Jean Mercer, PhD
Moorestown, New Jersey, USA
Psychologist Jean A. Mercer, PhD, is the foremost spokesman for science-based and humane psychotherapy for adopted and foster children. In the late 1990s, Dr Mercer encountered “Complementary and Alternative Medicine” (“CAM”) in the form of “Attachment (Holding) Therapy” and “Rebirthing.” Upon the therapist-caused death of 10-year-old Candace Newmaker in 2000, she began to speak out and publish critiques of “alternative” mental health interventions.
Prof Mercer is retired from teaching at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, taking the position of Professor Emerita of Psychology there. Since her retirement, she has devoted her time to countering the claims of “CAM” psychotherapists that their methods are evidence-based. Her blog on Psychology Today regularly addressed unvalidated practices. Dr Mercer has also been involved with issues of inappropriate use of psychological testing in child custody cases and has both testified and published on this topic. She is currently working on a study of historical factors that may help to define “CAM” practices more clearly. One of her co-authored articles on “alternative” mental health interventions was short-listed for the “Pro Humanitate” award. She is a major contributor to the Wikipedia article on Attachment Theory which received “featured article” status in spite of efforts of “CAM” proponents to subvert it. In 2007 she was an expert witness in the child abuse trial of Sylvia Vasquez, a California mother who used Attachment Therapy-related methods with three of her adopted children.
Dr Mercer received her PhD in general psychology from Brandeis University in 1968. Her dissertation investigated the effects of vestibular stimulation on sound localization and was followed by an invitation to apply to the “Scientist as Astronaut” program. Remaining earthbound, however, she began a teaching career that emphasized research methods and statistics. Her research in developmental psychology includes work on factors in the timing of human lactation and on pain responses in premature babies. She was president of the New Jersey Association for Infant Mental Health for five years and remains an active board member.
Dr Mercer has two blogsites: Child Myths and The Study of Nonsense.
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments (2014) addresses concerns about current and newly-emerging mental health treatments that are considered "unconventional." In a parallel to complementary and alternative medical treatments, alternative psychotherapies lack research support, are at odds with established information about human personality and development, and may actually be harmful. Professionals and students in the helping professions may find such treatments confusing and difficult to differentiate from emerging therapies that have not yet established a foundation of evidence; this is especially problematic if clients propose using unconventional therapies they have found on the Internet. Alternative Psychotherapies examines a series of unconventional treatments in terms of the research supporting them, their theoretical and historical backgrounds, and the potential or documented adverse events that may be associated with them. Therapies for both adults and children are included, and topics range from recovered memory therapies to bodywork to treatments for autism and to special education issues. Alternative psychotherapies frequently share certain historical backgrounds, and psychotherapists can use historical insights as well as an understanding of basic research rules and psychological theory to identify unconventional treatments other than the ones discussed. The book concludes with a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of greater regulation of alternative therapies, as compared to the current situation in which few mental health interventions are banned or limited by law.
- (2012, in press) "Deliverance, demonic possession, and mental illness: some considerations for mental health professionals," Mental Health, Religion, and Culture, (on line 2012 July 24).
- "Post adoption depression: "real" or "not real"? Child Myths, 2012 Sep 14.
- "A vicious effort to scare parents away from vaccination," Child Myths, 2012 Aug 27.
- "Parsing the "Attachment Cycle": the fox terrier of Attachment Therapy," The Study of Nonsense, 2012 Aug 15.
- "Why study nonsense?" The Study of Nonsense, 2012 Aug 8.
- "That old basic trust concept: peddling the "Attachment Cycle," Child Myths, 2012 Aug 4.
- "ATTACh tells us about attachment disorders: an unrecommended video," Child Myths, 2012 Jul 16.
- "Mental health mantras versus evidence-based treatment: a clash of attitudes?" Child Myths, 2012 Jun 3.
- "Book reviews: alternative therapies for children," Child Myths, 2012 May 2.
- "Reply to Sudbery, Shardlow, and Huntington: holding therapy," British Journal of Social Work, 2012, 42:556-559.
- “Attachment theory and its vicissitudes: toward an updated theory,” Theory and Psychology; 2011, 21:25-45.
- "The concept of psychological regression: metaphors, mapping, Queen Square, and Tavistock Square," History of Psychology, 2011, 14:174-196.
- "Some aspects of CAM mental health interventions: regression, recapitulation, and 'secret sympathies'," Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2011, 8:36-55.
- Book review: Rachel Stryker's (2010) The Road to Evergreen, in Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2011, 8:69-74.
- “Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy is not ‘evidence-based’: comments in response to Becker-Weidman and Hughes” (with RS Pennington, MB Pignotti & LA Rosa), Child & Family Social Work, 2010 Feb; 15(1):1-5. [abstract]
- “Child custody evaluations, attachment theory, and an attachment measure: the science remains limited,” Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2009; 7(1):37-54.
- “Shortcuts cause errors in Systematic Research Syntheses: rethinking evaluation of mental health interventions” (with MB Pignotti), Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2007; 5(2):59-77.
