know a therapist who would make this assertion. Every therapist knows that some techniques work better for some problems than others. For instance, if you are going to therapy in order to conquer your fear of flying and your therapist is analyzing your relationship with your father, you may want to find a new therapist. Sure, any therapist worth their salt will learn something about your family history in the first few sessions. But that therapist will also know that the best way to treat fears is to expose the person to the feared object or situation and help them reduce their anxiety.
It is always important for a profession to take a critical look at its shortcomings. This is especially true in psychology where others put their trust in you at their most vulnerable. However, false allegations only hurt those who truly need the help that therapy can offer when done well. If you are in therapy now and feel that your therapist is practicing below an acceptable level, then you should find a new therapist. You should also express your concerns to whoever oversees the licensing process in your state. It is their job to protect the public and ensure a standard of care. If you ever have questions about what your therapist is asking you to do, voice them. Regardless of how good your therapist is, you will only get out of the therapy what you put into it. Oh, and if your therapist starts talking about rebirthing – run.