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Stop casualties of pop therapy


Martha A. Churchill

"Stay in there with the poop and vomit," ordered the therapist, Connell Watkins, moments before her young patient died. Watkins, a Denver area therapist, held her face close to the little girl's and shouted at her repeatedly while the girl messed her pants, begging for air.

Candace Newmaker, age 10, was the subject of "rebirthing" therapy intended to cure behavior problems with her adoptive mother. For more than an hour, the girl was rolled into a flannel blanket while four therapists, including Watkins, pushed on her with pillows or sat on her to simulate birth contractions.

Candace did not die quietly. "I'm going to die. Now!" she called out from under the pillows, choking for air.

"Go ahead and die," Watkins retorted. By the time therapists unwrapped Candace, the girl's face was blue, and she had no pulse. She died the next day of asphyxiation.

Watkins and one assistant, Julie Ponder, both received guilty verdicts for child abuse resulting in death more than a week ago, after prosecutors played a videotape of the rebirthing session for jurors. The two face possible prison terms of 16 to 48 years.

The taped rebirthing session was chilling. "You said you would give me oxygen," Candace was heard crying. "You gotta fight for it," Watkins shot back, pressing harder on the couch pillows.

But the really chilling thing about the "rebirthing" casualty is the pop psychology, fad-of-the-day culture among many therapists, including some in Michigan. Unproven, dangerous practices spread around a national grapevine of irresponsible mental health practitioners. Certain ones latch on to a particular idea, like converts to a new religion, and won't let the facts get in the way of their beliefs.

Candace was brought to a Denver-area therapist from Durham, N.C. Promoting a risky treatment like rebirthing did not make Watkins an oddball among therapists. It gave her a national reputation, so the girl's mother traveled across country for this treatment.

Even after literally killing a child, Watkins was unrepentant. "I do it because it works," she declared from the witness stand. And her attorney lined up therapists from all over the country, attesting to the wonders of this miracle cure, although no scientific study has ever found the technique safe or effective.

Michigan has plenty of crusading therapists, using treatment methods just as questionable as rebirthing. Rather than testing their ideas in double-blind studies, these therapists throw around buzz words, especially "healing," "faith" and "spirituality."

Psychotherapists are not required to use only scientifically proven methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, or medications. The responsible ones choose treatments that withstand scientific scrutiny; others use whatever fad happens along.

Junk treatments are easy to spot. You hear testimonials from grateful patients who say breathlessly "My therapist saved my life!" Soon, someone is making a buck teaching the latest psycho fad. Therapists without scientific training assume that if a treatment method is taught at a seminar, it must be valid.

A popular junk therapy in the Ann Arbor area involves eye movement, which supposedly cures traumatic stress disorder. This therapy has a nasty side effect, in that it is hypnotic. So the subject may absorb whatever is suggested during the eye movement session and come away with mistaken memories of childhood abuse.

Recovered memory therapy has fallen into disrepute among the scientifically oriented, but certain therapists in Michigan and elsewhere still cling to it as gospel. Patients must come up with memories of childhood abuse, and no one checks to see if the events really happened.

Memory therapists use different jargon these days, such as "dissociation," to make it sound scientific. Another change: a younger clientele. Fewer adult women seek out this treatment method for themselves, while more children of divorce accuse one of the parents of abuse after visiting the other parent's therapist.

"Thought field therapy" is another fad. It's easy; the therapist simply taps certain spots on the person's body. This supposedly works on depression, phobias and anxiety. Don't have time? Try "voice technology." Tap yourself, based on advice by the therapist over the phone.

Let's not forget wind prayer. This "treatment" involves going outdoors and praying on a windy day. Patients actually pay money for this approach.

Colorado just passed a law against rebirthing. But with the junk-therapy culture alive and well, this type of law is nearly useless. Prosecutors simply cannot chase after every fad therapist, even when a patient or family is harmed. Some patients end up sicker on account of their therapy, but won't complain because they "believe in" the treatment.

Harmful mental health practices can be stopped, but only if insurers refuse to pay for treatments that are not proven safe and effective.

2001 May 2