The recent conviction of an unlicensed therapist in one of our communities has led to serious soul searching on the part of some and confusion for many others. The most strident argument of his supporters is that he was convicted without proof; that the accuser made up the story to get back at her community and directed her anger at this amateur counselor.
That argument is false on at least two counts. First, it is a fact, admitted by him, that he was practicing without a license – that alone may be sufficient grounds for criminal prosecution. But, second, and even more glaring is that he admitted to locking the door to his consultation room when alone with a minor of the opposite sex who could not give legal consent.
There were other charges, over 55 of them, and he was found guilty on all counts. Surely there will be appeals and some significant legal wrangling. Still, his admission that he did what no licensed professional therapist would do should give his supporters pause.
We want to trust our rabbonim and the administrations of the schools where we choose to send our children, but this case is causing well intentioned people to reevaluate what they have believed is the best way to assess and treat behavioral, emotional and psychological problems, especially in children. The core issue is reliance on an “eytzah gebber,” someone who does not have a license and has questionable, if any, type of formal training but is put in the position of someone the community refers people needing mental health services to. The primary reason for not seeking out a well trained psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker: frum people only trust their own types. And there are justifications for this thought process. They include statements like – unlicensed eytzah gebbers can get training, they can read up on the issues, they understand the community better, they can identify with Torah true values, and most professional therapists are menuvalim or apikorsim and so on. These “reasons” are nothing more than pretexts used by individuals who would rather operate outside the scrutiny of professional and governmental regulators.
In recent conversations with colleagues it has become clear that unlicensed, amateur mental health advisors tend to do a significant amount of harm to those they are attempting to counsel – and that there is very little recourse for the person who has been hurt by someone who is unlicensed.
Being licensed means that the individual has met the most basic standards for practice in his or her profession. This includes having had training in the field, supervision, an understanding of the need for continued professional education, substantial training in ethics and an acknowledgment that there is a professional board that will regulate, oversee and discipline that individual if he or she does not follow required standards. Not only can one be stripped of a license for violating professional and ethical standards, there may also be a fine and jail time. These regulations are very strictly enforced.
This is the strongest argument for accountability. We seek a hashgacha for our food – that is a desire for accountability, and it is the same simple standard that should apply to core mental health issues as well.
The debate or fear that a licensed therapist will somehow attempt to manipulate the vulnerable client away from Yiddishkeit is also a paper tiger. All licensed therapists are required to attain a degree of cultural competency with their patients. That means they must understand the cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds of the people they treat and respect their beliefs. If a licensed professional is not able to do so, it is expected that the patient will be referred to someone who can. There is so much misplaced fear about non-Jewish and non-frum therapists and the harm they can cause. And today, there are many highly trained and very professional licensed mental health specialists who are frum, understanding and eager to help. They are not difficult to find and are ready and willing to meet the community’s needs.
Many rabbonim understand when a professional, well-trained and licensed provider should be contacted and others who would greatly benefit from meeting with them so that a degree of trust can be developed and a working relationship begun.
When we have medical needs we seek the highest rated, licensed health care provider we can find. The same should be true in mental health. The good news is that there are many frum licensed therapists who have attained that degree of expertise. Our communities should call on them.Dr. Michael J. Salamon
About the Author: Dr. Michael J. Salamon is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the author of numerous articles and books, most recently “Abuse in the Jewish Community” (Urim Publications).
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