The counselors fusing therapy and psychic readings: ‘I knew every word my client was going to say’ | Life and style

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From meditation and breath work to ketamine journeys led by self-described shamans in high-end Manhattan clinics, therapies once considered alternative are increasingly being incorporated by the western mainstream – sometimes with the language and rituals of spiritualism creeping in.

A new generation of counselors is taking this further, fusing psychotherapeutic and psychic services. Mainstream psychologists are concerned that without clear boundaries between the two, clients could be taken advantage of.

As interest in spirituality booms – a 2022 study found that nearly nine out of 10 Americans hold one belief that can be described as “new-age spiritualism”, whether that’s reincarnation, telepathy, or astrology – some therapists working in more traditional counseling are moonlighting as psychics. Others, like Amanda Charles – a counselor with a long-held interest in spiritualism, which she previously did not discuss with her therapy clients – are “coming out” as mediums. Charles said she was concerned that revealing her psychic beliefs would destroy her career. But, she said, “since coming out, I have clients all over the world”.

Others stepping in to meet demand include Betsy LeFae, named one of Time Out’s top psychic mediums last year. She’s a former social worker who now runs the Trust Yourself: Intuition School, a self-help institution that teaches students how to “tune out negative influences/energy and find trust in their inner voice”. Ashley Torrent, who describes herself as a psychospiritual counselor and medium, offers counseling and readings to “honor the relationship between our humanity and our divinity”, and the Helix Training Program, based in New York, is a “non-denominational seminary” that offers “unique training in psychospiritual counseling and work in personal transformation”.

Psychology Today keeps a list of practitioners in 39 US states who describe themselves as “spirituality therapists”; last year, the Washington Post reported that more than half of patients are interested in spiritually integrated therapy, and that training has popped up to teach clinicians how to incorporate ideas like mystical experiences into treatment.

Even psychics who do not claim to be therapists cloak their branding in the language of personal reinvention. The psychic hotlines of yore have made way for gen Z-friendly apps like Kasamba, which offers a lineup of “expert advisers” to help “find your path to happiness”. Keen, the largest online database of mediums, claims to have served “14 million satisfied customers”, who have had a total of “45 million meaningful conversations”. The app’s logo is a green leaf, not unlike the emblem for the therapy app BetterHelp, which features two hands resting over an emerald-tinted fern – it’s a far cry from charging a dollar a minute to commune over the phone or working out of neon-lit basements.

woman with crystal ball
The more traditional view of a psychic. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Charles says she grew up having visions. She says that as a child, she predicted the births and deaths of family members, plus her parents’ divorce. But adults always shut down her supposed abilities, and she closed the door on a psychic career after becoming a licensed counseling psychologist (her qualifications include a master’s degree in counseling psychology) in London.

But she says it wasn’t easy to hide her alleged gift. “When I was a normal psychologist, sometimes I’d know something about a client and say it in session, and they’d say, ‘I haven’t told you that,’” Charles told the Guardian. Recalling one therapy client session, she said: “I knew every word she was going to say.” When this happened, she said, she would tell patients that they had discussed an issue before – even if that was not true. “I’ve lost count of how many people asked if I was psychic, and I’d laugh it off.”

In 2020, Charles decided to come out as the “psychic psychologist” on Instagram, which is also the title of her first book, out next year. She thought it would destroy her career, but she’s still able to work as both a medium and therapist. She says she doesn’t cross the line between the two, though in therapy sessions where she has the client’s permission to use her medium powers, she does incorporate elements of both skills: “It’s not like I’m saying, ‘Oh, there’s your dead Uncle Bob in the room,’” she said. “Rather than give a mediumship reading during a session, I’ll say that I have a sense that something they said might relate to someone in their family, and ask if that resonates. You talk on a much more intuitive level.”

