On Kooks and Quacks

Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Pic of quack doctor

A “kook” is my term for someone who seeks to advance a treatment that has either been disproved or is on the fringe of mainstream medicine.  The kook’s primary motive is to help people, not to scam them.  Remember the story of Chicken Little?  He genuinely thought the sky was falling and proceeded to warn his friends of impending doom.  Not unlike Chicken Little’s misguided belief that the sky was falling, kooks genuinely believe that their alternative treatments will be able to cure everything from ADHD to cancer.

In my practice, I have seen parents whose children received the services of kooks before coming to see me.  Examples of kook treatments include waving crystals over a child to “fix” his epilepsy or giving him a “colonic” to rid his body of impurities and remedy his autism.  Unfortunately, kooks tend to be rather convincing about their ability to cure people of dreaded afflictions, thereby ​fooling otherwise rational people into making bad medical decisions.

I refer to “quacks” as scammers who are in the business of selling sham treatments in order to rip people off.  Quacks know the treatments they peddle are fringe, unproven, or even dangerous.  They flourish wherever there is money to be made, especially in perceived “cutting edge” treatments or “procedures du jour.” Again, while a kook’s treatments are suspect and may be harmful, the kook’s intent is to help your child.  The quack’s intent is simply to make money by ripping people off.

In February 2011, a young woman tragically died after she was injected with liquid silicone in a botched “buttocks enhancement” procedure performed in a Philadelphia hotel room.  Although I doubt I would ever desire to have my own buttocks enhanced, I certainly wouldn’t have it done at a hotel!  Yet, it is clear that the quack was able to prey upon this young woman who desired to have her derriere look like a certain celebrity’s.  There seems to be no end to what quacks are offering these days, although cut-rate silicone and Botox “enhancements” are among the most common services advertised.  Unfortunately, the duped patient doesn’t know if she’s really getting Botox or pond scum.

Parents should be warned!  The mental health field is not immune to “kookery” and “quackery.”  Parents ask me all of the time about whether their child might benefit from questionable or, frankly, downright dangerous treatments.  One such treatment that comes to mind is chelation therapy for children with autism.  Chelation involves infusion of intravenous (IV) medication that is legitimately used to treat plumbism, or the medical term for lead poisoning.

The medical profession has long known that high lead levels cause brain damage and other physical ailments in children.  This being the case, it stood to reason that the elimination of lead and other heavy metals might cure autism.  The problem with the theory was that it remained just that – unproven by the rigors of legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific research.  Despite its unproven status, the kooks genuinely believed chelation therapy would work and began writing scholarly-appearing but non-peer reviewed articles about how children with autism should receive IV chelation.  The quacks saw this as an opportunity to prey upon parents of autistic children, charging them thousands of dollars for delivery of the treatments.    

It was not until 2005 that chelation therapy for autistic children came under intense scrutiny after a 5 year-old Pennsylvania boy died from it.  Despite tragic outcomes like the boy from Pennsylvania, mental health scams remain alive and well. Unfortunatley, I am sorry to say that kookery and quackery do not end with false and dangerous medication claims.  Some self-proclaimed mental health practitioners, many with doctoral degrees, promise to fix your child’s condition with special therapies they claim only they can provide.

My take-home point here is that there are a number of self-proclaimed mental health experts out there making outrageous claims.  Some of these practitioners hold doctoral degrees, which makes it really hard for the public to separate the good from the bad.   My hope is that this website will help to arm parents and caregivers with the information they need to not only identify a kook or a quack, but to avoid questionable and fringe therapies they may try to prescribe for your loved one.  This is one of the many reasons I have included links to reputable websites that I and my 360 team believe have proven track records in terms of trying to help children and families affected by mental illness.  Hucksters beware!  Dr. Tim is here to arm the public with information to root you out and put you out of business.

--Dr. Tim, 2013*

*I am currently writing a book about the child mental health system, and this blog entry has been adapted from a small excerpt of this not-yet-published book.  Thanks for reading!