In the course of my reporting on the boom in grief therapy, I looked into six grief recovery certifications and/or counseling courses. This review zeroes in on four – the Global Grief Institute, PESI, Udemy and the Grief Recovery Institute – which are ubiquitous online. I also spoke with two professional organizations whose credentials are considered valid by psychologists and counselors, which you can read about here.
Out of the four commercial organizations I reviewed, only PESI is approved as an online continuing education provider by the American Psychological Association.
Here’s a brief summary:
The Global Grief Institute: “Compassion and empathy” are the only prerequisites
The Global Grief Institute, created in 2020, offers grief coach certification programs. Its website encourages people with lived experience to become a grief coach to help relieve suffering and to “get your piece of the $100 Billion dollar Coaching industry.” That piqued my interest. I signed up for their $1,599 Children’s Grief Coach Certification, paying $799.50 thanks to a discount. The course didn’t require any background in sciences, healthcare or mental health, only “compassion and empathy.” The charge for the course showed up in my banking account as a charge to Puregel Hand Sanitizer (something flagged by another customer in an online forum), with the company’s name listed as www.thelimitfit.com, the website of a New York City-based gym.
Conservative Christian activist Mimi Rothschild, who lives in Pennsylvania, founded the institute after a series of losses in her own family. She and her husband Howard Mandel, who homeschooled their seven children, lost three sons on three separate occasions: Tobey at 19, Jeremy at 24 and Andrew, who passed away two days after his birth. Mandel himself died in 2012 of cancer. Mimi Rothschild commented on Facebook: “It was unimaginable to me that I could ever find a love like my husband and I shared for 33 years before cancer ravaged his body… But God had other plans. I reconnected with a man I loved before I met my husband and he told me he had been in love with me his whole life and always would be. We have been inseparable since.”
The Institute’s literature explains that it “has brought together the most respected grief specialists in the bereavement recovery field,” listing (and misspelling) the names of several: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross [Elisabeth Kübler-Ross], Dr. Allen Wofelt [Dr. Alan Wolfelt], J. William Worden, David Kessler, Dr. Lyn Kelly [Kelley Lynn], Brene Brown, TED Talks, and many others who have contributed to the field of grief recovery.”
Although I didn’t need to provide any diploma or proof of experience in healthcare or mental health to sign up, the requirements to be certified appeared to be quite stringent. I had to read 33 books and articles, watch 17 videos and submit 45 300-word essays such as “Describe 3 complementary therapies that help a grieving child.” I completed one of the required essays by copy-pasting the same three sentences five times and was greeted seven months later by a comment: “Nice work Astrid. Well done!” (See below for a screenshot).
Rothschild and her husband also co-founded the Einstein Academy Charter School, an online academy in Morrisville, Penn., which ran afoul of local authorities when it failed to maintain accounting records despite having received $9 million in annual funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The school closed in 2004 after allegations of misappropriation of public funds, extortion and disregard for state regulations, including the disappearance of more than 1,100 computers sent to students who later left their school, a potential loss to taxpayers of $690,000, according to an audit and local school district findings reported in Wired.com.
Rothschild has founded or co-founded the Southern Baptist Academy Homeschool Program and at least five other online academies. which in some instances have been criticized by users online for ostensibly “scamming” clients. The Global Grief Institute itself holds a D rating from the Better Business Bureau and is not on the APA’s list of approved continuing education providers.
The Global Grief Institute did not respond to repeated calls and emails requesting comment.
It is unclear whether the institute’s credits would be widely recognized by healthcare institutions. When browsing through the readings and assignments, I opted for “Christian view,” which notes that “this entire Certification is also available in a Christian version where the Bible is considered to be the source of Truth and the Living God the source of peace.” Faith-driven continuing education providers, however, are not vetted, accredited or sponsored by licensure boards and recognized national associations.
“Their source of authority is not science, it’s religion,” said Gregory Neimeyer, PhD, APA’s director of the Offices of Continuing Education. “So they can offer the CE [but] it would be what we call a vanity certification.”
PESI: Almost $20 million in “excess earnings” a year
PESI, a continuing education market leader based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, has a mixed reputation among professionals and customers, with many complaints focusing on excessive mailings. On Knoji, an online shopping hub, it had a 2.6 rating out of 5 among customers (and a 4.1 rating by Knoji that included its own online research.)
