By Steve K. Eichel Ph.D.

Felix, Fritz, Garfield and Morris. To this list of well-known cats I can add my own, Dr. Zoe D. Katze, Ph.D., C.Ht., DAPA. Although her Google hit count of 205 (as of 4/5/05) pales in comparison to Garfield's (over 735,000), it is nevertheless higher than many bona fide psychologists, including me.

A cat with a degree and certifications!? How can that be?

In 2002 as an experiment I applied for and obtained a variety of credentials on Zoe's behalf. To get her certified as a hypnotherapist by the National Guild of Hypnotists (NGH), the International Medical & Dentistry Hypnotherapy Association (IMDHA) and the American Board of Hypnotherapy (ABH) I only had to fill out online applications (with made-up information) and pay the application fee. Equally as disturbing, since I was once on the Advisory Board of this association, I was also able to obtain Board certification (Diplomate) for my feline with the American Psychotherapy Association.

Originally, I only posted my article on my own website as well as the website I administer for the Greater Philadelphia Society of Clinical Hypnosis. But a year later Zoe's story was discovered by a writer for the American Bar Association's online journal, and after that, the kitty litter hit the fan.

Zoe's story has been snatched up by a plethora of online sources, including websites belonging to MacArthur Foundation "Genius Award"-winner James Randi, self-esteem psychologist Nathaniel Brandon, and "Dipscam" FBI consultant and bogus degree expert Dr. John Bear. The lessons taught by my "Cat Credentialing Project" have been incorporated into several graduate-level psychology classes, one forensic psychology program, and at least one state licensing board's training website. My personal favorite, however, remains the wonderful satire published by 110 Factor, claiming that Zoe's credentialing is part of a larger plot by super-intelligent cats to take over the world and establish a New Cat Order.

Not all reactions have been positive. The IMDHA wrote a letter to my credit card company in which, bizarrely (since they were the recipients of my money), they tried to report me for fraudulent use of my own credit card! The letter was forwarded to me with an incredulous note indicating that the only one who could make such a complaint was, of course, me. (The IMDHA had no qualms about keeping my money, nor did any of the other associations.)

The National Guild of Hypnotists wrote a scathing editorial about me. I was also the subject of a lay hypnosis blog in which a well-known NGH member repeatedly referred to me as, among other epithets, "the dishonest, misrepresenting, liar named Steve K. D. Eichel." It took the threat of a libel suit to put an end to that diatribe.

Unlike medicine and law, which are tightly controlled by state and federal laws, mental health and hypnosis are in reality largely unregulated. (The reasons for this are too complicated for this article, but are addressed in the article I previously referenced.) What this means for consumers is that, when they find an online or Yellow Pages listing for a physician or an attorney, they can be reasonably certain that the professional has earned a legitimate graduate degree (M.D. or J.D.) and has a state-issued license to practice. This also means that, if something goes wrong, consumers have well-known avenues for redress.

Not so in mental health or hypnosis. Unless the professional is licensed by the state, there is no guarantee that your hypnotist or "therapist" has any background or training whatsoever. In the most extreme cases, you apparently don't even have a guarantee that your "professional" isn't, well, a nonhuman.

Just as anyone can be "ordained" as a minister in certain "religions" simply by filling out an online application form and paying a fee, it is absurdly easy to gain hypnosis and even psychotherapy credentials. To this day, the NGH and ABH accept online applications for certification; as far as I can tell, the only "new" requirement since the Zoe scandal has been for the NGH to require a photo driver's license. That requirement effectively keeps cats out of their certified membership, but what will keep your neighbor's 18 year-old daughter from becoming a "certified hypnotherapist" if she wants to (and does not mind misrepresenting herself)?

As far as I can tell, the American Psychotherapy Association still does not require much beyond a self-rating application (and $350.00) to become a "Board Certified Diplomate" in psychotherapy, although Dr. Block has stated publicly that the APsyA will work to prevent any additional non-humans from "slipping through the cracks."

Licenses, certifications and graduate degrees do not guarantee a competent hypnotist/therapist, but they are a good start. Being properly credentialed at least means the professional is held somewhat accountable for his or her actions. Here are some pointers for the careful consumer:

1. A graduate degree is not a graduate degree is not a graduate degree.

Degrees, including Ph.D.s, can be purchased from "accredited" universities online. These schools fall under the general heading "diploma mills" or "degree mills." Most people incorrectly assume that when a school claims to be "accredited," it means accredited by an agency recognized by the Department of Education (DOE). This is not necessarily so; some of the more outrageous degree mills are "accredited" by organizations they created, and of which they alone are "accredited members." Others have banded together with like-minded institutions to form their own "independent accrediting" agencies. Many of these exist only as post office box numbers, or a filing cabinet in an office. Institutions affiliated with religious organizations are yet another matter. In the U.S., church-affiliated schools are or can choose to be exempt from many governmental regulations. Some of these schools are quite excellent, and refuse accreditation by DOE agencies on truly religious grounds. Others, however, exist primarily to grant their clergy ubiquitous "Doctor of Divinity" or other doctoral degrees primarily out of the belief that the title will gain respect for the title-bearer. In hypnosis and psychotherapy, which are largely unregulated, there are a variety of semi-legitimate and outright illegitimate diploma mills offering doctoral degrees in counseling, psychotherapy, and hypnotherapy. A relatively new development has been the "Doctor of Clinical Hypnotherapy" degree (DCH). As far as I know, nobody has thoroughly researched the legitimacy of this degree, although none of the institutions granting it appear to be fully accredited by agencies recognized by the DOE.

