Craig Foster

The Colorado Department of Human Services Office of Children, Youth and Families just published Colorado Guidelines for Selecting Effective Mental Health Therapies (and Avoiding Ineffective or Harmful Ones) (https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdhs/guidelines-selecting-effective-mental-health-therapies). On behalf of everybody who lives in this fantastic state, consider this a thank- you card.

I care about the guidelines because I care about Colorado. I have lived in Colorado for over 19 years. I can’t honestly put a “Native” sticker on my car, but my two children could. Like all Coloradans, I expect our government to be sensible and to make the money we contribute go as far as possible.

I also care because I am an Air Force Academy professor who studies scientific reasoning and pseudoscience. As such, I understand why this guidance is essential.

For CDHS, the issue at stake is providing Coloradans living with mental illness the best possible assistance. These efforts are undermined when individuals are placed in forms of therapy that lack scientific support, likely causing no appreciable benefits and in some cases, considerable harm.

The new guidelines serve to minimize these mistakes by providing well-informed instruction on distinguishing legitimate forms of therapy from illegitimate ones. The guidelines serve as a cheat sheet if you will, where state and county administrators can investigate the therapies that smell like baloney or they can elevate their concerns to others who might have informative answers.

You might be thinking, does CDHS really need guidance for that? Yes! Absolutely! Undeniably!

Distinguishing good science from bad can be challenging. Hard-working administrators simply do not have time to become knowledgeable about all the available kinds of therapy, both legitimate and illegitimate. Plus, promotors of therapeutic quackery tend to develop crafty tactics which they use to convince others (and themselves) that a therapy is effective, even when it isn’t.

For instance, individuals can promote bogus forms of therapy by pointing to supportive testimonials, referencing research that is poorly designed, using scientific-sounding jargon, and having uncertain standards for success. Furthermore, the digital age has made it easier for woo promotors to develop seemingly supportive articles and resources that look like genuine science. The guidelines caution against being fooled by these tactics.

In contrast, individuals promoting legitimate forms of therapy can provide credible scientific evidence that indicates effectiveness. Potential therapists are licensed and carefully trained. The therapeutic process includes clear methods for measuring client health. The guidelines encourage using therapies that meet these type of criteria.

In other words — yes to cognitive-behavioral therapy provided by a licensed psychologist with a doctoral degree; no to past-life regression therapy provided by an unlicensed therapist who got your neighbor in touch with her previous existence as Lady K’abel, Maya Queen.

As pleased as I am to see CDHS take a stand for evidence, I am also grateful for the process.

My involvement came this year. I was invited to a meeting with CDHS along with two savvy experts on therapeutic nonsense, Linda Rosa and Jean Mercer. Our purpose was to discuss concerns about keeping CDHS aligned with evidence-based practices.

To my pleasant surprise, the Office of Children, Youth and Family medical director Jadon Webb and the Child Protection Ombudsman Stephanie Villafuerte listened carefully. We were even invited to review and contribute to the developing guidelines, which we did. I did not expect to find these people so accessible, and so willing to weave concerned citizens like us into their process.

This experience reminded me that departments like CDHS serve critically important functions and they have good people who are trying to serve the public as effectively and cost-effectively as possible. The publication of these guidelines shows CDHS’ commitment to use evidence to curtail nonsense.

In so doing, CDHS gains an important advantage in trying to improve the mental well-being of the Colorado residents who really need some help. For that, we should all feel a little better.

Craig Foster is a psychology professor at the Air Force Academy.

Craig Foster is a psychology professor at the United States Air Force Academy.

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