Several experts I spoke to asserted that PESI, although approved as a provider of CE content by the American Psychological Association, offers courses that vary wildly in terms of value.
University of Washington psychologist Gerald Rosen, for example, remembered attending a PESI trauma workshop in 2001 in which, he said, “the content was surprisingly far from science.” The lecturer asked about 100 mental health professionals to mimic a psychotic episode by jumping up and down. Rosen was incredulous. The exercise’s goal, the lecturer explained, was for professionals to experience loss of control. Rosen called it a “stage trick.”
“For me, it made absolutely no sense in terms of learning about psychosis,” he said.
However, the nonprofit also has many devotees, and Rosen himself described some of PESI’s workshops as “very educational.”
PESI course on sale: “Grief Counseling Specialist” (not the one I took) was marked down from $1,189.95 to $239.99
Despite its mixed reviews, PESI’s revenue has gone straight up. In 2019, PESI reported revenues of $86.4 million and net income of nearly $19.8 million, more than 300 times the organization’s net income of $55,098 a decade before. “We’re probably on the higher end,” PESI’s deputy director Michael Olson said about the organization’s income. He explained the roughly $20 million in “excess earnings” amount is a “rainy day fund.”
“No one owns and no one can do anything with [the money],” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next six months to one year. At our size, our burn rate, the costs that we have because of what we do can be rather large.” He noted, for example, that PESI streams free content to therapists at a cost of $250,000 last year.
PESI’s strong earnings have benefited its highest-paid employees. In 2020, executive director and secretary Mike Conner earned $579,172, up from $89,269 in 2010/2011. On top of that compensation, PESI rents office space from a real estate company, TBG Holdings, of which Conner is the majority owner. In 2019, PESI paid up to $354,127 for “somewhere north of 40,000 square feet,” according to Conner. Each of PESI’s 11 highest-paid full-time employees earned between $168,617 and $579,172 in 2020. Their salaries have been growing steadily for a decade.
Udemy: Complaints of poor and “atrocious” customer service
Udemy is one of the largest providers of online classes, providing more than 200,000 courses. Among other grief recovery courses, it offers an “accredited certificate” for a Grief and Bereavement Counseling course, by Elmira Strange, MPhil, at the low price of $9.99 reduced from $94.99 (more on the controversy over this pricing model later). I myself purchased the course for the story and passed it without finishing the test.
Perhaps due in part to its sizeable offerings, Udemy also has a sizeable number of unhappy customers and associates, judging from the 13 lawsuits filed it against since 2015 and the many pages of online complaints from irate customers on the Better Business Bureau of San Francisco (which gave Udemy a rating of F), TrustPilot (a 2.3 out of 5 rating), and Pissed Consumer, which notes that Udemy’s rating was a 2 out of 5 and “its customers are mostly dissatisfied.”
The complaints featured several recurring themes, including video lectures that stopped playing during the online courses; classes that disappeared off the buyer’s computer despite a guarantee of lifetime access; poor quality or outdated content (although some other users were enthusiastic about the courses); and Udemy’s alleged refusal to honor its widely advertised “money-back” refund guarantee if customers were dissatisfied within 30 days following a purchase.
One of hundreds of complaints filed about Udemy on TrustPilot, which requires all dissatisfied customers to leave their real names with the review site.
Other repeat complaints involved Udemy’s practice of giving out course credits instead of “money back” refunds; offering courses at a low price (under $20) and then bumping it up over $100 at check-out; mysterious “bannings” of customers (one wrote that he was “banned” after asking for his money back and then reinstated after he protested); frustration over the lack of a phone number or place on the site for customers to raise issues or solve problems; gifts of courses to friends and family that never arrived; and voluminous complaints about poor customer service (often described in such terms as “horrible,” “atrocious,” “shocking,” “useless,” “scam-like,” and stronger language replaced by asterisks in the complaints).
Udemy is now contending with a national class action lawsuit, filed in federal court in Northern California in 2021, which alleges that Udemy marked courses as being on sale, using false reference pricing – that is, higher advertised prices that were actually never used. These “phantom sale prices,” according to law firm Carlson Lynch LLC, has misled customers into thinking the sale prices are a better deal than they really are.
