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Teen Programs, Helpful? or Harmful?

teen girlAfter a brief hiatus, I am very excited to have the opportunity to re-embark on one of my greatest passions, advocating for evidence-based behavioral health care. I have a special spot in my heart for ensuring adolescents receive proper care, but after more than fifteen years of research I have come to realize that there is a need to publicly support proper care for all ages.

This morning I was saddened to see that the need for this advocacy, especially for the adolescent population, is just as urgent today as it was when I first decided to speak out about the prevalence of adolescent programs based on pseudo-psychological (non-evidence-based) claims in 2000.

Boy Who Died at Lord of the Flies Bootcamp was the headline from that came across my desk this morning, accompanied by a video of an interview between Matt Lauer and the couple who runs the wilderness camp called Tierra Blanca Ranch in New Mexico, where the boy died.

These residential treatment programs and camps have been in existence in one form or another since the early part of the twentieth century. The popularity of these programs for teens grew in the 1970’s after President Nixon declared war on drugs which precipitated the Parent Movement, led by Marsha ‘Keith’ Manatt Schuchard and her husband, Ronald Schuchard, and was followed by the ToughLove Movement created by Phyllis and David York.

While there may be adolescent residential treatment programs out there that are based on sound scientific research, the majority of the programs that I have encountered for young people are based on nothing more than junk science (untested or unproven claims).

Keith Stanovich, Professor Emeritus of Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto, in his eye opening psychology book, How to Think Straight About Psychology, states “Many pseudosciences are multi-million dollar industries that depend on the lack of public awareness that claims about human behavior can be tested. The general public is also unaware that any of the claims made by these pseudosciences have been tested and proven false.”

Unfortunately when parents become confused by their adolescent child’s behavior, it is sometimes followed by frustration, or fear for their child’s well-being. This frustration, embarrassment, and desperation often leaves highly intelligent, well-intentioned parents vulnerable to bogus statistics and false claims of programs that want to take their hard-earned money in exchange for fixing their kid.

As a result the parents are often happy when they first get their ‘newly repaired’ teenager back home after an average stay of at least a year away from their families. Parents are often heard saying things like, “I’m so happy, I’ve got my baby back!” or “We’re so glad to have our sweet child again.”

The parents are usually so pleased with the outcome of the program that they don’t realize how much harm has come to the child during the time that s/he was away from home. They don’t understand how much psychological and often physical trauma their child has endured to become this shadow of a child that s/he once was. At least the lucky parents don’t learn about the trauma their child experienced. Unfortunately, there are too many parents just like Bruce Staeger’s parents who get a phone call to pick up their dead child from the program. Sometimes the child has committed suicide, but often the child has died due to severe neglect or physical abuses.

This is not an easy subject, but it is one that must be broached so that not only parents, but care-givers of all kinds, can become better equipped to evaluate psychological health care claims and information. There is an urgent need for the general public to recognize that we all should learn how to navigate through the maze of psychological information available to us. Everyone could benefit from learning how to evaluate the validity of the claims being made, especially when they might seem too good to be true.

Published inStraight Inc

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