Any seasoned therapist knows a fair number of other counselors, some casually, some quite well. We refer patients to a few of these people and steer clear of making referrals to others. The reason for the latter is pretty simple: doubts about their skills. That raises a second question: should their patients have the same uncertainties?
Going to the doctor in the days before there were lots of different types of medical professionals was a no-brainer. The doc was the expert. The medical model required the patient to submit to the physician’s ministrations. You were passive, he was active, and everything was supposed to work without much thought on your part.
To begin, there are many different types of counselors: clinical psychologists, psychiatrists (some of whom only prescribe medication), psychiatric social workers, marital and family therapists, licensed clinical professional counselors, and other titles. The first two are doctoral level practitioners, the rest most often hold masters degrees. The type and extent of training varies.
Then there are an enormous number of therapeutic approaches. Here, for example, you will find descriptions of 30 different kinds and this list does not include all the specialities within each type: http://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/counselling.html
The plethora of therapy modes creates a dilemma for the patient. At bottom, the issue is trust:
- Is the doc expert at the precise model of treatment best suited to my condition?
- Is the type of therapy he might recommend for me empirically validated? Empirical validation refers to a large body of well-controlled research demonstrating that therapy approach X for diagnosis Y produces better results than either no treatment or a placebo.
If you multiply the number of diagnoses by the number of approaches to treatment, you come up with a number so large as to confuse many patients. Indeed, we can say with certainty that there is no therapist who is expert in each approach for every type of diagnosis. Mental health professionals must therefore narrow their focus to a limited number of diagnoses and a small selection of approaches to those diagnoses.
Most practitioners possess training and experience in one or more forms of healing Depressive and Anxiety Disorders. They may not be prepared, however, to take on all subtypes under these headings. Thus, for example, a person who accepts patients with Anxiety Disorders might not be prepared to work with all 10 of the coded diagnoses listed below the broad descriptor “Anxiety Disorders:”
- 309.21 Separation Anxiety Disorder
- 312.23 Selective Mutism
- 300.29 Specific Phobia
- 300.23 Social Anxiety Disorder
- 300.01 Panic Disorder
- 300.22 Agoraphobia
- 300.02 Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- 293.84 Anxiety Disorder Due to Another Medical Condition
- 300.09 Other Specified Anxiety Disorder
- 300.00 Unspecified Anxiety Disorder
Why an Empirically Validated Treatment is Important? An Example:
Given all the issues mentioned, consulting a therapist who can diagnose and recommend the treatment most likely to help is crucial.
Here is an example of how this might best work in practice. The recommended and empirically validated treatments for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) include Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) or medication, with a 70% effectiveness rate overall. Our hypothetical patient is hamstrung whenever leaving his home, his office, his car, etc. He checks over and over whether he has locked everything for fear of an irrational catastrophe. This causes him to waste an hour or more a day. Our friend is late for appointments, work, and social events, angering many people and placing his job and family relationships in jeopardy.
If one were to treat this gentleman with ERP, the therapist and patient would together rank those situations that are the least anxiety provoking to the ones most upsetting. The client would then be exposed to a fear-inducing event at the low end of the list, having agreed not to engage in his usual compulsive checking despite his turmoil. The patient’s fight against the urge to check is the portion of treatment called response prevention. The expected outcome is a diminution in his fear and checking as he repeats these exposures without confirming the security of the lock. The patient gradually faces the more unsettling items on the hierarchy until the troubling behavior is eliminated.
Traditional talk therapy, designed to uncover the underlying “reasons” for such compulsivity, is ineffective in treating OCD. At this point in the history of this condition, if a therapist chooses to provide a treatment not meeting the standard for “best practices,” he risks not only his patient’s well-being, a waste of his money, and a squandering of his time, but a malpractice suit.
What Increases the Risk of a Therapist Not Choosing an Empirically Validated Treatment (Assuming It Exists)?
At least three possible reasons:
- He is unaware of the research pointing to the recommended approach.
- He doesn’t “believe” in the validated mode of therapy.
- He doesn’t possess the training to deliver it properly.
As noted above, therapists are not schooled in every method of doing their job. They perform in a competitive field, especially in large urban areas, and are under downward pressure from insurance companies regarding their fees. There is the possibility of unconscious self-persuasion of the knowledge and skill to treat a wider range of conditions than close scrutiny would justify, thus enlarging the potential pool of patients who might consult them. All health practitioners are required to spend more time documenting their work than previous generations of peers. Therapy clients also often desire evening or weekend appointments, creating an incentive for the doc to be available for sessions during “leisure” hours. Any of these factors can unintentionally limit the time needed to keep up with the latest research and receive the necessary training.
Depending on the practitioner’s location and discipline, there are requirements for continuing education. Licensed psychologists in Illinois must take at least 24 hours of continuing education every two years to maintain their practice. At least three hours cover professional ethics. No other directives point him toward a particular area of knowledge. In other words, these requirements are not guaranteed to remedy any shortfall in competence to treat OCD or any other particular disorder.
What You Can Do:
Where does this leave you, the present or future patient?
Counselors almost all mean well, but we all should recognize “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It is in your power to do the following:
- As early as possible, understand what the initials after your therapist’s name mean, e.g. M.D., Ph.D., L.C.S.W., etc. This is not meant to disparage any particular group, all of whom include excellent practitioners. Rather, knowing this gives you the most basic information about the counselor’s background.
- Learn about the kind of training he received subsequent to his degree and what he specializes in, both in terms of diagnosis and approach to treatment.
- Ask him why he is suggesting a particular approach and find out what other approaches exist, and, especially whether they have been empirically validated. It should be noted empirically validated therapies do not exist for every diagnosis.
- Be sure to confirm, as much as possible, whatever you are told by doing your own research.
Once again, I’m not assuming any wrong doing by your counselor. However, remember, you are dealing with another human being, no matter how kind or intelligent.
As an old Russian proverb tell us, “trust but verify.”