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Unorthodox Therapy in New Orleans Raises Concern

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of well-meaning mental health professionals descended on the Gulf region to assist a traumatized population. For the most part, these people did a tremendous amount of good.

But some mental health workers are using untested therapies -- and that is prompting concern. One controversial treatment is thought field therapy, which is being used to aid victims of Katrina in New Orleans.

Thought field therapy -- also known as TFT -- is a fringe psychological treatment, one of many practiced throughout the United States with very little challenge from the major mental health associations. The concept behind TFT is that mental illness is the product of disturbances in what practitioners call "thought fields" and that tapping on a series of acupuncture-type points in the body will free the sufferer from emotional pain.

According to psychologist Roger Callahan, the creator of thought field therapy, major problems like depression can be cured quickly with this method. He says post-traumatic stress disorder is easily dispatched in 15 minutes, and even the most serious cases of anxiety, addiction and phobias are likewise subject to quarter-hour cures.

But many mainstream mental health professionals are skeptical of Callahan's claims. James Herbert, a psychology professor at Drexel University, recently wrote a review of what little research exists on the efficacy of TFT.

He found that the "scientific status of thought field therapy is basically nonexistent" and there is "no evidence it does what it claims to do."

The American Psychological Association agrees with Herbert. Their official statement describes TFT as an approach that "lacks a scientific basis." Nevertheless, in the chaotic aftermath of catastrophes like Katrina -- where need is great and conventional mental health providers are scarce -- fringe treatments like TFT often flourish.

In the last month, the therapy has been used to treat -- among others -- the staff of New Orleans' Charity Hospital, Children's Hospital and several other prestigious institutions in Louisiana.

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Alix Spiegel has worked on NPR's Science Desk for 10 years covering psychology and human behavior, and has reported on everything from what it's like to kill another person, to the psychology behind our use of function words like "and", "I", and "so." She began her career in 1995 as one of the founding producers of the public radio program This American Life. While there, Spiegel produced her first psychology story, which ultimately led to her focus on human behavior. It was a piece called 81 Words, and it examined the history behind the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.