In addition, Udemy was investigated in a recent Justice Department probe of potential antitrust violations, which led to the resignations in 2022 of seven corporate directors in the five companies under investigation for “potentially illegal” interlocking directorates – including a Udemy director. In Udemy’s case, a DOJ press release noted, the director had sat on the boards of Udemy and Skillsoft, both online corporate education services, at the same time, which allowed the investment firm Prosus to sit on both boards – a potential antitrust violation. Like the others who resigned as a result of the probe, the Udemy director did not admit liability.
Udemy is not on the list of APA-approved CE providers and is not, it acknowledges, an accredited institution.
I received my certificate for the Udemy grief and bereavement counseling course (above), which arrived before I had finished the second question on the test.
“As I’m not a certified mental health professional, I’m afraid I can’t comment on that subject matter,” a Udemy representative wrote in response to my request to talk about the certificate. She volunteered to put me in touch with the instructor, who I had also contacted, but the instructor was not available to talk by press time.
The Grief Recovery Institute: Well-regarded program asserts it is “evidence-based”
The Grief Recovery Institute provides grief recovery specialist certifications following a four-day training that costs $2,295.
“In 4 days you will be a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist,” the institute’s website notes. “We do not require an advanced degree or college background.”
The Institute, which uses a technique called the Grief Recovery Method, trains approximately 600 certified grief recovery specialists a year and experienced an increase of about 15% in people seeking to get certified after the onset of the pandemic, according to its vice-president, Ed Owens. Half of them are licensed professionals such as therapists, counselors or social workers; the other half are not, Owens said. For the latter group, this may be the only form of mental health education they’ll receive before being connected with prospective clients.
“Many people are desperate for actual skills around resiliency to deal with loss,” said Owens, who was certified as a grief recovery specialist by the institute in 2015 and now serves as its vice president and director of Advanced GRM training and programs. His bio notes that he spent 23 years in law enforcement and is a retired first sergeant from the Air Force reserves.
The institute was founded in the early 1980s in Los Angeles by the late John W. James, a Vietnam veteran turned engineer with no professional training in mental health. He founded it after failing to find relief for his grief over the death of his infant son, according to Owens.
Owens introduced the program to me as being the “only fully evidence-based program on the planet.” Its website reports that research conducted at Kent State University has shown its grief recovery approach “helping grievers deal with the pain of emotional loss in any relationship” is ‘evidence-based and effective.’” The website doesn’t link to the research. Owens shared two journal articles via email, both of which were behind a paywall.
Both articles were co-authored by Rachael Nolan, PhD, an assistant professor at the public health sciences division at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. She had earned her own certificate from the Grief Recovery Institute as a grief recovery specialist and later served as a consultant to the institute when she co-wrote the study. She noted the potential conflict of interest under the paper’s public disclosure guidelines, but the institute did not disclose this relationship on its website.
In a Zoom interview, Nolan explained that “evidence-based” meant that the study itself “was based on hard science rather than a literature review.”
Nolan was referred to the program some years earlier by Lois Hall, one of the institute’s lead trainers, after the two met at a conference when Nolan herself was experiencing inconsolable grief and feeling “pretty desperate.” Skeptical, she attended weekly one-hour sessions for 15 weeks with other people who were grieving and was amazed to find a sense of relief by the end. (The program now takes place over a four-day period.)
Several years later, Hall asked if she was available to do a study on the institute’s impact, and Nolan helped develop an assessment model to evaluate data provided by the institute.
The assessment found that participating in the institute’s group program could be an “effective component of the healing process after significant loss or grief.” As a scientist, Nolan said, she was surprised by the program’s impact.
“I didn’t understand why the program would have such a dramatic effect on attitudes,” she told me. After talking with colleagues and instructors, she concluded that the difficulty trying to recover from searing grief by oneself can lead to feelings of shame, but if you’re “surrounded by people who are grieving, you realize that you’re not alone.”
Owens didn’t share additional material to support the institute’s claims of being the only “fully evidence-based” program.
The Institute’s grief recovery course gets high marks on social media. “I honestly believe right now I would be shattered in my grief if it were not for this program,” wrote one participant. “Losing a husband and friend and soulmate of 41 years is amazingly difficult.” Others called it “life-changing” and “transformative.”
For more, see my related story “How I Passed a Test to Be a Grief Therapist Without Really Trying.
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