Conspiracy Theories in Your Office
Curt and Katie chat about clients who bring conspiracy theories into therapy. We talk about differentiating between psychosis and believing in conspiracy theories, the characteristics of folks who may be likely to subscribe to these theories, and the importance of the relationship in working with these folks. We also look at steps we would like professional organizations to take to support clinicians.
It’s time to reimagine therapy and what it means to be a therapist. To support you as a whole person and a therapist, your hosts, Curt Widhalm and Katie Vernoy talk about how to approach the role of therapist in the modern age.
In this episode we talk about:
- How to handle when clients bring conspiracy theories into your office
- Distinguishing between delusions, shared psychosis, and conspiracy theories
- Reality testing, obsessive research, and other factors that may distinguish between psychosis and conspiracy theory
- The impact of internet research and social media algorithms
- The characteristics of folks who are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories
- How fear of uncertainty, lack of trust can play into this dynamic
- Societal impacts like advertising certainty
- The different responsibility that therapists have when someone brings in a conspiracy theory
- Hesitation in addressing these theories both in the room and at the professional org level
- The continuum of engagement with conspiracy theories (from “entertainment” to going down the rabbit hole)
- The level of investment in the theory, groups forming around these theories, and cults
- The risk factors and legal/ethical responsibilities related to harm
- Allen Lipscomb’s BRUH modality (Bonding Recognition Understanding and Healing)
- The problem with direct challenging
- The importance of identifying is it a conspiracy theory or is someone actually out to get you, especially with clients who are in traditionally marginalized communities
- Building trust within the relationship through deep understanding of the client’s experiences
- Societal measures that can help (like deplatforming leaders of the theories)
- Starting from compassion and curiosity; managing reactions
- Exploring the nuance of challenging irrational fears versus conspiracy theories
- Seeking common ground and identifying impacts
- The call to action to professional organizations for guidance and taking a stance (and the understanding of why they balk at doing so)
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Curt Widhalm is in private practice in the Los Angeles area. He is the cofounder of the Therapy Reimagined conference, an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University and CSUN, a former Subject Matter Expert for the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, former CFO of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and a loving husband and father. He is 1/2 great person, 1/2 provocateur, and 1/2 geek, in that order. He dabbles in the dark art of making “dad jokes” and usually has a half-empty cup of coffee somewhere nearby. Learn more at: http://www.curtwidhalm.com
Katie Vernoy is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, coach, and consultant supporting leaders, visionaries, executives, and helping professionals to create sustainable careers. Katie, with Curt, has developed workshops and a conference, Therapy Reimagined, to support therapists navigating through the modern challenges of this profession. Katie is also a former President of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. In her spare time, Katie is secretly siphoning off Curt’s youthful energy, so that she can take over the world. Learn more at: http://www.katievernoy.com
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Curt Widhalm 00:00
This episode is sponsored by trauma therapist network.
Katie Vernoy 00:04
Trauma therapist network is a new resource for anyone who wants to learn about trauma and how it shows up in our lives. This new site has articles, resources and podcasts for learning about trauma and its effects, as well as a directory exclusively for trauma therapists to let people know how they work, and what they specialize in so potential clients can find them. Visit trauma therapist network.com To learn more,
Curt Widhalm 00:27
Listen at the end of the episode for more about the trauma therapist network.
You’re listening to the modern therapist Survival Guide, where therapists live, breathe and practice as human beings to support you as a whole person and a therapist. Here are your hosts, Curt Widhalm and Katie Vernoy.
Curt Widhalm 00:47
Welcome back modern therapists, this is the modern therapist Survival Guide. I’m Curt Widhalm with Katie Vernoy. And this is the podcast about all things therapy related for therapists the things that we do the things that we face with clients, and literally everything else. Even the things that you don’t know that are out there, we are today talking about conspiracy theories. And are we are we actually treading into a conspiracy theory podcast here, like, I’m just now realizing that, but what to do, how to handle when clients are bringing conspiracy theories into the office. Now, as we’re looking at this episodes, we don’t want to necessarily speak to any particular conspiracy theories that are out there. So we’re just going to use a philan conspiracy theory as an example throughout this episode. So the theory that we’re working with today is that the company is behind seeded grapes are all just a money laundering front because no one buys seated grapes on purpose.