Charles says that being open about her spiritualism has been good for business – clients now seek her out having heard her story and believing that she has spiritual abilities. But not every psychic-therapist is as transparent. Two years ago, John, a 41-year-old man from Manchester, UK, sought out a shrink to work through trauma related to his mother’s past emotional abuse. (John asked that his full name be kept private.)

At first, things worked well: the therapist was friendly, relaxed, and easy to talk to. She helped John gain better insights into his feelings. Once, when he was talking about his mother’s death, she asked for his opinion on psychics and mediums, but when he told her he was an atheist who did not believe in an afterlife, she backed off. It was a strange moment, John says, but it didn’t faze him too much. Three months into his time with the therapist, she suggested that he reach out to an ex he had not contacted in years. The advice felt off, and John decided to Google her name to learn more about her qualifications. There, he discovered a second website she had never revealed, one that advertised her side hustle as a medium.

“It was quite a shock, really,” John said. “I know generally that if you speak to someone who’s a psychic, they’re either an intentional charlatan swindling people for money, or someone who genuinely thinks they have psychic powers. Either way, that’s not someone you want to sort out your personal problems.” John promptly told the therapist he’d no longer work with her. He hasn’t been back to therapy since.

Amanda Charles says she’s had psychic abilities since childhood. Photograph: Amanda Charles

It’s not unusual for Americans to turn to fortune tellers and crystal balls in times of crisis. Families who lost loved ones during the civil war held seances as coping mechanisms. A grieving Mary Todd Lincoln held some in the White House, trying to contact her dead sons. Spiritualism boomed again after the first world war, especially among women desperate to speak with their lost husbands, fathers, or sons one last time.

There was a Covid spiritualism boom, too: while many businesses shuttered in 2020, psychics reported an uptick in clients eager to know when things would go back to normal. At the same time, more people sought out traditional mental health services, with a surge in spending on therapy and counseling. A recent survey found that 60% of Gen Z reported having an anxiety disorder, with most worried about what the future holds.

This month, the New York Post reported on young people who are giving up their standing therapy sessions in favor of medium visits. “Therapists are in no rush to get your problems figured out,” one 35-year-old artist and model told the Post. “It drags on. It’s a very long process.”

Those new to therapy and seeking answers may be disappointed to learn that therapists cannot tell them what to do – it’s seen as unethical to make decisions for a client. Instead, therapists are trained to ask questions in a way that may embolden clients to choose the best path for them.

But psychics offer more definitive advice, through reference to their alleged powers. It’s an attractive premise for the indecisive, and it could be fueling a mini-movement. “A psychic may be willing to give a lot more direction than a traditional therapist might,” said Candy Gunther Brown, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington. “They claim to know what your future holds. Their popularity reflects wanting something more than what a therapist can offer.”

Xandra Hawes has two websites: one reserved for clients who come to her as a licensed professional counselor, and another for those who want psychic medium readings. Hawes does not keep her second job a secret, but she generally avoids doing psychic readings in therapy, citing professional boundaries. (As a licensed professional counselor, Hawes holds two master’s degrees, including one from Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired institution.)

Hawes practices in Boulder, Colorado, a hippie haven full of yoga retreats and natural spas. “There’s this really cool intersection between mental health and spiritual work,” Hawes said. “When you open up to psychic ability, it’s the same core energy of ‘Am I strong enough? Do I know myself fully?’ that you get in therapy.”

For the most part, Hawes says she keeps a separation between therapy and medium readings. “I typically don’t mix,” she said. “If someone is not healed, grounded, and feeling OK in their body, then I don’t bring those [psychic] abilities in.”

But if a therapy client seems stable and open to it, sometimes Hawes will use what she calls “energy work.” Once, Hawes treated a client who knew about Hawes’ psychic abilities, but only saw her for more traditional talk therapy sessions. When the client lost a friend to suicide, she told Hawes that she still felt a connection with them, and would like to try to send them a “telegraphic text message”.

