Recently, I listened to an episode of the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) podcast series, which features prerecorded interviews with counselors on issues related to the profession. Thus far, I’ve only listened to one episode (#36) of the podcast, but it was an alarming one with which to start. Episode 36, titled Integrating Energy Modalities into Traditional Counseling, featured a licensed professional counselor (LPC) named Paige Valdiserri who discussed integrating pseudoscientific approaches (ex. reiki, energetic body dialogue, biodynamic craniosacral trauma therapy, etc) into practice along with legitimate counseling theories. This is especially troubling because the podcast is an official production of the ACA, which bills itself as “the world’s largest association exclusively representing professional counselors in various practice settings.” Another disappointing feature of this episode was the manner in which Rebecca Daniel-Burke, the podcast’s host, questioned the interviewee.
Although Daniel-Burke did ask some important questions, she failed to get the interviewee to provide meaningful answers. Daniel-Burke could have used this opportunity to critically examine the proposed mechanisms of the “energy work” Valdiserri advocates by asking follow-up questions that sought to reveal what evidence exists for “energy work.” Instead, we merely hear Daniel-Burke provide verbal affirmations, describing Valdiserri’s points as “interesting” and saying things like, “Yeah, that totally makes sense!” As an interviewer, Daniel-Burke was highly ineffective for this reason.
Valdiserri and Daniel-Burke frame the discussion inappropriately. The interview portrays such pseudoscientific practices as useful adjuncts to traditional counseling approaches. To clients, framing the discussion this way not only confers legitimacy to these dubious practices, but it elevates them as superior to traditional approaches. Subtly, Valdiserri implies that practitioners who do not use such methods are inferior because they do not consider such things as energy pathways and other, ambiguous phenomena. However, upon critical examination, it is easy to see that Valdiserri’s methods lack sufficient evidence; she only provides anecdotal evidence posted on her website. Her “case studies” are merely testimonials from her own clients and they do not actually provide evidentiary support for her claims. Also, her mixture of pseudoscientific practices with traditional theories confounds her ability to determine whether “energy work” actually works in the way she proposes.
Valdiserri makes statements that suggest specific mechanisms are at work in her “energy work.” For example, she frequently repeats the refrain that “trauma lodges itself in the body” (ex. listen at the 07:10 mark) and claims that “trauma and stress reside in the fluids, the autonomic nervous system, [and] the body’s musculoskeletal system.” While it isn’t necessarily incorrect to say that people with mental illnesses often have complaints involving pain, stiffness, soreness, sleep problems, etc, Valdiserri’s proposal is far more specific. She treats the construct of trauma as a discrete, tangible object that needs to be physically “released” (whatever that means) from the body. She even claims that trauma is “in the fluid, but not of the fluid.” When asked to explain what that means, Valdiserri gets even more specific. She claims that “trauma isn’t actually made up of the fluid, it’s in the fluid, so it can be released, so when that’s released, fluids go back to its normal pattern of how the body needs to restore and feel.” (At 9:54 in the audio.) Then, she says, “It lodges in the autonomic nervous system.”
By mixing medical jargon with her quack theories about trauma, she makes the theory sound like a legitimate, well-researched explanation. This is a common tactic of people who peddle pseudoscience. Creationists often engage in similar tactics in order to portray intelligent design as a legitimate theory of cosmology. Clients come to counselors when they are particularly vulnerable, such as when they are extremely depressed, anxious, or even suicidal. Since clients often view counselors as experts, practitioners who use pseudoscientific methods with their clients put their clients at risk of real harm. Many clients may simply accept that the counselor’s views are based on sound theories and on evidence. Those who do not accept such views may leave one practitioner and never pursue counseling again, perhaps believing that all counselors subscribe to such theories. Either way, nobody wins.
The fact that one practitioner subscribes to these theories is unsurprising. The fact that the ACA provided Valdiserri with a platform to spread her views is unconscionable. The ACA Code of Ethics requires that practitioners “use techniques/procedures/modalities that are grounded in theory and/or have an empirical or scientific foundation.” Unfortunately, the “and/or” part of the code may provide practitioners like Valdiserri a way to comply with the code while simultaneously adhering to pseudoscientific “energy” theories. However, the spirit of the code still clearly implies that counseling methods should have a scientific foundation. When practitioners like Valdiserri make specific, unsupported claims, such theories should be repudiated by organizations such as the ACA.
There is, of course, room for disagreement among counselors on what theories to use with clients. It is both unrealistic to expect and undesirable to pursue uniform agreement among practitioners on what theories to use in the absence of substantial, convergent evidence that a particular theory works especially well. Despite this, there needs to be a benchmark that professionals can use to dismiss theories that are obviously untenable. In the meantime, a small step toward encouraging critical thinking in counseling practitioners begins with asking tough questions and persistently asking for evidence of claims. An even better step would be for online media, such as the ACA podcast, to be selective about who is interviewed. Valdiserri’s energy theories can be summarily dismissed after a simple glance at her website. Next time, why not use some discretion in deciding who gets the ACA’s bullhorn?