Katie Vernoy 02:02
I think that’s a great one. Okay.
Curt Widhalm 02:04
We’re gonna work with that. So do you have clients who were talking conspiracy theories? Bringing in seeded grapes into your sessions?
Katie Vernoy 02:17
Not currently. Actually. I had some folks previously pretty recently, but I think the thing I want to distinguish first, because I think that there are conspiracy theories, and then there’s also delusions, shared psychosis and and other types of psych psychotic symptoms. And so because I’ve had clients that have psychotic symptoms and believe that the world is out to get them, but how do we differentiate conspiracy theory believers from folks who have psychosis? Because for me, I feel like psychosis has other elements to it, that potentially lead to that diagnosis versus someone who doesn’t have a mental health condition, but has beliefs that are along the lines of conspiracy theory, how do you make that distinction?
Curt Widhalm 03:08
The profession has not really defined clearly the difference between the two other than we know that they’re different. So if you’re asking me, there’s
Katie Vernoy 03:20
I just did ask you. Yeah, and I was just doing.
Curt Widhalm 03:25
So if you’re asking me, it’s a focus on ideas, it’s more of the approach to the ideas than it is necessarily about the ideas themselves. That when I’ve worked with clients who have presented with delusions or with psychosis, or something else, there’s a certain level of reality testing that we go through that those clients response to, that does not show the obsessiveness into the research of whatever YouTube videos are out there or spending the amount of time going into them. They’re not alienating themselves away from friends and family in the way that conspiracy theorists tend to do. And as I see with some of the clients and some of the people who who consults with me, it’s more of the actions around what the beliefs are that pushes something into kind of that conspiracy theorist territory. This is evidenced by some of the clients who might be sending me several YouTube links from somebody who got their doctorates off of, you know, some website someplace who’s posting 30 minute videos about seeded grape industry and several of them and talking about how their family members will stop talking to them because of their beliefs. So, to me, it’s more of the qualitative actions around how they approach it as opposed to necessarily the content of what they’re bringing in.
Katie Vernoy 05:10
I agree, I think there’s, with the clients that I’ve had with psychotic symptoms, they seem to just believe and know it to be true. There isn’t that research level. I agree with that. I think there’s also an element of, in fact, they see proof to the contrary, and fold it in to the delusion or the hallucination that they’re experiencing, and it stays in this realm, that’s very different. I do think that folks with psychosis can alienate the people around them. And I think, in fact, do they, you know, I’ve had clients where they believe that you’re part of the conspiracy against them, and, and then either decide to meet with you anyway or not, I’ve had, you know, different folks who argue with, you know, the voices in their head, you know, to try to not do therapy or whatever, or believe family members are part of these larger things and alienate themselves. So I think it’s, it’s kind of like we know it when we see it. Right. You know, whereas conspiracy theories, sometimes it’s perfectly reasonable and rational folks that have kind of gone down this social media rabbit hole, where, you know, basically all of the the algorithms are, are designed to give them more and more information about the seeded grape industry that were as someone with more of a kind of a standalone psychosis or delusion, doesn’t have that it’s more that they are building things. And this means this, which means this, which means this and it’s it’s their own logic versus something that they’re finding within more established means that that they believe they’re doing the correct research, but they’ve actually gone down these these rabbit holes.
Curt Widhalm 06:53
There’s Psychology Today article that is the mind of a conspiracy theorist. This was part of their November 2020. Magazine. We’ll link to this in our show notes, you can find those over at MTS g podcast.com. But this article talks about particular personality traits that are more likely to lead to people believing in conspiracy theories. And those things include things like low levels of trust, increase needs for closure, feelings of powerlessness, low self esteem, paranoid thinking, and a need to feel unique. And that these are rather stable personality traits that conspiracy theorists hold across their lifetime. And guides us into probably the crux of this episode, which is, what do we do with this, when these kinds of clients come into our office, when they talk with us about the things going on the coded messages that they might be receiving or spending inordinate amounts of time on the internet with that, it does help to look at the combination of these personality traits as part of how you might want to look at guiding your response.