- “Destructive trends in alternative infant mental health approaches,” Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2007; 5(2):44-58.
- “Holding Therapy and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy are not supported, acceptable social work interventions: a systematic research synthesis revisited” (with MB Pignotti), Research on Social Work Practice, 2007 Jul; 17(4):513-519. [abstract]
- “EBT or not EBT? Or, when Is an evidentiary basis on the level?” Report to Advocates for Children in Therapy, 2006 Apr.
- “Open letter to ATTACh,” Advocates for Children in Therapy, 2006 Mar 10.
- “Coercive restraint therapies: a dangerous alternative mental health intervention,” Medscape General Medicine, 2005 Aug 9; 7(3):6. Discussion, 2005 Nov 22; 7(4):58. Author reply, 2005 Nov 22; 7(4):59.
- “Violent therapies: the rationale behind a potentially harmful child psychotherapy,” Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2003 Spring-Summer, 2(1):27-37.
- “Attachment therapy parenting methods” (with LA Rosa), Report to Advocates for Children in Therapy, 2003 May.
- “Attachment therapy: a treatment without empirical support,” Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, 2002; 1(2):9-16. Reprinted in SO Lilienfeld, J Ruscio & SJ Lynn, eds., Navigating the Mindfield: A Guide to Separating Science from Pseudoscience in Mental Health (Prometheus Books, 2008):435-454.
- “Attachment therapy,” MB Shermer, ed., The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience (ABC-Clio, 2002), 1:43-47.
- “Child psychotherapy Involving physical restraint: techniques used in four approaches,” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 2002 Aug; 19(4):303-314. [DOI]
- “Snake oil, ethics, and the First Amendment: what’s a profession to do?” (with SS Kennedy, W Mohr & CW Huffine), American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 2002 Jan; 72(1):5-15. This article considers the appropriate legal and ethical response to those whose advocacy of “alternative” or unvalidated therapies places people at risk of harm. It considers professional responsibilities with respect to such advocacy and explores the justification of government intervention. [DOI]
- “‘Attachment therapy’ using deliberate restraint: an object lesson on the identification of unvalidated treatments,” Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 2001 Jul; 14(3):105-114. [abstract]
Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings (Sage, 2nd ed., 2013). Fifty short essays about child development that challenge readers to reconsider pre-conceived notions. For students, the book includes critical thinking questions and examples of research to help make the connection between research designs and conclusions.
Understanding Attachment: Parenting, Child Care, and Emotional Development (Praeger, 2005). This book provides a concise and jargon-free summary of attachment theory and successfully reveals how developments in the assessment of attachment promoted the evolution of attachment theory to what it is today. It challenges makers of public policy, lawyers and judges, the child care community, and parents to make the effort to truly understand attachment – and to use new knowledge on behalf of all young children and families.
Attachment Therapy on Trial: The Torture and Death of Candace Newmaker, with Larry W. Sarner & Linda A. Rosa (Praeger, 2003). Candace Newmaker was an adopted girl whose mother felt the child suffered from an emotional disorder that prevented loving attachment. Her adoptive mother, a registered nurse, sought Attachment Therapy, a fringe form of psychotherapy, for the girl and was present at her death by suffocation during that therapy. This text examines the beliefs of the girl’s mother and the therapists, showing that the death, though unintentional, was a logical outcome of this form of treatment.
In the News:
- “Adoption fearmongers take over,” By Martha Nichols, Salon, 2010 April 12.
- “Skeptic: death by theory,” by Michael B. Shermer, Scientific American Magazine; 2004 June.
- “Jackson family confounds even child-abuse experts,” by Barbara Laker, Philadelphia Daily News, 2003 Dec 2. Dr Mercer has studied a controversial, unorthodox form of therapy – often called attachment therapy – that is used to help build a bond between parents and children. A staunch critic of these methods – which can include food restrictions, holding children so tightly they can’t move, even pinning them to the floor, and forcing them to do meaningless, difficult chores as punishment – Dr Mercer relates how those who adhere to this therapy believe that children form emotional attachments to their parents because they give them food. Food is withdrawn to reinforce parents’ authority. “This is a very cruel and ineffective form of treatment,” Dr Mercer concludes.
- “Novel unsupported therapies: pseudoscientific and cult-like characteristics,” with M Pignotti & JD Herbert, International Cultic Studies Conference, 2008, Philadelphia, PA.
- “Attachment theory, evidence-based practice, and rogue therapies: using and misusing the concept of attachment” (with LA Rosa, RS Pennington, LW Sarner), Wisconsin School Psychology Association, La Crosse, Wisconsin, 2008 Oct 29.
- Testimony, US House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Human Resources (with LW Sarner), 2003 Nov 20.
“The US is becoming more and more supporters of “Attachment Therapy” OneTV, Moscow, Russia (2013 Mar 3)
“Attachment Therapy & Russian Adoptees in the USA,” Russian Television (2013 Feb 21)
The Online Jean Mercer: