With posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reaching epidemic proportions in the military and among veterans, developing more effective treatments has become a high priority within the mental health profession. The American Psychological Association,, however, has reaffirmed an 11-year-old policy that actively bans what some professionals believe to be one the most significant breakthroughs in the treatment of the disorder.
According to Dr. John Diepold, a New Jersey psychologist and an APA member since 1981, “The APA’s recent ruling to again deny psychologists continuing education credit for learning one of the most important recent innovations in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder is highly questionable at this time when tens of thousands of our returning soldiers, as well as victims of domestic traumas, are suffering from PTSD and more effective treatments are desperately needed.” Dr. Diepold is one of a growing number of APA members who share this concern. Some 75 of the organization’s members have started a petition to form a new APA division that is dedicated to the study, practice, and dissemination of the new approach.
The treatment in question, known as “Energy Psychology,” involves techniques such as tapping on acupuncture points at the same time that a traumatic memory or stressful trigger is brought to mind. The approach is believed to influence signals in the brain that counteract the stress response. One of the first published studies on using the treatment with PTSD found that symptoms were rapidly alleviated. Another study, using a “randomized controlled design” (the gold standard in health care research) and presented at the prestigious Society of Behavioral Medicine Conference in Seattle last April, showed that PTSD symptoms were dramatically reduced in 49 military veterans. Forty-two of them, an almost unheard of 86 percent, no longer scored within the PTSD range after six sessions. These treatment results are stronger than outcomes reported for conventional treatments such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy, where a 50 percent success rate with PTSD after twelve sessions is considered a highly favorable response.
Despite the Seattle report and promising outcomes in several other studies, the APA recently affirmed a position dating back to a 1999 ruling that psychologists cannot earn continuing education (CE) credit by studying Energy Psychology. This action was taken by denying an appeal by the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP) to become an APA CE sponsor. ACEP is a non-profit association of some 850 Energy Psychology practitioners and researchers. This is the APA’s fourth ruling in the past two years denying ACEP’s attempts to be able to provide psychologists CEs for studying the approach, including rejecting two applications, a request for reconsideration, and now a formal appeal. The APA’s reasoning is difficult to discern from the documents announcing the denials in that it fails to address the fact that the preponderance of emerging research evidence shows the approach to be effective. It instead emphasizes that the approach is “controversial” and takes issue with a few fine points on research design.
According to ACEP President Dr. Gregory J. Nicosia, a psychologist and an APA member since 1977, “The APA’s criteria for appropriate CE content are clear and straightforward. By any reasonable reading of our applications or of our 80-page appeal brief, we have met these criteria many times over. In blocking the dissemination of this approach, the APA is following a different agenda than its own rules. I have no idea what that agenda might be, but the bottom line is that it is hampering one of the most important clinical interventions for treating trauma that has appeared in recent years from reaching those who are in desperate need and could benefit from it most.”
Some individuals who utilize Energy Psychology and have been following the controversy are incensed. Kate Borman explains, “As a consumer who has been hurt by traditional psychologists, I have found energy therapy to be a tool that works for me in a self-practice mode. At the same time I know that I need a professional trained in the techniques I’m trying to self-teach. I can’t find one locally and am left feeling helpless. The APA’s rejection of Energy Psychology is very discouraging. Shame on them! Just another case of leadership and management being out of touch with reality.”
Continuing education is one of the primary ways the mental health profession introduces new clinical developments to its practitioners. A course meets the APA’s published criteria for CE credit (the guidelines accepted by every state for renewing the licensure of its psychologists) if it meets any one of four standards. The first is that the psychological community has been studying or applying the approach. In relationship to this criterion, more than two dozen papers on Energy Psychology have appeared in peer-reviewed mental health journals, most of them showing favorable outcomes in systematic studies of the method. Meanwhile, at least three international disaster relief organizations have adopted Energy Psychology as a core modality in working with the mental health needs of disaster survivors. Either development would seem to qualify Energy Psychology based on this “studying or applying” criterion alone.
Another APA standard that would define a course as appropriate for CE credit is if its “program content has peer-reviewed, published support beyond those publications and other types of communications devoted primarily to the promotion of the approach.” In addition to the research just mentioned, highly favorable assessments of Energy Psychology have been published in the APA’s own journals, such as the prestigious Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. A review of Energy Psychology Interactive, one of the main Energy Psychology texts, appeared in the APA’s online book review journal PsychCRITIQUES. It concludes that because Energy Psychology successfully “integrates ancient Eastern practices with Western psychology [it constitutes] a valuable expansion of the traditional biopsychosocial model of psychology to include the dimension of energy.” The review, by Dr. Ilene Serlin, a former APA division president, describes Energy Psychology as “a new discipline that has been receiving attention due to its speed and effectiveness with difficult cases.”
The APA’s recent ruling against allowing CE credit for studying Energy Psychology, and the enormous consequences it holds seems puzzling, but perhaps it is not so surprising. A recent paper on the controversies within the field, published in Energy Psychology’s own peer-reviewed journal, discusses the “paradigm clash” between conventional psychological explanations for therapeutic change and Energy Psychology, which draws from ancient healing systems such as acupuncture. But it concludes that the largest roadblock to acceptance by the professional community is that clinicians who have used conventional methods to treat PTSD find the claims by Energy Psychology practitioners to be implausible. The paper explains, “There is nothing in the training or background of most clinicians or researchers that prepares them to understand how tapping on the skin can help overcome severe psychological disorders, no less to account for the speed and power with which positive clinical results are being reported.”
Many psychologists, however, are disregarding the APA’s position, assessing the evidence themselves, and successfully applying Energy Psychology techniques with a range of challenging emotional disorders. According to Dr. Sheila Bender, an APA member for more than 35 years and co-author of a major Energy Psychology textbook: “Despite the APA’s unprecedented ban on continuing education credits for energy psychology study, a growing body of psychologists continues to learn, investigate, and use these noninvasive, easily applied and effective psychotherapeutic tools. Thousands of clinicians are, in fact, integrating energy psychology into treatment protocols for a wide range of psychological problems, and reports of their successes are appearing not only from private practices, but also from institutions such as HMOs, hospitals, and V.A. Centers.”
Whatever the APA’s reasoning in its recent decision to continue to use its CE-granting authority to deter psychologists from learning about energy psychology, it has stirred a controversy that touches a social nerve by bringing attention to the need for more effective treatments for PTSD. With incalculable numbers of military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in dire need of effective help for the harsh psychological traumas inflicted by modern warfare, and ever-present incidents of domestic trauma, the time is past due for the APA to approve Energy Psychology for continuing education credit rather than to continue to block its dissemination!