Healthy Holidays

Burst / Sarah Pflug / Used under licenseIt’s finally time to relax and recover from a long year of hard work.

For many, the holidays are a reason to celebrate relationships, exchange heartfelt gifts, and eat delicious foods… lots and lots of delicious homemade foods. Ham, sweet potatoes, casseroles, rolls… and then there are the desserts. Oh, the desserts!

The problem for many comes after all the eating, when they look down at the scale and realize they are a lot less healthy than they remember.

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Great gifts for therapists (updated for 2017)

gifts chestLooking for holiday gifts for therapists in your life? Don’t get them another therapy-themed card game. Here are some gift ideas that counselors and psychotherapists of all types might find fun and useful, organized by cost.

(We’ve updated this post a bit for 2017, ensuring all links and prices are current as of publication. And great news: Most prices are lower than last year!)

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Professional associations’ responses to Orlando mass shooting

Photo courtesy Orlando PDThe aftermath of a tragedy is perhaps when the public needs professional associations in mental health the most. These groups can speak from their collective knowledge and wisdom about how to best cope with the trauma and find meaningful ways to contribute. Here are the major US mental health professional associations’ responses to this week’s mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, where 49 were killed and 53 others wounded.

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Psychotherapy’s dirty little secrets

wooden-chestAs tremendously effective as psychotherapy is, and as much as we try to help out students and new professionals, there are some things about working in this field that we don’t eagerly share. It’s not that we don’t want you to know, necessarily, it’s just… these things don’t look so good.

Here are three secrets we keep about the world of therapy. Each one is true, even if we don’t talk about them much.

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Hear me on the Talking Therapy podcast

Talking Therapy podcast episode 21A few weeks ago, I sat down with John Webber and RJ Thomas from the popular Talking Therapy podcast. We talked about license exams, the high cost of becoming a therapist, the importance of measuring outcomes, my book Saving Psychotherapy, and a lot more. It’s a wide-ranging interview, and I hope you find it interesting and informative.

You can find my specific episode on this page, or just directly download the mp3 here.

AAMFT’s proposed new ethics code makes a bold choice

Golden gavel 1, By walknboston (Flickr: Gavel) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsRomantic relationships with former clients or their family members would be prohibited… forever.

In the current working draft of the Code of Ethics for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), there are a number of proposed changes worth discussing. Perhaps the most significant proposed change is in the rules about family therapists engaging in romantic relationships with former clients or their family members. The existing rule reads as follows — I know it’s long, but stick with me. Except for the title of the subprinciple, all emphasis mine:

1.5 Sexual Intimacy with Former Clients and Others. Sexual intimacy with former clients, their spouses or partners, or individuals who are known to be close relatives, guardians or significant others of clients is likely to be harmful and is therefore prohibited for two years following the termination of therapy or last professional contact. After the two years following the last professional contact or termination, in an effort to avoid exploiting the trust and dependency of clients, marriage and family therapists should not engage in sexual intimacy with former clients, or their spouses or partners. If therapists engage in sexual intimacy with former clients, or their spouses or partners, more than two years after termination or last professional contact, the burden shifts to the therapist to demonstrate that there has been no exploitation or injury to the former client, or their spouse or partner.

The proposed new rule is much simpler and more stark:

1.5 Sexual Intimacy with Former Clients and Others. Sexual intimacy with former clients or with known members of the client’s family system is prohibited.

Gone would be the current “two-year rule.” Under the current rule, a therapist could get into a sexual relationship with a client’s family member without fear of repercussions if two years have passed since the end of therapy. However, a therapist who engages in a sexual relationship with the former client or their partner is always at some level of risk; it is, after all, very hard to prove the negative, especially in mental health. If someone says they have suffered emotionally, as the result of a romantic relationship with their former therapist, it is a high bar for the therapist to prove otherwise. As such, the current code effectively discourages relationships with former clients or their partners forever. The proposed new rule would shift that discouragement into a clear prohibition, and extend its reach to include all known members of the client’s family system, not just their partners.

There is a potential problem with the application of a blanket rule like this. Consider the family therapist working in a rural area, who may run parenting groups or other workshops for their county — a not-uncommon situation, especially when the therapist may be the only licensed mental health provider in the county (or one of very few). That therapist would never be able to date anyone who had come to a single parenting class, a single therapy session, or a single workshop, even if decades had passed since then. And even if you’re on board with that part (I waffle; it’s easy for me to judge from a place like Los Angeles, but I wonder whether my view would be different living someplace else), bear in mind that the therapist also would never be able to date anyone who had a family member who had ever come to a single parenting class, a single therapy session, or a single workshop, no matter how many years ago.

By working in a rural area, a therapist would be systematically dismantling their dating pool.

This proposed AAMFT rule seems to me to be unduly punitive to those therapists working in rural areas (the same argument could be made, albeit a bit less strongly, for those working in insular communities in urban areas), especially those who do so for a long time. It is right and appropriate to demand that therapists not get romantically involved with former clients or their family members when the therapeutic relationship was recent enough to bring a certain “ick factor,” or any risk of harm or exploitation, into the dating relationship; extending the post-therapy prohibition on such relationships from the current two years to five or even ten would be fine with me, and it seems reasonable to include family members in addition to the client and their partner in that prohibition. But to tell a therapist she can’t date someone if she discovers that person’s aunt and uncle had come to her for two sessions of marriage counseling 20 years ago? That, to me, is going too far.

