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Celebrity counselor Christian Conte OK with state fine

| Sunday, April 16, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Donald Gilliland | Trib Total Media
Professional psychologist and reality TV personality Christian Conte said during a TEDx talk at SCI Pittsburgh that everyone should be concerned about the recidivism rate because, 'Who do you think they are recidivating on?'
Donald Gilliland | Trib Total Media
Professional psychologist and reality TV personality Christian Conte said during a TEDx talk at SCI Pittsburgh that everyone should be concerned about the recidivism rate because, 'Who do you think they are recidivating on?'

A Pennsylvania regulatory board recently disciplined an Irwin-based anger management guru. But he's not mad.

“It was definitely frustrating and was an issue for a moment. But it is what it is, I accept that,” Christian Conte told the Tribune-Review last week. “They were kind, and it's OK.”

The State Board of Psychology issued a cease-and-desist order and a $1,100 penalty for “offering or attempting” to practice psychology, a profession for which Conte is not licensed to practice in Pennsylvania.

Conte said his interaction with board investigators was amicable, and he chalked up the ordeal to a “miscommunication.”

The celebrity anger management counselor's case highlights the state's occupational licensing apparatus. The Department of State oversees 29 licensing boards and commissions, governed by laws and political appointees who have the authority to create and approve regulations covering their various professions: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, psychologists, counselors, funeral directors, real estate agents, cosmetologists and barbers, to name a few.

Different interests covetously guard their turf. The department is largely complaint driven and receives information from the public, employers, news reports or notices from law enforcement agencies, a spokeswoman said.

A 2015 report from the U.S. Treasury and Labor departments said in Pennsylvania it takes on average 113 days to fulfill educational and experience requirements for the average licensed occupation examined.

Pennsylvania's requirements were found to be “the lightest,” according to a 2012 national study conducted by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest legal organization. It also was critical of how some organizations lobby state legislators “for protection from competition through licensing laws.”

In Pennsylvania, legislative battles over scope of practice have sometimes pitted interests against one another. For example, there is a legislative push by ophthalmologists to limit the scope of practice for optometrists regarding ophthalmic surgery. There also has been an amplified lobbying effort to put nurse practitioner licensure entirely under the State Board of Nursing and not require involvement of physicians.

Justin Fleming, director of government affairs at the Pennsylvania Psychological Association, said the boards and commissions are necessary for public protection.

“The state board wants to make sure that someone holding themselves out as a psychologist has met the requirements laid out by law,” he said.

Conte is a licensed professional counselor, which is regulated by the Board of Social Workers, Marriage & Family Therapists, Professional Counselors. He has a doctorate in counselor education and supervision from Duquesne University and a master's degree in community agency counseling from California University of Pennsylvania. He also is a certified anger management specialist and a nationally certified counselor.

Conte was a tenured professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, before returning to Western Pennsylvania.

His case appears to have stemmed from when he moved back. Conte maintains a certification as a nationally certified psychologist from the Northamerican Association of Masters in Psychology, a nonprofit organization. To obtain that certification, he had to have a certain amount of coursework, pass a national exam and has had to maintain continuing education credits, including ethics courses, he said.

However, it does not qualify him to be a licensed psychologist in Pennsylvania. Beginning in May 2014, Conte had identified himself as a “Nationally Certified Psychologist” on his website, according to the cease-and-desist order filed in March.

The department said he violated the State Board of Psychology's act by “engaging in the practice of psychology, offering or attempting to do so, or holding himself out to the public by any title or description of services incorporating the words ‘psychologist' ‘psychology' or ‘psychological.'”

The board ordered Conte to stop “performing any activity requiring a license to practice as a Psychologist” and to pay a $1,000 civil penalty and $108 fine.

Conte signed a consent agreement with the board in late February. According to the agreement, Conte said he believed he was entitled to refer to himself as a “nationally certified psychologist,” and that he had no intent to deceive the public. The consent agreement said Conte removed all references to himself as a psychologist on his website and other public media he controls.

“I never attempted to practice as a licensed psychologist,” Conte said. “I've always said I'm a nationally certified psychologist.”

“It doesn't impact my career in any way,” he added.

High profile

Conte is described on his website, www.drchristianconte.com , as “perhaps the country's most accomplished mental health specialist in the field of anger management.”

Organizations in higher education, media and government call on him for his perspective and to consult on anger management issues. He appears as an expert on KDKA, and the station and other media outlets — including the Tribune-Review — have referred to him as a psychologist.

Though he is based in Irwin, Conte doesn't maintain a private practice. Instead, he said he focuses on podcasts, television, consulting and writing, including books on anger management practices that have been used to train counselors nationally.

He has attained celebrity status for his work alongside former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis on the Spike TV show “Coaching Bad,” which highlights the duo's efforts to “fix bad coaches with major control problems,” according the Ravens' website.

Conte also is the resident anger management specialist on the VH1 reality TV show “Family Therapy,” which features celebrity families that undergo weeks of therapy.

He also has worked with college sports programs, including at the University of Pittsburgh, Florida State and Oregon.

Tony Salesi, Pitt's executive associate athletic director for coaches and performance/head athletic trainer, said Conte consults with the university's teams on mental training issues through the life skills office.

“They are very pleased with the work that he does,” Salesi said.

Conte's website, which covers a range of issues, including emotions, actions and relationships, contains a disclaimer saying it is “intended for entertainment and educational purposes only” and encourages readers to consult doctors or mental health professionals for information and advice.

Work with inmates

Conte is contracted with the state Department of Corrections to implement his trademarked anger management program “Yield Theory,” which emphasizes understanding and communication with even the most violent offenders.

In 2015, he spoke about reducing recidivism at a TEDx talk at SCI-Pittsburgh organized by corrections Secretary John Wetzel.

In 2014, Wetzel's agency contracted with Conte to implement his program at SCI-Fayette. The seven-month contract was for $122,000. Contract documents posted on a state treasury public database report his program at SCI-Fayette produced a “statistically significant reduction” in assault rates among inmates housed at the prison's special management unit, a section for inmates requiring a maximum level of security. The document said further study is needed to determine the program's impact on inmates slated to leave prison within one year of contact with his program.

Conte is under a six-month contract to run the program with the transitional housing unit at SCI-Laurel Highlands. In light of the state board's action, the corrections department is reviewing his contract, a corrections department spokeswoman said.

Kevin Zwick is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2856 or kzwick@tribweb.com.

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