Most states believe that the licensing of psychotherapists will "safeguard the health, safety and welfare of the citizens" of the state. This is a nice thought but does licensing really work this way? As far as I know, there is no research that has unambiguously found that licensing promises professional competence.
This is not true of all professions. For example, if your physician is what is called "board certified" there is a very good chance that she has passed some difficult requirements to reach this level. Psychologists have to jump through demanding hoops to obtain the level of Psychology Diplomate which is equivalent to a board certification.
Even these diplomas on the wall, however, can be bogus. Earlier this year the Attorney General of Connecticut issued an urgent warning to the public about the sale of bogus medical board certifications. Certification boards keep springing up around the country. For example, the Science-Based Medicine website has identified a "Pseudomedical Pseudoprofessional Organization" called the US Autism & Asperger Association (USAAA). The site identifies this organization as a scam because
USAAA Staff, Board of Directors, and Advisory Board rosters are filled with physicians and other professionals who, for the most part, lack real credentials in biomedical research related to autism. What do they have to recommend them? Overwhelmingly, they are parents of children with autism. I find it hard to muster the contempt that I usually feel for people whose pseudoscientific eruptions contribute to horrible outcomes. Instead I feel an almost futile sense of sorrow.
I remember a time in the 80s and 90s in California when increasing numbers of Master’s level students were being certified to practice psychotherapy. Soon, there were too many psychotherapists for the population and these practitioners had to find other ways to stand out from the crowd. To find ways to have an edge over the consumer’s dollar, many psychotherapists signed up for any therapy du jour class that just happened to be available. Many of these new approaches were based on pseudoscience. With more than five hundred unproven therapies available for psychotherapists, it was easy for these psychotherapists to slip into believing they were receiving training in legitimate therapies. The pull of the dollar got them to overlook the fact that there was no evidence their new therapy technique really worked. They believed in it because it seemed to make some of their clients better. These psychotherapists didn’t understand the power of the Placebo Effect and other reasons why people can get better in spite of the specific therapy.
This sad state of affairs came about because many Master’s level training programs gave short shrift to the science of psychotherapy. In a two year degree program there is often not enough time to educate students on the importance of critical thinking and the underpinnings of science for helping people. Consequently, there is wide variability among training programs so it is possible for a person to be poorly trained and still pass a licensing exam. There are psychotherapists today who are licensed and practicing who don’t think that science has anything to contribute to the field of psychotherapy.
In 1991, I presented a paper at the 99th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association about "psychology, mysticism, superstition and the paranormal" in the field of mental health. One of the examples I gave of bogus offerings to the public by psychologists was a licensed psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area who was advertising her services as a "Critter Consultant." If you had a problem with your pet you could take your beloved animal to this person and she would use her special supernatural powers to telepathically deal with your pet. My paper was called, Hungry People Who Buy Imaginary Food with Real Money (let me know if you would like a copy and I can send you a PDF version of it).
All of these bogus therapies, offered by equally bogus credentialing boards, became an irritant to a psychologist by the name of Steve K. D. Eichel. Dr. Eichel came up with a creative way to show the public how prevalent phony credentialing had become. He thought it would be interesting to see if his female companion (who had no college degree or any association with the profession of psychotherapy) could get some fancy psychotherapy credentials. He decided to see if "Dr. Katze, Ph.D." could get some bogus credentials.
Dr. Eichel found a website for credentialing lay hypnotists, paid the application fee and waited. Within a couple weeks his companion, Dr. Katze, was a certified lay hypnotist. The reason they decided on starting with this credential is that most lay hypnosis associations agree to accept without question certifications from other, similar organizations for lay hypnosis.
By using these reciprocity agreements, Dr. Katze was on her way to filling up a wall with impressive sounding and fancy looking certificates. By doing nothing more than sending organizations checks she was able to get certificates from the National Guild of Hypnotists, the American Board of Hypnotherapy, and the International Medical & Dental Hypnotherapy Association. She also became a Professional Member of the American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists.
A dream came true with so little work. If it was this easy, they decided to check out the next level called Board Certification. Now, this is serious. Physicians can practice medicine as soon as they are licensed. If they become "board certified" they are saying to the public they have achieved additional expertise in a specialty field like pediatrics or surgery. We psychologists go to the next level by working for Diplomate status which indicates we have reached the top of our profession.
An organization called the American Psychotherapy Association was originally established "to advance the profession of psychotherapy." Dr. Eichel discovered they offered the powerful credential of Diplomate. When Dr. Katze applied for this certification the American Psychotherapy Association requested both a resume and what is called a curriculum vitae (a listing of graduate classes and post-doc experience). After very little effort the computer was fired up and was able to print out some very impressive looking documents to comply with these document requests. The fake documents provided a long list of previous jobs such as having been a consultant for the bogus "Tacayllaermi Friends School" in New Castle, Delaware.
At this high level of certification, it is customary for the licensing body to request copies of corroborating documents. Although this request was fully expected, the association never asked for transcripts for the universities listed or copies of all the certificates listed, or for any copies of state required licenses to practice. This information is basic and required when applying for Diplomate Status. Additionally, after a licensing board reviews these documents, the candidate is then examined by other professionals in a face-to-face context. None of these were ever asked for. The credentialing board never met Dr. Katze.
The check went out and another certificate came in the mail within a couple weeks — and a very impressive certificate it was. Dr. Katze was now a certified Diplomate because she had passed "rigid requirements" for this status. The certificate was accompanied with a letter of congratulations for her achievement. The letter told her she belonged to a "select group of professionals who, by virtue of their extensive training and expertise, have demonstrated their outstanding abilities in regard to their specialty."
It is hard to believe that anyone without any expertise could accumulate these credentials by merely asking and paying for them, but this is what happened. It is even more inconceivable when the applicant is not a human. Yes, Dr. Katze was the name Dr. Eichel gave to his cat. His last application even gave the organization a hint to this effect by imbedding a clue. Look at the name of the Friends School in the third paragraph above this one and read the name of the school backwards. If you are interested in reading Dr. Eichel’s original article you can find it here.