Katie Vernoy 08:19
And as you were talking about the types of folks I just want to touch on that first, is it when you were talking about the traits it just reminded me of the conversation that we had with Dr. Tereza Capelos on treating political reactionism. And I think that there’s there may be some some ties between kind of political extremism and belief in conspiracy theories, if there’s some overlap in those those things. So I just wanted to comment on that. I will link to that podcast episode in the show notes as well. But it seems like there could be a perfect storm around this.
Curt Widhalm 08:56
Sure. It makes sense when you’ve got a low level of trust and the need for closure. Yeah, that if you’re not trusting the information that is being presented, and you have that drive for needing things to be in nice, neat little boxes, that that sets up that profile of people who are always going to want just that little bit more, not believing that everything has been quite stated yet. And that leads to the opportunity to start filling in boxes that may not actually be there or partial boxes that kind of exists and haven’t. And we’ve really seen this play out in kind of real time over the last couple of years where people in response to the scientific methods of round the COVID 19 pandemic. Don’t follow along the scientific paths. have real time science, which is, oh, we’ve got an idea. We’ve tested this, this idea doesn’t work, or this idea only partially works. Yeah. And the belief that either that is not factual or that it’s absolutely factual and why are they keep looking? They must not be telling us something that is widely prevalent at this point.
Katie Vernoy 10:25
Sure. And I think that there when when we look at a lack of trust, there’s societal efforts towards us feeling very decided. Very sure. In what what steps we must take, I mean, the marketing does that this is the answer to your problem purchase this thing. And it’s the answer to your problem. And you know, the quick fixes and all those things, the setting with uncertainty, or the setting with, you know, kind of partially conflicting messages or those types of things is not something that we are really encouraged to do by a lot of the content we consume. So it makes sense that there are going to be during times of uncertainty that we want the security of a conspiracy theory, because it feels so definite, and it feels like you know, more than someone else, and it feels like you have the true answers, and so that you’re safe, even if all the people around you are not. I think for me, the the part that becomes really hard is that there are if someone brings it into a therapy session, there’s this, though, there’s a different responsibility that we have, as therapists, let me say it that way, like as a therapist, we have a different responsibility to our clients, then a family member or a family member can just be like, yeah, that’s crazy, dude, like, stop it. Whereas with us, as a therapist, there’s, there’s a responsibility to take care of this client. And there’s a responsibility to sustain the therapeutic relationship, there’s a responsibility to do and work in service of the client. And so to me, I think the the difficulty becomes, at what point do you push hard back on a conspiracy theory that’s very harmful to a client? And at what point do you enter the world of the client and, and help them to kind of process what they’re experiencing? I mean, I know we’re gonna go into a few different articles that talk about how therapists are managing it. But one of the things and a I think it was a Mashable article that you sent over to be heard that the first paragraph was like, APA doesn’t want to actually come on record with how to address conspiracy theories,
Curt Widhalm 12:44
why not? What are they hiding?
Katie Vernoy 12:48
Because they don’t want to piss off people that maybe support them, right? And potentially, they don’t want to stand up against what a lot of people are saying as conservative rhetoric as conspiracy theory. And we’re clearly not saying that we’re talking about seeded grapes. But I think that there’s that element of, there’s some shying away of talking about how do we actually handle this.
Curt Widhalm 13:11
And I think a lot of our tendencies are, this is uncomfortable, we don’t want to piss off people. And so therefore, we’re just going to smile politely to our clients, and then just return back to whatever’s already in their treatment plan. Yeah. But there probably is times to push back on this. Because going back to the Psychology Today article, they point to Timothy McVeigh, the person behind the 1995, Oklahoma City bombing, as having violent fantasies that started out in conspiracy thinking, and, well, those level of things are rare. You did bring up our episode with trees capitalist as far as Yeah, that extremism can form some of the roots in this and it might lead to lower levels of vandalism and harm people destroying seated grapes, because right within this, you probably have a responsibility as a therapist to not just brush things off is his centric sort of hobby thinking. I’ve seen some literature around that there’s kind of three groups of people when it comes to conspiracy theory type stuff is there’s those who don’t believe in anything that’s kind of not scientific at all. There’s the people who look at conspiracy theory type stuff with no kind of an entertainment value sort of thing. And then there’s the people with the other extreme end who are alienating friends and family. They’re staying up late into the night They’re missing work because they’re not caring for themselves. And it’s a continuum. And some of the people who start in some of that entertainment sort of area, start going down the rabbit hole, and potentially do slide into some of this more extreme ideology and rhetoric. And especially with things like the internet, you mentioned the algorithms earlier of ending up in echo chambers, where they’re only hearing people from the same viewpoints that end up developing them even further down the rabbit hole.