And it isn’t just me. When the American Counseling Association (which represents counselors of various forms, including LPCs and LPCCs) adopted their new Code of Ethics for this year, they kept their five-year prohibition on romantic relationships with former clients rather than moving to one that would last forever. The ACA language, I think, gets it right, by putting a high demand on counselors to consider (and, importantly, document that they considered) the risk of harm or exploitation before engaging in any such relationship, but stopping short of outlawing them for all time:

A.5.c. Sexual and/or Romantic Relationships With Former Clients
Sexual and/or romantic counselor-client interactions or relationships with former clients, their romantic partners, or their family members are prohibited for a period of 5 years following the last professional contact. This prohibition applies to both in-person and electronic interactions or relationships. Counselors, before engaging in sexual and/or romantic interactions or relationships with former clients, their romantic partners, or their family members, demonstrate forethought and document (in written form) whether the interaction or relationship can be viewed as exploitive in any way and/or whether there is still potential to harm the former client; in cases of potential exploitation and/or harm, the counselor avoids entering into such an interaction or relationship.

As a general rule, I really like the 2014 ACA Code, particularly for how well it handles issues related to technology. AAMFT could learn from the example. And while I have concerns about this particular piece, there is certainly much to like in the draft AAMFT code as well; as I said, more on that to come. The public comment period for the current AAMFT draft Code of Ethics goes through August 1.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I was part of a task force that developed recommendations for the 2012 update to the AAMFT Code. I had no involvement with the current working draft.

What do you think of the AAMFT draft? Your comments here are welcome. You can post them in the comments below, by email to ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com, or on my Twitter feed.

New documentary tackles the divorce industry

DivorceCorp opens in January. It looks great — with one little caveat.

Image from the DivorceCorp web site,

Divorce is big business. Many people can have a hand in the divorce process: lawyers, mediators, custody evaluators, therapists, court systems, and others all say they want to help divorcing couples. And all want to be paid for their services. The entire system can suffer from what might rightly be called perverse incentives — strong pulls for people to act in ways that are more out of self-interest than the true long-term best interest of the couple they claim to be trying to help.

This is the thrust of the documentary DivorceCorp, opening in major cities January 10. The movie looks good and important. Dr. Drew narrates, and it features interviews with some well-known law experts, including Gloria Allred. Here’s the trailer:

More information on the film, including local theaters showing the film when it opens, can be found on the official DivorceCorp website.

One cautionary note, though: The opening statement in the trailer, “50% of all US marriages end in divorce,” is wrong. As you can read about in more detail over at the excellent DivorceSource web site, the US divorce rate probably never topped 41% and has been declining for several years. As Tara Parker-Pope documented quite well in her book For Better, divorce rates are especially low among those with at least a college education. Over Twitter, the film’s reps have said that there were bigger fish to fry, so to speak. I get that. They’re looking at an entire divorce industry, and my caution is with one statistic. I believe the social conversation about the divorce rate is one specific part of the larger social conversation about divorce that especially needs to change, for reasons I’ll save for a separate post, but don’t let that take you away from the big picture. I’m happy to support the film and eager to see it.

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Your comments are welcome. You can post them in the comments below, by email to ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com, or on my Twitter feed.

How to make a better therapist

It isn’t experience, and it isn’t the kind of training we usually do.

I’m blogging this week from the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference in Anaheim, where many of the world’s leaders in psychotherapy gather to discuss the state of the field and share new and innovative research findings.

Therapy is tremendously effective. The average treated client ends up better off than 80% of untreated people with similar problems. Psychotherapy for mental health problems is as effective as coronary bypass surgery for heart problems and four times as effective as flouride toothpaste in preventing dental problems. But we’re not getting better, Scott Miller said in yesterday’s opening workshop.

Miller summarizes our field’s efforts to figure this out thusly: We started by looking at our treatment models, hoping to build better techniques to reach better outcomes. This is where many training programs still live: We teach manualized, empirically-supported treatments in hopes that it will make for the most effective therapists. Except it doesn’t; the models formalize and standardize our work, but they don’t make us any more effective, according to outcome studies.

So we then moved to looking at common factors, those things that work across all theoretical models. But teaching common factors doesn’t seem to make us more effective, nor does it relieve the need to know specific models, since it is through those models that the common factors work. (My good friend Sean Davis has the leading text on common factors in couple and family therapy, and in it he makes the same point.)

So the focus then shifted to the study of outcomes rather than methods, and what we found was that some therapists consistently achieve better outcomes than their peers. That has moved the field into a close examination of excellence and expertise.

The findings there are striking, and I can’t do them full justice here — I’ll address the training issues in more detail in a future post. But the short version is this: We don’t spend a ton of time training students to do the things that actually seem to make them better therapists (“better” here meaning more effective). Miller cited a vast literature identifying deliberate practice — not just more hours seeing clients, but significant time focused on reviewing weaknesses in those sessions while not actively in them and then taking action to address those weaknesses — as the key task in making people more effective. What I hear in my therapy-teacher framework: We need to be doing a lot more videotaping.

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Your comments are welcome. You can post them in the comments below, by email to ben[at]bencaldwell[dot]com, or on my Twitter feed.