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Junk Science Invades Psychiatry
by Martha A. Churchill
Copyright 2000 The Detroit News.
Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Friday, January 7, 2000, page 13A

This psychiatrist tries to cure mental illness with eye wiggles. He says that memory of childhood abuse is stored in the hips, elbows, and toes. And he wants to bill health insurers for his services, the same as other medical doctors, a concept called "parity."

The eye-wiggle doctor, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., is slated as the featured speaker for a professional seminar in Livonia this February. His therapies, euphemistically described as "innovative," are touted in the current newsletter of the Michigan Psychiatric Society under the heading, "Mark your calendars."

Van der Kolk serves as a professor at Boston University, but that is not a big credential. Another psychiatrist, John Mack, convinces his patients that they were sexually molested by aliens aboard UFO's, and he is a tenured professor at Harvard.

Lots of crazy fads circulate these days among mental health professionals, and even the most respected professional organizations do nothing about it. The legislature should not grant "parity" to mental health providers who could use these fraudulent treatments on unsuspecting patients.

The van der Kolk program is sponsored by the Trauma and Dissociation Study Group of Southeast Michigan. The name sounds respectable, but these people specialize in the treatment of MPD, or multiple personality disorder. MPD adherents claim that the illness results from severe childhood trauma, especially torture by witches.

The Michigan study group has a web site at, where a list of members indicates they are concentrated in Royal Oak. The group boasts about being a chapter of the national ISSD, International Society for the Study of Dissociation. The ISSD works hard to make witch hunts respectable in mental health circles throughout the US and Canada.

One of the founders of the ISSD is Psychiatrist Bennett Braun, M.D., who recently had to surrender his medical license in Illinois. He pressured one of his patients into believing she was the high priestess of a huge Satanic cult. Then he insisted that as head witch, her job duties included the regular consumption of babies during supernatural rituals.

Dr. Braun billed an insurance company about $3 million for his attempts to cure this woman and her two boys of MPD. While he was doing that, he was teaching other doctors his methods.

Typically, an MPD patient acquires that diagnosis only after repeated interrogations by the doctor or therapist, asking about possible childhood experiences with Satanic cults. Helped on by hypnosis and the use of drugs, the patient comes to believe this stuff. Soon, the "alter" personalities emerge, and another MPD case is born.

This is where the eye wiggles come in. According to van der Kolk, eye movements help overcome the mental problems caused by childhood trauma. Rather than providing valid treatments for persons with mental illness, he blames every problem on supposed child abuse. Eye movements allow the patient to relax and enter a trance-like state, so memories of trauma can emerge, both real and imagined.

Some insurance companies already pay for eye wiggle therapy, called EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. There is not a shred of scientific evidence that eye wiggles help anyone with a mental illness, but insurers like it because the cost is less than for other therapies.

Many mental health professionals use valid treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or prescription medication. But even the best doctors sit by silently as their co-professionals wiggle the eyes, or help patients find memories of childhood trauma buried in their thighs or other body parts.

There is no secret to the body memory treatments employed by van der Kolk. Memories are not always stored in the brain, he wrote for the Harvard Review of Psychiatry in 1994; "the body keeps the score."

Keeping score of fraudulent mental health methods is a big job. I sat in on a seminar in Ann Arbor for mental health professionals where child sex abuse was given as the cause of just about every mental illness. It was the third in a series of seminars in Michigan for therapists, giving them continuing education credits.

The speaker opined that schizophrenia is a diagnosis to ignore, except for insurance billing purposes. Treat everyone as a victim of childhood sex abuse, she added, and check for "body memories" to gain additional history about the patient's childhood.

I sat next to two social workers from Community Mental Health of Washtenaw County, who took lots of notes. They may have actually believed the nonsense they were hearing, since mental health professionals pass these tales around without any interference from professional societies.

Should psychiatrists and other mental health providers get equal pay for their treatment methods? Let's wait until they clean the junk science out of their closets. Meanwhile, parity should apply only for mental health treatments scientifically proven to be safe and effective.

Martha A. Churchill is an attorney in Milan and the President of the Michigan Association for Responsible Mental Health Practices. Write letters to The Detroit News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, Mich. 48226, or fax us at (313) 222-6417, or send an e-mail to

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