Science & Pseudoscience Review in Mental Health

-- Resource Archive hosted by The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice (SRMHP) --

Review: Phobias Series: "Prisoners of Panic"

by The British Broadcasting Company & The Learning Channel

"Enter the world of the phobic, where learning to live with fear is the first step to a freer life. A woman terrified of birds tries hypnotherapy, a woman scared of mice is treated by a doctor, and an agoraphobic is pushed to venture farther from home." - BBC

Story Title

Here is what the Wall Street Journal (8/1/00) has to say about this episode:

"On Sunday, I watched in horror as an adorable little boy walking a few yards in front of me near his father and even smaller sister plunged through the gap between the commuter train we were leaving and the station platform, landing on the tracks below. Luckily, the crying three-year-old was plucked out in seconds, physically unharmed. But I could not help thinking of his possible psychic scars after watching this vivid BBC/TLC documentary, narrated by David Hyde Pierce. It not only examines the latest research into phobias but follows a wide range of everyday folks as they bravely struggle to overcome their crippling fears through a variety of treatments--some more helpful than others."

"Straight out of "People Like Us," however, is the Californian we meet whose therapy, delivered by phone, seems to consist of tapping the placebo effect by having his patients tap various acupressure points on their faces and bodies. His fee if successful -- $3,000. Despite Dr. Roger Callahan's grandiose claims for his method, it didn't work for Christine in Norfolk, England, who still had a paralyzing fear of mice. After this long-distance operator blamed Christine's "toxic" T-shirt for her failed cure, and said the woman might have to shed all her clothes for it to work, I began to wonder: Is Dr. Callahan a real therapist, or is he just playing one on TV?"

The episode focuses on three people each with their own fear or phobia. When interviewed each of these people comment on not wanting to do "behavior(al) therapy" because it is so hard or requires them to actually confront their feared object/situation. This leads each patient to search for miracle cures that promise no pain, no suffering, and minimum effort in order to eliminate their fear.

As The Wall Street Journal said, Christine was unsuccessfully treated by Roger Callahan, developer of Thought Field Therapy™ (TFT), for her fear of mice. Interestingly, Christine was later treated successfully via Systematic Desensitization (a form of Behavior Therapy with a VERY large body of empirical support for its efficacy). The final scene of Christine is of her having a cartoon mouse tattooed on her shoulder as a symbol of her having overcome her fear (this after her having handled and kissed various mice and rats as part of her behavior therapy).

Agoraphobia is addressed in a man so agoraphobic that he does not venture more than 5 miles from his home, nor has he in 3 decades. He and his behavioral aide (who is herself a recovered agoraphobic) are seen on the streets of Manhattan doing in vivo exposure therapy and later on the Staten Island Ferry.

Another patient, Jackie, tried Hypnotherapy for her severe fear of feathers and birds (to the point that she could not have a feather comforter in her home for fear that a very small feather might escape the cover) to no effect. Jackie is also seen panicking during a brain imaging research session while in the MRI tube (not an uncommon reaction even for people without other phobias or anxiety disorders).

Finally, Jackie is treated in a single session by our own board member Paul Salkovskis using behavior therapy. What is the outcome of this treatment for a 30+ year phobia so severe that she abandoned her 3 year old daughter at the beach at the sight of a seagull? Jackie is last seen feeding the ducks at a local pond with her daughter. Solid real-world outcome measure - wouldn't you say?

The take home message from the program is very clear:
Pseudoscience and Miracle cures: 0
Behavior Therapy: 3

Not much of a match now was it?