Jonathan Kaplan, a clinical psychologist in New York, recently noticed that more and more of his clients were referring to Mercury being in retrograde.
“I’m not familiar with cosmic cycles,” he said. (Instead, his specialty is cognitive behavioural therapy.) “Nor do I try to be, but I want to understand what that means to a person and how that influences their understanding of the world.”
Now he, like many other therapists, is learning something new, to better communicate with patients.
Alternative treatments, rituals and metaphysical organising principles loom large in popular culture.
Astrology and tarot cards have permeated apps and social media. Sound baths and other forms of “energy medicine” appear not only in “healing centres” but also in hospitals.
“A lot of things in psychology were once considered edgy and alternative,” said Charlynn Ruan, a clinical psychologist and the founder of Thrive Psychology Group in California, who said she is learning about different alternative treatments and approaches.
“I’m not teaching it, but I’m not saying you can’t bring this into the room. That would be disempowering and arrogant.”
People are putting their trust – and their money – into these practices, which they view as pathways to enlightenment.
The wellness market, which encompasses fitness, skin care, travel and nutrition, was valued at $4.2 trillion in 2017, according to the Global Wellness Institute.
That same year, a Pew Research Centre survey reported that roughly half of Americans had dabbled in alternative medicine. As states continue to legalise recreational and medical marijuana, and hallucinogens gain credibility in the scientific community, the number is likely to grow.
What does that mean for therapists, the old standbys of self-knowledge and personal growth?
Well, they’re hearing about some of these New Age treatments from patients, and it may have a lot to do with where they work.
In Los Angeles – likely the wellness capital of the world – plant medicine, shamans, astrology, reiki and sound baths come up frequently in sessions.
“In LA, you’ve always said, ‘My therapist says’ – that’s not a weird thing to say,” said Kristie Holmes, a therapist with Thrive in Beverly Hills, California. “But now name-dropping a shaman is normal.”
In New York and Chicago, it’s ayahuasca, tarot readings, astrology and mediums. In Austin, Texas: crystals, ayahuasca and mediums. In D.C. … well … it’s a little more along the straight and narrow.
Amazonian Tree Frogs and Dungeons & Dragons
According to many therapists who spoke to The New York Times, the patients bringing up these approaches in general tend to skew female, younger and more affluent, although many practitioners reported patients of all ages expressing interest.
When these topics do emerge, mental health professionals often see them as ripe for exploration.
“Am I looking up what a person’s sign is?” Ruan said. “No.”
But she has scoured research journals for studies on ayahuasca and watched documentaries on kambo, a secretion from Amazonian tree frogs touted for its healing powers.
She has connected with hypnotherapists and somatic healers when clients have raved about them, to better understand what they do, although she doesn’t refer patients to such practitioners.
In fact, one psychic, whom Ruan has not met, has made several referrals to her.
What may be useful as a metaphor for discussion – and how willing a therapist may be – could seem surprising.
“A client of mine went to a medium, and it ended up bringing up a past trauma for her that she had blocked out, a horrible event,” said William Schroeder, a counsellor and co-owner of Just Mind in Austin.
Schroeder is perhaps unusually willing to go the extra mile to understand patients. “I had a client who talked about Dungeons & Dragons a lot, and so I went to a game and learned more about it,” he said.
What tarot can teach you
In the corner of Anthony Freire’s otherwise nondescript Manhattan office sits a bronze bowl he bought on Etsy, etched with a swirling poem and piled with silver “angel cards”.
Freire, a psychotherapist and the clinical director at the Soho Centre for Mental Health Counselling, uses them in his practice.
Printed on the cards are abstract words, like “peace”, “respect” and “forgiveness”.
At the end of each session, patients can pluck a card from the bowl and describe its meaning in the context of the appointment.
“It was a gag at first,” Freire said, noting that he bought the cards after seeing a therapist use them in a Vice Media show.
“Then it was like, ‘Wait, this really works’.”
But more often it’s the clients who raise these ideas.
“There are times when there are feelings that come out of nowhere, and I don’t know how to describe them,” said Abby Mahler, a 25-year-old in Los Angeles. During those moments in therapy sessions, she has found herself talking about tarot, as well as internet memes, to communicate.
Mahler said her therapists have realised that “when I bring up tarot or a meme, it’s because I don’t have the verbal ability to describe what I need to and this is just a tool to do it.”
Listening v Encouraging
There are plenty of reasons mental health professionals cite for why they don’t use or encourage these treatments and behaviours.
Some patients, Holmes said, turn to alternative methods as a means of getting a quick solution to their problems. She estimated that half her patients have come to traditional therapy after alternative practices didn’t work.
While the American Psychological Association doesn’t have an official stance on alternative practices, it maintains an evidence-based practice policy, said Lynn Bufka, the associate executive director for practice, research and policy at the organisation.
Some alternative interventions, like meditation, have significantly more scientific backing than, say, crystals, Bufka said. For alternative practices with more spiritual components, she noted that cultural sensitivity is also important.
In cases where there is little credible research or information on a method, Bufka said that the clinician should discuss why that particular practice is meaningful to the client.
“Is there something that they’re not getting from their psychotherapy or other care that they hope that they will get from this?” she said.
It all comes from a place of concern for the patient’s wellbeing and a sense of social-scientific responsibility.
“This is my line: ‘I don’t have an opinion on things I can’t measure, and unless I think it’s being harmful to you, I’m going to trust your wisdom and your intelligence to make good decisions about whether this is a benefit to your life’,” Ruan said.
Kaplan, in New York, put it another way: “If someone is pursuing psychological evidence-based therapy while meditating with crystals while Mercury is in retrograde, I’m fine with that.”