Recently, while on a long car drive, I listened to a This American Life show, Ask an Expert. The second story is about how in the early 90's misguided psychologists used suggestive questioning along with hypnosis and other techniques to inadvertently place false memories of child abuse or satanic rituals in their patients heads. It is a very sad story. Thinking about the pain the patient and the parents must have gone through almost made me cry.
Recently on NPR, there was a story questioning the wisdom of trauma counseling. That having people who went through a traumatic event retell their story -- or hear other stories -- might actually do more harm than good.
Both the psychologist installing false memories and the trauma counseling seem based on the idea that you have to "get it all out" in order to be healthy. The conventional wisdom that you have to address past harms and repeat them in order to get healthy does not have any empirical basis that I know of. It might be a remnant of the that fool Sigmund Freud who links all our problems to childhood and his fantasies. I have long though that getting it out is not necessarily a good thing. Our ability to forget is rather important to our ability to function well in society. People who cannot filter out important information for non-important information have trouble working. People that cannot put bad experiences into the past similarly have trouble in the present. When people “get it out” they are more firmly imprinting the bad memories into their everyday life. Sometimes when I think about incredibly foolish things I have done, they simply serve to make me feel bad. In some cases this is a good thing, I should feel bad when I have acted bad to discourage future foolishness, but reliving the moment too often just causes needless guilt.
Similarly, I don't like the claims people make regarding proclivities toward violence and sexual acts. People have argued that violent activities like boxing or video games help get out emotions, or that porn will satiate the otherwise promiscuous. And other people make the directly opposite argument, that engaging in violence encourages violent behavior and that access to simulated child porn will make someone more likely to want the real thing. I tend to lean toward the latter arguments, but I really haven't seem much support for either preposition. Perhaps it depends on the individual, something that isn't addressed often in public policy debates.
It is hard to believe that some people still go to (Fruedish) psychoanalysts. It must be incredibly hard for the “doctor” to admit their practice is without any scientific basis. One of the teachers in my undergraduate rhetoric class had us read a Feminist Jungian book filled with anecdotes and citations to other baseless theories. It lacked any evidence for its claims. It was like reading a book on how Mars being in the house of Gemini will provide wealth to those Libra born in 1985. Trash.
Possibly when there is so little solid information about what to do when someone feels depressed or cannot function we grasp at whatever plausible theory is available. I don't know is not good enough. In the case of the trauma counseling, there seems to be a profit motive behind promoting these services.