Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Why Should Mental Health Practitioners Be Licensed?
Some weeks ago, when I had written a post about the Oregon psychologist Kali Miller and the revocation of her license (http://childmyths.blogspot.com/2015/03/psychology-license-revoked-become.html), one Robert Plamondon commented with severe criticism of psychology licensing boards and advice that unhappy clients of psychologists should sue the practitioners directly instead of going through the licensing board. I pointed out in response that when children were the patients, they did not have the capacity to sue for personal injury, and if their parents had made the decision to seek the treatment, or even carried out some of the treatment themselves, the parents would probably not bring suit on the children’s behalf (behalves?).
I see now that Plamondon has a web site, www.unlicensed-practitioner.com, which purports to provide resources to help alternative and unlicensed practitioners operate “legally and ethically” in Oregon. As far as I can tell, Plamondon objects to decisions made by the Oregon board of psychologist examiners, but in addition he favors mental health treatment by unlicensed persons in a general sort of way. This may be in part because he himself is practicing as a hypnotherapist.
I would be the first to admit that national professional organizations like the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers have strong “guild” mentalities and are much concerned about their professional hegemony. The current scandal about the involvement of APA with approval of torture is evidence that focusing on putting the profession forward can interfere with everyday ethical decisions, not to speak of professional ethics. But to my mind these are not reasons to abandon regulation through licensure and other methods.
Why do I think this? What are the advantages to the public of licensing mental health professionals? Why, especially, do the educational requirements for licensure benefit the public? There are two primary reasons for requiring practitioners to meet licensing standards and to do so through formal education-- and neither of them has much to do with whether the practitioner has learned specific techniques of therapy.
The first concern has to do with education about the nature of evidence and the ways we can test the effectiveness of treatments. Plamondon himself states that the major difference between psychologists and counselors is that psychologists are trained to do scientific research. From the point of view of patients, there is probably no advantage to visiting a practitioner who is doing actual research (i.e., collecting data systematically), but there is an enormous advantage to going to someone who can read research, which few people are able to do well unless they have studied research methods. Practicing psychologists, social workers, and other mental health professionals should be capable of understanding when research evidence supports the use of a treatment method, when there is no such support, and when a treatment is potentially harmful to patients. No licensure can insure that practitioners do their homework, but licensing standards can require that professionals have gone through the formal educational process that should provide them with the skills to understand research evidence.
Unlicensed practitioners may be competent and careful about the evidence basis of the treatments they use, but it appears likely that most of them are not. This point is made by Plamondon’s tendency to refer to “unlicensed and alternative” practitioners. Alternative practitioners by definition use methods that lack evidence of effectiveness; if this were not the case, there would be nothing “alternative” about them. Plamondon himself displays his lack of concern with evidence of treatment effectiveness by his references to such methods as Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and sensorimotor psychotherapy. These therapies, which Plamondon apparently finds admirable, are without acceptable research support. It is not illegal to use them, but it would be difficult to argue that such use is demonstrably in the best interest of the public. In some cases, methods used by alternative practitioners are not only ineffective, but potentially harmful—as in the case of “conversion” therapy and the related “holding” therapy.
These facts lead us to a second issue about education required by licensing standards. Licensed mental health practitioners have to show that they have been through educational programs that included study of professional ethics. Unlicensed practitioners may be perfectly ethical people in their daily lives, but may be without training in some of the special issues of professional ethics. For example, in daily life, it is “not nice” but not strictly unethical to tell a juicy piece of gossip that has been disclosed to us; in mental health practice, confidentiality is an ethical obligation that may be handled well only if someone has been trained to think clearly about conflicting motives and benefits. (Does the psychologist tell a patient’s family member that the patient seems to be considering suicide? ) Similarly, in daily life, it does no harm for someone to socialize with a person he employs or works for; in mental health work, the wearing of “two hats” in dual relationships creates a variety of ethical problems, which may be avoided only when earlier training and practice have alerted a practitioner. No one would claim that all licensed mental health professionals are always able to make the right choices in professional ethics (as any state’s list of disciplinary decisions shows), but a requirement of appropriate education excludes from practice persons who have never received formal instruction about ethical choices.
In his earlier comment, Plamondon suggested that patients who have been injured should bring personal suits against mental health practitioners rather than bringing a complaint to a licensing board. Let me point out that personal injury suits are time-limited and in some states cannot be brought more than a year after the event that caused the claimed injury. Although it can happen that the time limit clock starts when the person realizes that an injury was done, in that case the defense for a practitioner may be a motion to dismiss the case because the individual “should have known” earlier that there had been an injury caused by a treatment. A number of suits by adults who were harmed by inappropriate mental health practices when they were children have failed because the individuals did not manage to understand that they had been harmed and to find counsel for several years after the 18th birthday. Thus personal injury suits are often ineffective ways to obtain redress for people who have been harmed by alternative mental health practices. Similarly, suits for fraudulent deception are likely to fail either on the ground that an injury or loss cannot be clearly demonstrated, or on the ground that the practitioner believed the treatment would be effective and not harmful. Protection of commercial speech in the United States makes fraud even more difficult to prove.
Because of the difficulties of finding justice for people who have been harmed by alternative or unlicensed mental health practitioners, I would argue that in spite of many and various holes in the system, the best choice for the patient is a licensed mental health practitioner, and the best governmental choice is to continue and strengthen licensing requirements.