Katie Vernoy 15:37
And I think when there is that investment, in a conspiracy theory, or a range a, a family of conspiracy theories, and there is a group that forms around it, I think what can happen is that the investment is so high in it being true because of whatever it provides to them. But I think there There can also be an element of others, helping each other to overcome any objections from family members. From other things. I did a little bit of reading around cults and different things like that. And I think once you get a group of conspiracy theorists, I don’t know when it becomes a cult, but I think it’s something where some of those mechanisms of really getting into someone’s head whether it’s these algorithms or people and and really creating a space that allows them to disregard everything else in their life and just continue to support this conspiracy theory. I think that becomes more obviously, a mental health issue and a primary mental health issue. I think when we’re talking about when do we have to step forward, I think that that knowing how to work with colds and knowing how to help someone, you know, whether it’s deprogramming or whatever you want to call it, I think that that’s a that’s another conversation. That’s not what we’re talking about today. But when someone is starting to do things that are harmful to themselves to others to property, I mean, at some at certain points, even just as a therapist, we’re mandated to take action to make sure that people are not causing harm. But I think the the nuance that that I think you’re looking for and I think what we want to talk about today are folks who have these low, low, low level conspiracy theories that they believe in, that could rise to the level of violence or destruction of property, and how we intervene, where we don’t alienate our clients. So that they start they keep going down the rabbit hole, but we’re not with them, and we can’t then take some of those protective action for them and for the people around them.
Curt Widhalm 17:46
One of the biggest signs is people who believe in one conspiracy theory are susceptible to believing in more and part of this is just in social expansion that says you start diving into some ideas that people that you would be conversing with in those areas would also be bringing in other conspiracy ideas. You know, not only is it seeded grapes but now it’s seeded watermelons like why did those exist still What didn’t we get that figured out? Like
Katie Vernoy 18:23
yeah, I think we’ve started a whole new conspiracy theory around seeded seeded fruit I’m sure that we can you know if you have the the biological knowledge of why we still have these seated grapes and seeded watermelons, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Curt Widhalm 18:42
only if these are videos by doctors and poorly lit rooms. At least half an hour in length. But in working with these, going to this Mashable article they interviewed Dr. Alan Lipscomb, he is a social worker who has worked a lot with black men grappling with trauma and grief and noticed with many of his clients that conspiracy theories became a reoccurring theme in their sessions really related to things like race related microaggressions that even started with things like the clients talking about, like the Tuskegee experiments, where the government purposely infected black people with syphilis and seeing the effects of these kinds of treatments,
Katie Vernoy 19:43
which is not a conspiracy, which is not – it’s true,
Curt Widhalm 19:46
which is true.
Katie Vernoy 19:48
Curt Widhalm 19:49
But this helps to push some of the mistrust of the government things
Katie Vernoy 19:55
Curt Widhalm 19:56
Which not going to blame it Anybody coming from this community with stuff like this in the history of having a healthy mistrust of government? Sure. And even in the response here, I love the acronym for Dr. Lips comms approach to this. It’s called the bra approach. Now, I’m cynical enough that this could also be just like, bra, honestly. But this actually is an acronym that stands for bonding, recognition, understanding and healing. And even in the way that we’re introducing his work with his particular population, comes with a place of understanding, yeah, I see where these people are coming from I, I agree that some of these interpretations are going to be natural responses. And it takes building trust with these clients, to help them work through some of the mistrust issues. And that includes working on the trust in the therapeutic relationship. Some of my clients who are coming in and talking about the money laundering that goes with CDB grapes right now will continuously kind of still test me with some of the things that they’re talking about, Oh, you must not believe in seeded grapes at all that, you know, I hear you, I’ve, I’ve seen some seeded grapes before, like, these are things that you’re not going to get anywhere with these kinds of clients by directly challenging them with your own beliefs. Otherwise, you’re going to be, you know, seen as in on the conspiracy yourself.