2. The basics of hypnosis are not hard to learn.

When I was in college, I taught myself basic hypnosis from a book I bought in a used bookstore. Many lay hypnosis associations promise to certify people after a weekend course. Almost 10 years ago I wrote an article in which I called for the licensing and regulation of lay hypnotists. Under the supervision of an appropriate licensed healthcare professional, I see little reason to believe hypnosis paraprofessionals (i.e., lay hypnotists) should not be able to perform basic hypnosis interventions for many people. However, it is a stretch to believe that a weekend hypnosis certification course is sufficient training for a high school graduate to treat an individual with phobias, anxiety, depression or habit disorders (e.g., addictions). Clinical hypnosis is a skill built upon a foundation that consists of accepted medical and psychological practices, including the ability to evaluate and diagnose psychological problems. Lay hypnosis organizations like the National Guild of Hypnotists certify a broad range of members, some of whom are licensed healthcare professionals and many of whom are not. I've seen the description of many NGH training programs, and a large percentage of these involve clinical training. As far as I know, these programs are equally open to trained clinicians and untrained "lay" people. There does not seem to be any attempt to limit clinical training to appropriately licensed clinicians.

And, of course, the NGH and other lay hypnotist associations certified my cat, which does not speak well of their screening processes.

3. Licensing and legitimate graduate degrees may not guarantee competence, but they are a start.

Moreover, going to a licensed professional at least guarantees some degree of accountability. If a psychologist or a licensed professional counselor behaves inappropriately, or engages in a questionable practice, there are state licensing boards and national professional associations who oversee these professionals, and with whom a client can file a complaint. All practicing psychologists are required to carry malpractice insurance. Not so with lay hypnotists. I have provided forensic psychological advise in several lawsuits involving lay hypnotists, and the bottom line is that, if a lay hypnotist misbehaves, the client may have no legal recourse, no way to rectify the situation or, if necessary, to have the therapist drummed out of the profession.

4. So where can I find a qualified professional trained in clinical hypnosis?

In addition to word of mouth and referrals from other trusted professionals (always a good place to start), consult the membership directories of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, the Society of Clinical and Experiment Hypnosis and the American Psychotherapy & Medical Hypnosis Association. All three require health profession licensure as a basis for membership; ASCH and APMHA additionally certify those members who have completed a prescribed training course. Zoe the cat would not have made it into membership in these organizations. Additionally, there are a handful of hypnosis-oriented websites (including this one) that will refer only to qualified practitioners.

What about hypnosis tapes and CDs?

I am sometimes asked about hypnosis tapes and CDs. Do they work? Which ones are the best? There is no question that people can be hypnotized using tapes; in order to provide a standardized induction, audiotapes have been used for years in university studies of hypnotic phenomena. For certain goals (such as insomnia) with motivated subjects, taped hypnosis can be as effective as "live" hypnosis. Interestingly, there are several studies that indicate the most effective use of taped hypnotic suggestions is in addition to live hypnosis. The combination of taped and live hypnosis produced significantly more of the desired effect than either condition alone.

My general advice about hypnosis tapes and CDs is to approach them with caution and find out the qualifications of the practitioner. They can be quite helpful when purchased and used with planning and careful consideration. I believe the following guidelines will increase the likelihood of making a safe and effective hypnosis tape or CD purchase:

1. Look for the union label.

Just as I suggested when looking for a "live" clinical hypnotherapist, your odds of purchasing a safe and effective hypnosis tape or CD are increased if you stick to those produced by licensed mental health or medical professionals who are appropriately trained and credentialed in clinical hypnosis. In my experience, clinicians who are members of (or better yet certified by) ASCH, SCEH or APMHA usually fit that description.

2. Go to a source you can trust.

If you don't already know a qualified professional who produces hypnosis tapes and CDs, find online publisher that may help. HypnosisNetwork.com is one such network. A good "quality control" check on a publisher is to review their website, paying particular attention to the qualifications of the people associated with it. Be wary of websites that employ obvious "hype" language (see below) and dubious claims. Check how they reference their claims. Does the publisher only cite anecdotal reviews (e.g., personal testimonials) or do they reference good, solid science? Publishers of quality will reference scientific studies in respected psychological or medical journals. Does the website provide information on hypnosis from reliable sources, and does it provide appropriate warnings about the misuse of hypnosis? It's also a good idea to use those publishers that provide samples of their tapes/CDs or have a solid refund policy.

3. Be very wary of hype and unsupported claims.

Most people are familiar with sales hype, and generally know the old saying that if it sounds too good to be true…then it probably isn't. That adage certainly applies to hypnosis as well. Hypnosis tapes (and practitioners!) claiming instant or super-fast results are probably misleading you. There are hypnosis tapes/CDs publishers run by outright hucksters. As a general rule, if the website seems to violate common sense, then have the sense to move on. It is also prudent to avoid tapes, CDs (and their promoters) who claim to be able to "cure" long-term problems, like alcoholism or chronic depression. If these tapes and CDs wind up delaying or preventing someone from obtaining real help, then they have not only failed to "cure," they may have caused actual harm.
With these guidelines in mind, consumers and potential clients will increase the likelihood of obtaining the help they truly want, and need. Limiting your choice of hypnosis materials (such as tapes and CDs) and clinical hypnosis practitioners referrals to appropriately trained and licensed health professionals are important first steps on the path to a successful hypnosis experience.