Identity Crisis

How do you drive a shrink crazy? A new set of state regulations that is intended to protect patients from quacks and make it easier to decide who gets insurance reimbursements is doing just that. The law, pushed for years by psychoanalysts and others skeptical of less-pedigreed therapies, requires those who practice any form of psychotherapy to have a master’s degree and be licensed by the state (just like architects, acupuncturists, and audiologists). State Assemblyman Steven Sanders, who sponsored the bill, proclaimed that it would solve the problem that “anybody could advertise themselves as a psychotherapy something-or-other, and you didn’t know who you were going to.”

In 2006, these rules go into full effect, unsettling the many city therapists who don’t have a master’s degree and who did their training at one of 51 non-degree-granting institutes. These sprang up mostly in the fifties and sixties when certain new “modalities” were developed outside of the psychoanalytic Establishment. Such institutes range from the famous (the Albert Ellis Institute) to the obscure (the Training and Research Institute for Self-Psychology).

“The law is written in such a way that institutes, which have traditionally done all the advanced training, don’t even count anymore,” says Gary Belkin, who has a doctorate in education and is assisting 25 therapists (at $350 a pop) with their applications. He’s exaggerating a bit: The new law allows for experienced institute graduates to be grandfathered in, but only if they can prove they have taken certain prescribed educational courses. One Manhattan psychotherapist with 35 years of experience had her application flagged for lack of a research course on methods and statistics. “When you’ve gone to school in the sixties and they want verification, it’s very difficult,” she says. “The professors I had are dead.”

Many psychotherapists are now going back to school to get a master’s in social work so they can continue to practice legally. “This whole thing is utterly, utterly absurd,” says a recent graduate of a Gestalt institute who’s unhappily spending $35,000 to get an M.S.W. “We’ve been told it’s a felony to go on practicing without a license.”

Johanna Duncan-Poitier, the deputy commissioner of the State Office of the Professions, says the state is trying to be reasonable but that therapists “will hold this license for life. We want to make sure the public is protected.” Her main concern at the moment, though, is to finish processing the over 5,000 applications that have been filed; about 240 licenses have been issued so far, according to the Office of the Professions Website. Although enforcement is being postponed for up to a year while the backlog is processed, eventually therapists practicing without a license will risk fines of at least $5,000, as well as potential malpractice lawsuits. Therapists could decide to skirt the law by calling themselves “emotional educators” or “life coaches.” But neither sounds quite as prestigious. Belkin has another idea for his clients. “For those who don’t get through on this, I’m going to work with them to set up other practices,” he says. “They can be phenomenologists. That’s a term that no one’s familiar with, but it sounds impressive. In Jersey, people go, ‘Is that a therapist?’ No, no, this is much more powerful!”

Identity Crisis