Katie Vernoy 21:45
Yeah. Yeah, I guess the thing that I want to point out because I think with the the example, in the Mashable article, I think, the the other element of the conspiracy theories were, you know, kind of based in the reality of the medical harm against the black community, folks were believing that there were other things happening during the COVID 19 pandemic and with vaccines. So, to me, I think, the difficulty in sorting out, is it a conspiracy theory? Or are people actually out to get you – I think that part is really important, especially in marginalized communities. I think starting from a place of this as a conspiracy theory, can be very harmful. And so and you may not know that it’s a conspiracy theory until you actually have a chance to sit with them and understand and so my thought process is, when you actually take the time to understand someone’s perspective, understand the oppression that they’re feeling, understand the fears that they have, and trying to sort out how is this impacting you? What evidence can you get for and against, and I think there’s a there’s an issue with going too much into the evidence with someone that’s truly in the in thrall to a conspiracy theory, I think that there has to be a space that it may not be a conspiracy theory, it may be that they’re actually being oppressed and marginalized and or people are out to get them. And so I guess I just wanted to comment on that. But I think that there’s a need I agree a need for trust within the relationship so that you can truly understand the experience and understand where it’s, it’s going from my reality to a conspiracy theory.
Curt Widhalm 23:30
Part of what the COVID 19 pandemic has done is it’s forced people away from being around people with differing viewpoints in their jobs in public. And therefore they are spending more time online with people who are sharing the same beliefs that you know that algorithm stuff that Katie was referring to earlier. Part of getting into the trusting relationship with your clients, also serves a very long term goal of helping to provide a space for them to think critically about different viewpoints and even potentially, opening up to not hearing from some of the heads of some of the theories that are being driven. We’ve seen this, we’ve seen evidence of this being successful with things like the D platforming of people like Alex Jones, that when their messages are no longer allowed on places like Twitter or Facebook or this kind of stuff. The people who have followed them, their rhetoric also becomes less extreme when it comes to some of these conspiracy theories. So keeping in mind that this is a slow and deliberate building of trust with clients means that you really have to watch your own reactions and sessions. You can’t be rolling your eyes, you can’t be necessarily avoiding conversations about these kinds of things. But having compassion for the starting place of where these clients are coming from, so that way, when they are ready or willing to take that next step with you, that you are seen as a trusted figure in their lives,
Katie Vernoy 25:24
how would you differentiate addressing a conspiracy theory with a client versus addressing a a fear that is gone to a slightly irrational place?
Curt Widhalm 25:38
I don’t know that I would approach them much differently. That, at least as far as how I’m hearing, what you’re saying, with some of the instances that have come up in my practice, is, in my general response, you know, I’ll provide some curious space for Oh, I haven’t heard about that, that does come from maybe a more neutral place that allows for me to be a curious thinker of Well, I wonder about, fill in the blank, you know, I wonder about, you know, seated oranges. So those things still exist. Or, you know, something that might be a curious challenge to it that does invite looking at things from from different viewpoints as team members that you would also do with clients who do present with irrational fears, irrational beliefs. Yeah. You know, Never have we ever, you know, just confronted a client in session, been, like, hey, that that irrational fear you have? How about just thinking about it differently? Like, if that was the way things worked, our grad school training would be a lot shorter, but it doesn’t work that way. So it was
Katie Vernoy 26:57
it, there isn’t Rational Emotive therapy? Isn’t that kind of like, that’s irrational? Like, isn’t that isn’t that actually a tried and true therapy.
Curt Widhalm 27:07
I love that Aaron Beck can just yell at clients that they’re wrong and that, but it, but even even within REBT, there’s the trust in this is somebody you know, you’re not just yelling, that’s your rational in the first session. You’re not just there arguing with clients. And part of this is really understanding that you might get 45-50 minutes out of a week with a client, and they’re spending eight hours a day online listening to Joe Rogan or
Katie Vernoy 27:43
the seeded grape industry.
