A double-edged aspect of the internet is that everyone is given a voice. On the one hand, this type of egalitarianism helps to remove gatekeepers from industries, allowing for a seemingly fairer allocation of interest. Anyone can watch YouTube or social media and begin to self-educate on any number of topics, but the downside to this is that the barriers which are in place to keep consumers safe are often being disregarded. The ease with which anyone can create and grow a platform can also lead people to start believing they know more than they do, and that they are also capable of providing services and work they are not qualified to offer.
Some industries, such as the “wellness” industry, are innately blurrier that others, making it a challenging space to navigate. With a combination of science-based fields (doctors, MD’s, registered nurses, registered dietitians, licensed / clinical social workers, psychologists, etc.) and more nuanced mind-body-spirit modalities (reiki, yoga teachers, massage therapists / body workers, personal trainers, alternative diet specialists, and perhaps doulas, etc.) the industry has a wide range of people working with people to heal aliments, improve oneself, and ultimately feel better. (Or be better at feeling, if you’re in the clinical mental health space.)
In a New York Time’s review for The Death of Expertise (a book by Tom Nichols which discusses the rise of ignorance and mistrust of intellectualism, namely in America,) writer Michiko Kakutani notes “While the internet has allowed more people more access to more information than ever before, it has also given them the illusion of knowledge when in fact they are drowning in data and cherry-picking what they choose to read.”
This illusion of knowledge has created a sea of unqualified and unregulated individuals running wild on social media. With “wellness” and “mental health” being the current trendy topics, it is not surprising that anyone with access to social media and a desire to create content or create a career for themselves (influencers I’m looking at you), has started to ease into subject matters and offerings that fall far out of their range of specialty (assuming that they even had a specialty to begin with.)
Perhaps the most frightening part of seeing such false claims and untrained people working on social media is that many consumers and potential clients come to wellness to heal and are in a position of feeling un-well. Many are in a vulnerable state and looking for anything that could possibly help. Social media adds a layer of complexity in how difficult it is to discern what is and isn’t real. It is easy to create professional looking pages, websites, and bios, and anyone can easily repurpose other professionals’ work by way of reposting, copying language, or engaging in science literature or psychobabble; all giving the illusion of expertise or knowledge, when there truly is none.
The question then becomes, how can the lay consumer, who is looking to make the best choices with regard to their health and healing, know what is what? Eh, it’s complicated. Some industries have strict licensing boards, ethical guidelines and checks and balances in place to make sure clients and patients are kept as safe as possible. Others has certification and trainings (think personal training, nutrition or dietitians, reiki, yoga, etc.)
Understanding the need for certification, those who seek out these professions are aware of the time, energy, financial commitment and effort that are needed in order to be skilled in a given area. Sure, being certified, licensed or having certain advanced degrees does not guarantee someone will be a good ___ (fill in the blank with a title,) but it does offer a base from which to build. Think of it as a strong skeleton, and the muscle or quality of building past that is up to the professional. Workshops, additional trainings and certifications, specialties, increased supervision in clinical and medical professions, and more, will be undertaken by professionals to further increase their competence and the overall welfare of their clients.
Many know the medical ethics principle “do no harm,” yet what do we do when an industry does not have systems in place to protect people? Case in point, life coaches.
“Life Coaching” is a seemingly new industry (executive coaching was popular in the 1980’s but more the more life coaching centric work popped up in the 1990’s) and nowadays, many have pivoted their careers to life coaching. Though some certifications exist, few take them, and those that do have no boards or set of qualifications that protect people. Many coaching programs advertise their marketing and social media components, as the goal is to attract clients and make money, not to truly help or protect people. As a mental health professional, we had classes and courses required by masters and doctorate programs, along with the state and national boards for ethics and legal considerations. Marketing and personal brand- building were not areas of study.
Another concerning aspect is the potential for further harm by way of re-traumatizing individuals who seek out the services of these unqualified and unregulated coaches. This is especially problematic when “coaches” claim to have specialties and training that they do not possess.
The Internet has a way of making everyone a specialist if they have themselves gone through a given experience. However, any professional can tell you that experiencing something does not make you an expert, and it certainly does not qualify a person to help others in that given area (past peer support and anecdotal story telling). The latter can be powerful and purposeful, yet should not be marketed as counselling, coaching, or therapy.
I also fear the ego that can get caught up in such work, when clients come to a coach for help with everything from sexual abuse to trauma to addiction, a person in the coaching field might feel “trusted” with such topics. This feeling is remiss. Coaching, charging people, or doling out advice (even when it does help someone) does not qualify you to do such work.
With all this being considered, I believe the path to keeping the greatest number of people safe is to educate on the nature of topics and help available, that is not tainted with the marketing of social media or detailed websites and lengthy bios that say a whole lot of nothing.
Consumers have to do their due diligence to vet those who they reach out to for professional help. Ask questions. Inquire about training, education, and qualifications. If someone makes you feel worse, is asking an amount of money for services that feel off, or if you sense something is not right; trust your inner knowing and seek out something else. Often times, when something seems too good to be true, it is. I would also suggest being weary of people who become “experts” overnight, or, who have a laundry list of specialties and self-proclaimed titles.
As much as I would love to say becoming a professional is quick and easy, it is not, and it is created that way for a reason. Professionalism and taking care of people might not be trendy, but it is the only way to move forward.
Claire Fountain (@cbquality) is the wellness culture of tomorrow. A writer, therapist, and celebrity yoga instructor whose globally recognized TrillYoga continues to influence the fitness industry. Claire inspires with her unorthodox and realistic approach to yoga and mental health, while promoting a conscious lifestyle through insight and education. Her work focuses on the intersection of women, well being, mind body integration, self worth and the stories we tell ourselves with experience ranging from over half a dozen e-books and articles to international classes and speaking engagements.