This month’s edition of American Psychologist has several interesting articles about the negative effects of therapy. The article by David Barlow, “Negative effects from psychological treatments”, provides a good overview of the effectiveness research controversies. But instead of focusing on how best to collect data about the benefits of a treatment, he gives some attention to looking more clearly at who benefits from a treatment and who is made worse (using dismantling type studies).
The next article (by authors Dimidjian and Hollon) gets at the definition of harm. Defining harm is rather complex. That a client may not get better from a treatment or may get worse during a treatment is not necessarily evidence that the treatment caused harm. And true to form, we have to accept that some treatments may both harm and help (they give the illustration of a nursing mother on medications: it may help her and yet harm her baby). Or, a treatment may make someone worse at first but then help them later on. Or, the treatment may be just fine but the practitioner may use it in a way that is good or bad. Finally, a treatment may be thought of as harming a patient when in fact what is seen is the normal trajectory of the disease.
So, how do you get at understanding whether a counseling treatment harms? They offer a number of methods for research which I won’t get into here.
Finally, the last article covers training implications (Castonguay et al). They cite therapists’ frequent underestimation of treatment failure and client deterioration. Looks like about 5-10% of clients get worse in treatment. If one wants to train counselors to avoid more failure how might one do that? Castonguay et al suggest that one do so by beefing up (a) proper therapy skills, and (b) skills to identify potentially harmful treatments. On p. 45 the authors include a table of training recommendations, which include
- expose trainees to list of potentially harmful treatments
- help trainees monitor change and deterioration
- enhance relationship skills
- learn and practice interventions that are empirically supported
- prevent and repair a variety of relational pitfalls
- adjust treatment choice, expectations, etc. based on client characteristics
- Address trainee’s issues (anxiety, hostility, defensiveness, naiveté, etc.) that may hinder counseling
Every counselor fears harming another; fears not helping enough. And it is often unclear whether our work is having its intended impact in the moment. However, there are things we can do to keep the communication lines open and thus listen to our clients about what is helping or not helping. This is what keeps us on our toes. What works for one person harms another. We must not get wedded to one way of helping.