The Limits of Government-Funded Psychology: 9/11 Counseling Backfires

After school shootings, psychologists fan out and provide “grief counseling” to student bodies, but it’s far from clear that this does any good. Critics say it just encourages students to wallow in despair, rather than putting the episode behind them, and forces students to relive the tragedy. Nevertheless, local governments persist in spending money on such activities. Now, even psychologists are admitting in The New York Times that similar grief counseling to New Yorkers after 9/11 backfired and harmed people: “researchers later discovered that the standard approach at the time, in which the therapist urges a distressed person to talk through the experience and emotions, backfires for many people. They plunge even deeper into anxiety and depression when forced to relive the mayhem.”

A report “due to be published next month in a special issue of the journal American Psychologist, relates a succession of humbling missteps after the attacks” by psychologists, notes The New York Times today. “Experts greatly overestimated the number of people in New York who would suffer lasting emotional distress. Therapists rushed in to soothe victims using methods that later proved to be harmful to some.” Worrying about “the consequences of letting people grieve on their own,” psychologists offered their counseling “unbidden” to “anyone who looked stricken,” resulting in some of those who received “treatment” becoming “annoyed or more upset.”

The fact that psychologists would overestimate the numbers of people who suffer lasting emotional distress in response to a negative event is probably not news to any large employer. In lawsuits against employers, psychologists hired by workers’ lawyers have falsely claimed that even mild, non-threatening workplace events cause serious psychological conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), violating limits on junk science laid down by the Supreme Court’s Daubert decision. In some jurisdictions, a plaintiff’s lawyer can easily find a psychologist to testify as an “expert witness” (for a fee) that the plaintiff has suffered PTSD as a result of politically-incorrect workplace jokes (even though that is impossible, according to findings by psychologists like Paul Lees-Haley).

Another area where psychologists have done harm is in the area of “diversity training.” We wrote previously about how diversity training backfires and leads to racial tension and lawsuits against employers.