How Many Kinds of Psychotherapy Are Illegal?

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Oct. 1 2012 5:37 PM

Bad Therapy

California outlawed gay conversion therapy. Are other kinds of therapy illegal?

Marcus Bachmann, husband of Michele Bachmann.
Marcus Bachmann, husband of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., offers reparative therapy through his Christian counseling clinic.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law yesterday that bans therapy aimed at changing minors’ sexual orientation from gay to straight. Are any other kinds of psychotherapy illegal?

Yes, but not many. The only kinds of therapy to be banned or restricted in the United States are ones that are violent or that involve certain psychoactive drugs. “Rebirthing therapy,” which aims to reproduce the physical experience of labor in order to help children feel reborn, was outlawed in Colorado and North Carolina in 2001 and 2003 respectively in response to the asphyxiation death of a 10-year-old girl during a rebirthing session. A similar law was introduced in Utah in 2003 but died in committee; the U.S. House of Representatives also passed a resolution opposing the therapy (but not outlawing it). The American Psychological Association does not recognize rebirthing therapy, which ostensibly promotes a closer attachment between parent and child, as a legitimate form of psychotherapy.

Psychedelic therapy, the use of hallucinogens to facilitate the treatment of depression, addiction, and other psychological problems, is widely illegal. Psychedelic drugs like LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and iboga are considered by the Drug Enforcement Agency to have “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States,” and therefore psychotherapists cannot treat patients with them outside of tightly controlled clinical studies that have been approved by review boards.

Electroconvulsive therapy, a treatment for severe depression and bipolar disorder known colloquially as electroshock therapy, is subject to certain state regulations. In Texas, minors and patients who have not given informed consent to the treatment may not legally be subjected to electroconvulsive therapy. (A Texas lawmaker attempted to ban the therapy completely in the state in the mid-1990s, but the bill was never made law.) Similar restrictions on electroconvulsive therapy exist in other countries around the world. (In China, the therapy cannot be used as a treatment for Internet addiction.)

In general, psychotherapists and counselors are licensed by state psychology boards, which publish codes of practice. Those who violate those codes are subject to having their licenses revoked, and people who practice therapeutic techniques without a license can be prosecuted, much like people who practice medicine without a license.

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L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong.