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“Quack” psychology practices for children and adolescents identified

new study by DePaul University discredits some potentially harmful and pseudoscientific “quack” psychological assessments and treatments for children and adolescents. The study was announced on July 23, 2014, and was published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.

“Building consensus about what does not work for youth is an important counterpart to evidence-based research on what does work,” said lead researcher and co-author Gerald Koocher, dean of the College of Science and Health at DePaul University.

Researchers surveyed 139 experts from all over the U.S. who were mainly child psychologists and included doctoral-level mental health experts such as editors and authors of books about youth pathology and premier psychology researchers.

Experts rated 35 assessments and 67 psychological treatments for children and adolescents using a continuum from “not at all discredited” to “certainly discredited.” The experts were surveyed anonymously, read the summary of the initial panel’s responses, and then were questioned for a second time. The intent of the Delphi poll method was to build a consensus.

Koocher noted that other researchers have tried to identify ineffective therapies, but did not rely on expert consensus to formulate their conclusions. Instead, other researchers depended on their own opinions or assumed that a consensus on the effectiveness of these treatments existed. Also, “When you feel the system has failed you, you might be willing to try other things,” Koocher said.

Psychological assessment tools for children and adolescents that were strongly discredited were:

  • Biorhythms: this form of numerology depends on calculations and charts to determine emotional and physical well-being
  • Brain balance
  • Crystal healing
  • Enneagrams: personality tests that categorize people according to their desires and fears
  • Handwriting Analysis
  • Fairy Tale Test: Patients are asked what fairy tale character they think of themselves as being, and then they are attributed the personality traits based on the character, for example, Peter Pan does not want to grow up
  • Past life regression therapy
  • Withholding food or water
  • The Szondi Test: Patients are asked to select pictures from a lineup of psychological patients to reveal their drives and their repressions. The test was developed by Leopold Szondi in the 1930s

Other tests such as the Rorschach inkblot personality test were rated less harshly, revealing that experts disagree about its usefulness, and that these tests are still being used.

“The instruments faring worst tended to be those with obsolete or sparse research and those relying on narrow theoretical approaches,” the authors wrote. Internet searches showed that many discredited treatments are still being used. The Depaul researchers say these treatments can pose risks to both patients and medical practitioners.

There are several red flags that can indicate that a psychological assessment or therapy is a quack:

  • The assessment proposes an overly simple solution to a complex, hard-to-treat problem
  • Psychoquackery is often promoted by a charismatic expert
  • The method is usually in sync with current trends

“Parents must be able to ask the right questions,” said Koocher. "'What studies have been done to show the effectiveness of this?’ And if someone says to you, ‘Medical science is keeping a lid on this because it’s too powerful and will put them all out of business,’ that’s a strong sign that a treatment is too good to be true.”

Koocher urged psychologists to stop teaching and using these methods. “Old professional habits die hard, and some practitioners hold on tightly to methods they learned in school,” he said. “I hope this study sparks a broader discussion within the profession about discredited practices."