A recent report from ABC News Australia validates what those of us in the field already know, “Poorly trained relationship counsellors (are) doing more harm than good.” According to the Australian College of Relationship Counsellors, couples experiencing marital difficulties are turning to therapists who are not well prepared but are less expensive. This is due to the fact that, in Australia, less prepared therapists are often covered under medical care reimbursement while the more expert ones are not. Research indicates that this switch to the less prepared therapists has contributed to a growth in the divorce rate.
Choosing a therapist based on financial expediency is clearly a serious mistake. According to Professor Lawrie Moloney, a part time Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, “bad therapy is worse than no therapy at all…you can actually do damage.” Not a surprising statement, yet one that is not taken seriously by the general public and far too many well-intentioned, but poorly trained or even completely untrained, do-gooders and not just for marital therapy.
Far too many individuals, some who have had only limited training at best, eagerly put out a psychotherapist shingle, just like Lucy’s psychiatry booth in the Charlie Brown series, and solicit clients. Some of these “therapists” charge very low fees to gain a following, not unlike Lucy who advertises her fee at five cents per visit, while some audaciously charge upwards of $300 per session. Either way, choosing a therapist based on how much or how little you have to pay is a serious mistake. As in the case of Australia, using a therapist that is cheaper can yield harmful results. Similarly, a therapist that charges exorbitant fees does not necessarily make them better. It only makes them more expensive.
In his book. The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols argues that nothing beats a proper education with a familiarity in a body of knowledge that can be accessed and understood. Too often, he suggests, the internet has become the primary vehicle for the incomplete transfer of knowledge and universities are seen as not doing a proper job of educating. What has developed is a society that relies on partial internet accessed information and a preponderance of the “it’s just fake news anyway” outlook. These attitudes lay the groundwork for a dismissive approach in general, which has an overwhelmingly negative impact on a person’s likelihood of receiving proper mental health care.
It’s not surprising that I am increasingly finding myself dealing, both directly and indirectly, with individuals who present themselves as psychotherapists, a title that is not licensable, along with individuals who never received a professional license to practice, never finished a course of study, never attended any professional courses, or just took a couple of online courses. There have been some high profile cases of so-called specialists who were untrained and instead of helping their patients, they abused them. The well-known cases are but the tip of the iceberg of the many acting as professional counselors though they are simply unprepared for the task and inevitably do more harm than good. Still, we see this happening when it comes to all forms of mental health counseling.
Some people are comfortable hiring unlicensed electricians or plumbers to work in their homes but they would never think to ask their hair stylist to do an angioplasty if their cardiac arteries were clogged nor would they call a rabbi first if there was a fire in their home. Why then would they take such a wrongheaded approach to their own mental health?
Mental health requires a degree of specialization and attention that is often misunderstood. That is why proper expertise, obtained with proper training, experience, and supervision, is the minimal necessary requirement for proper care. The minimal criteria for practice is a professional license. It guarantees on some level that a person has learned the basic techniques and ethical concepts of practice and provides a vehicle for discipline of a practitioner who does not conform to the standards. Similarly, being a member of a professional organization bolsters the minimal standard set by the license. It should further indicate that the practitioner is a member in good standing in their area of expertise. Anyone who was a member but lost their membership in their professional organization, likely transgressed basic, accepted standards.
When seeking mental health care do not take an expedient approach. Mental health care is a complex area, reflecting the diverse personalities and issues that humans experience in the course of living. To be dismissive of the need for education and standards for those who work in the field is to create an impenetrable smokescreen that cannot be navigated successfully, ultimately leading to collisions between fragile emotions and the stress of daily living that can easily result in additional disorders and ongoing agony.
Dr. Michael J. Salamon, Ph.D., FICCP is a fellow of the American Psychological Association, Senior Psychologist/Director of ADC Psychological Services, PLLC and the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, Abuse in the Jewish Community (Urim Publications). His website is www.psychologicalhelp.org.