Together, Hawes and the client imagined that the friend was in the room with them, and Hawes told the client to channel that message. “After she sent it, she said, ‘I know that he received it because I felt a whole, warm tingling through my body,’” Hawes recalled.”

Therapists work with emotions, and there tends to be a lot of crossover between social work and spirituality. Plenty of therapists dabble in healing arts; it wouldn’t be such a revelation to learn that your shrink was also a yoga teacher or worked at a food co-op.

Xandra Hawes offers both counseling and psychic services. Photograph: Lauren Ellie Photo

Sarah Sumner, a clinical social worker based in Portland, Oregon, says that’s all well and good as long as there are distinctions between the businesses. “Therapists are people, and people are allowed to make money in a multitude of ways,” she said. “Where it gets murky is if there isn’t a clear separation between their business as a psychic and the stream of income that’s coming from that versus mental health therapy.”

Unsurprisingly, mainstream therapists tend not to condone psychic add-ons to psychotherapy.

Dr Brandon S Hamm, an assistant professor of psychiatry and ethics expert at Northwestern University, questions the financial motives of therapists who hawk psychic side hustles.

He compared a therapist offering their medium services to a doctor who partners with pharmaceutical companies and may have a financial conflict of interest when prescribing drugs. “In medicine, you’re supposed to vie for the patient’s interest and not your own self-interest,” he said.

Hamm wonders if psychic therapists are sincere in their beliefs or not. Either case poses ethical problems. “If the person you’re seeing is sincere, are you going to be misguided in the direction they give you? If you find out later that the information you’ve been getting is from a misguided, pseudoscientific source, that could be psychologically harmful.”

At the same time, Hamm acknowledges that a traditional therapist can be religious in their private life, yet perfectly capable of compartmentalizing that in sessions. The same theoretically could be said for a psychic-therapist working with a client who just wants standard treatment.

Ultimately, therapists say, informed consent is a necessity for all healers: a client should know going into the working relationship if their therapist believes in psychic abilities. The therapists who spoke to the Guardian all said that it was important for them to let their clients know they also work as psychics before starting sessions.

Hawes, the Boulder therapist, understands that some people might think psychic therapists are fraudsters, but she says that’s due to outdated stereotypes. “There’s this outdated understanding that it’s all about the scarf on the head, the crystal ball, that swindler energy,” she said. “But ‘psychic’ itself comes from a Greek word, psukhikos, which just means ‘of the soul’. More people want that new age experience now where they tap into their soul, explore their spirituality, past lives, and energy.”

For their part, many psychics are not against therapy. Megan Alisa calls herself an evidential psychic and spiritual medium, a title she earned through various training but for which there is no professional certification.

Alisa works in Orange county, California, and has many clients who see therapists. While someone may visit their therapist once a week, she likes to wait at least six months between her psychic sessions.

“I wouldn’t ever want anyone to lean on me as a crutch,” Alisa said. “I would say that mediumship is not a replacement for traditional therapies, but it’s a helper, another assistant to healing.”

Justin Ciorciari, a 22-year-old who lives in New Jersey and considers himself a psychic, goes to traditional psychotherapy. Sometimes, his therapist will help him analyze his dreams. Ciorciari says that a spirit visited him recently and taught him the “dance of the snakes”, where dueling serpents, one red and one blue, battled it out. The red one represented passion and fire. The blue one radiated a calm, peaceful energy. Ciorciari believes that the two snakes live together in his body.

Ciorciari’s therapist had another explanation: the red snake represented the sympathetic nervous system, which activates in times of stress, and the blue stood in for the parasympathetic nervous system, which predominates in times of comfort and rest. “What the spirit told me was actually a therapy concept, too,” he explained.
For Ciorciari, weekly therapy sessions are just as important as the psychic tune-ups he receives from fellow mediums and what he calls spirit guides.

“Therapists have a very logical, rational explanation for everything,” he said. “On the psychic end, there’s no rational explanation for the things you experience. The rational part of my mind is what protects the psychic part from being completely ungrounded.”

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