Curt Widhalm 27:45
Katie Vernoy 27:47
I think the thing that I’m I’m sensing from the way that you work as well as this is the way that I work is that there is a connection with the client that then allows for some exploration of what’s going on. I think this is another distinguisher, between conspiracy theory versus kind of an irrational fear within a normal kind of anxiety presentation is, is that folks who are anxious think that their anxiety is too high for what they’re experiencing. And it seems like folks who with a conspiracy theory feel like they’re not afraid enough that this is super dangerous. And so I think, really trying to sort through where someone sits there and being able to honor what is occurring, I think is really important. I think the that part that can get very confusing, I think, you know, and this has happened with me with some of my conspiracy focused psychosis that I’ve seen, but also I think, with folks who are just very intelligent people that believe things that have been put forward as conspiracy theories, I think what ends up happening is, is I try to connect with the pieces that feel like they are, I don’t know what the right word is common ground maybe, and trying to understand the impact of of what they believe on how they behave on their relationships, trying to sort through it from that angle. I think it becomes challenging when there’s just such an interweaving of reality and conspiracy theory where you can’t just you can’t yell at them. It’s irrational because it’s not completely irrational. There’s it’s so nuanced and there’s so many little pieces that the conversation has to be very rich. And so it goes back to that element of it really has to come from a very strong relationship. And and we need to be able to stay in relationship and and the more we push back, the less light someone in our in our office is going to be able to hang with us if they’ve really invested in the conspiracy theory.
Curt Widhalm 29:55
This Mashable article has interviewed Dr. Ziv Cohen, the founder and medical director of principal psychiatry in New York City. And Dr. Cohen really calls out that the professional organizations do need to be more involved in providing some guidance in this area. And I can understand why the professional organizations are not. That’s because many therapists probably also believe in some conspiracy theories.
Katie Vernoy 30:30
Okay, here we go, here’s where we’re gonna get all of the feedback on the episode.
Curt Widhalm 30:34
Well, and as a professional organization, we know that their first job duty is to make sure that the continuance of the professional organization exists. And if they are alienating their members, that is potentially a drop in membership, and therefore, they don’t want to alienate members. So, even being able to wade into this, Dr. Cohen calls for the professional organizations to take more of a stance and guidance, you know, at least use something like, you know, seated grape industry, as an example, we don’t need to necessarily go out and address things. But we do need to work on training clinicians on how to recognize when it does progress from seated grapes to harm and potentially identifying those who are most vulnerable to be acting out violently. And it is a continuum and a slippery slope. So call your professional organizations tell them your thoughts on seated grapes. Don’t put any context into it, but make seated grapes happen.
Katie Vernoy 31:52
So I want to actually push back on one of the things that you said, as a profession. Is it not important for us to comment on conspiracy theories that are psychologically harmful to the populace?
Curt Widhalm 32:07
Absolutely, we should.
Katie Vernoy 32:09
Okay, so why would you then say that professional organizations shouldn’t address that, but should address how therapists
Curt Widhalm 32:16
I’m saying, cuz I’m, I’m picturing the heads of these organizations and what their response is the pearl clutching that they will have in looking at their membership, and giving them an out to be able to walk the line in between what they should be saying and how they can package it nicely to actually start presenting this information.
Katie Vernoy 32:40
So you’re trying to get to a place where they would actually do something versus actually commenting on what they really should be doing.
Curt Widhalm 32:47
Exactly, yes. So
Katie Vernoy 32:49
alright, that’s fair. Yeah.
Curt Widhalm 32:51
Check out our show notes at MPs G podcast, join our Facebook group, the veteran therapist group, follow us on our social media and continue to drink the modern therapist Kool Aid. And until next time, I’m Curt Widhalm with Katie Vernoy.
Katie Vernoy 33:07
Thanks again to our sponsor, trauma therapist network.
Curt Widhalm 33:11
If you’ve ever looked for a trauma therapist, you can know it can be hard to discern who knows what and whether or not they’re the right fit for you. There’s so many types of trauma and so many different ways to heal. That’s why Laura Reagan LCSW WC created trauma therapist network. Trauma therapist network therapist profiles include the types of traumas specialized in population served therapy methods used, making it easier for potential clients to find the right therapist who can help them. Network is more than a directory though it’s community. All members are invited to attend community meetings to connect consults, and network with colleagues around the country.
Katie Vernoy 33:47
Join the growing community of trauma therapists and get 20% off your first month using the promo code Mt. SG 20 at Trauma therapist network.com Once again that’s capital MTS G the number 20 at Trauma therapist network.com
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Curt Widhalm 35:49
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