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Were Straight, Inc. and The Seed programs all that bad?

A Clinical Psychologist writes about the programs

by Joseph A. Bousquet, PhD.

Dr. Bousquet grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida. He trained in Clinical Social Work and Clinical Psychology, and is now living in Albuquerque,  New Mexico. He is employed as a Supervising Psychologist at The Cognitive Behavioral Institute of Albuquerque. 

During the 1970s and 1980s I heard many stories from graduates of The Seed and Straight, Inc., sometimes in my role as a volunteer counselor at the St. Petersburg Hotline, and sometimes from friends. The stories I heard were completely consistent with a variety of damning reports that have since become available online.

I am writing now from the perspective of an experienced mental health professional, with a Master’s degree in Clinical Social Work, and a PhD in Clinical Psychology.  In my view, the Seed and Straight, Inc. were ethically indefensible programs that likely did far more harm than good.

The public record indicates that these programs depended upon routine practices more commonly associated with cults and/or with torture:

  • Isolation from outside influence
  • Idealization of a leader figure
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Intensive peer pressure to conform
  • Punishment of doubt or any form of questioning
  • Prolonged physical restraint and physical assault
  • Food restriction, water restriction, bathroom restriction
  • Forced sitting for long periods of time in uncomfortable chairs (even leaning against the back of the chair was prohibited)
  • Enforced stereotypical behaviors (sayings, greetings, cheering, etc)
  • Public humiliation & forced complicity in the humiliation of others
  • Lengthy, stereotypical propaganda sessions
  • Practices that promoted distrust among clients, limiting the potential for mutually supported resistance to the program
  • Physical imprisonment
  • Prolonged exposure to over-stimulating social environments with no opportunity for even momentary privacy or quiet

I am aware that there are graduates who laud these programs, claiming that The Seed or Straight, Inc. improved, or even saved their life, and I take them at their word. A few caveats are in order, however.

First, given the many cult-like practices used by these programs, graduate testimonials may be difficult to fully evaluate. When conformity to the party line is reinforced as intensively as it was in these programs, over a significant period of time, program allegiance can become automatic, almost unthinking.

Second, due to the inescapable and high level of control the programs exercised over clients, and reported systematic and idiosyncratic abuses, these were potentially traumatizing environments. Under such conditions, some people will manage high levels of anxiety by adopting a favorable view of the aggressor(s)[1].

Third, the practice of placing more compliant clients in positions of quasi-authority over newer clients created degrees of complicity that could make later renunciation of the programs more psychologically challenging.

Fourth, since most program clients were involuntarily committed by parents, allegiance to one’s parents and allegiance to the programs are automatically confounded.

[pullquote]I have little doubt that The Seed and Straight, Inc. helped some individuals…but there are also people who will tell you, in retrospect, how some terrible personal calamity made them stronger and wiser.[/pullquote]

In any case, in condemning these programs it is not logically necessary to contend that they never helped a single living soul. Again, I have little doubt that The Seed and Straight, Inc. helped some individuals…but there are also people who will tell you, in retrospect, how some terrible personal calamity made them stronger and wiser. Yet I’ve never heard of a professional colleague, or anyone else, prescribe personal calamity as a method self-improvement.

Why is that? Well, of course, because personal calamity would be far too risky, as a means of self-improvement.

While personal calamity might occasionally produce desirable results, the risk of serious, undesirable results (depression, PTSD, suicide, etc.) would simply be too large relative to potential benefits.

We would never suggest throwing the dice, against the odds, in the case of anyone we cared about.

Unfortunately, using a number of deceptive techniques The Seed and Straight, Inc. conned many caring parents into doing just that, committing their children to an unnecessarily risky treatment in the hope of resolving issues that rarely, if ever, warranted such extreme measures.

I knew of instances, for example, in which parents panicked, after finding a single marijuana joint, bypassed every other possible means of intervention, and sent one or more children to The Seed.

The Seed played a siren song to its referral sources, parents and government officials, by over-stating the risk of even minimal drug experimentation, questioning the effectiveness of any other form of treatment, and claiming suspiciously high levels of treatment success without any reliable evidence.

In no way do I mean to minimize the seriousness of drug abuse, especially during the teen years when critical brain development, and social development, can be seriously compromised by reliance upon drugs or alcohol.

Dr. Bousquet’s guidelines for parents with concerns about a child

I would encourage any parent with concerns about a child’s substance use not to panic. Instead, follow these sensible guidelines:

  • Try to assess imminent and medium term risk in a realistic manner.
  • Consult with people whose judgment you trust, including medical and mental health professionals.
  • Become fully informed regarding the range of treatment options and choose an initial intervention that is proportional to realistically assessed risk.
  • Look for interventions with empirically validated efficacy. Don’t rely on hearsay or pure marketing statements.
  • Take into account reports of adverse responses to specific treatments you are considering.
  • Ask who will be directly administering any form of treatment you are considering. Only by insisting on direct treatment by state-licensed professionals can you assure that the ethical codes of the various mental health professions are applicable.

[1] The so-called “Stockholm Syndrome” has not been well researched. Although it probably occurs less frequently than originally believed, many anecdotal accounts do suggest that a substantial minority of people in captive situations achieve greater comfort, and improve their practical adaptation, within the context of the captive situation, by adopting a sympathetic view of the aggressor(s).

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