THERAPIST ABUSE – DO I HAVE A CASE? author: Fletcher Carpenter

This article will help answer your questions about whether you can sue a therapist, psychologist, or other mental health counselor. Therapists, psychologists, and other counselors are generally subject to the same principles of negligence that govern other professionals – so yes, you can sue them for negligence or abuse. In this article, when I use the word therapist, I really mean any mental health professional.

The most common form of therapist abuse is sexual abuse. Unfortunately, this is much more common than people realize. It is as old as the profession itself.

Therapist abuse is far too common

One of the fathers of psychology, Carl Jung, was well known for his sexual relations with a patient. And in the 1970s 12% of male therapists who responded to a survey reported having sex with clients. This number fell to 3.6% in surveys of male therapists by the mid-1990s. (The number of female therapists who report having sex with patients is very small). Many therapists point to the decline in reporting to say the behavior is declining. But I disagree. The surveys only counted therapists who admit having sex with their patients and in the 1970s therapists were probably more willing to admit to sex with clients, (one therapist even recommended the practice in his 1971 book “The Love Treatment: Sexual Intimacy Between Patients and Psychotherapists).

But by the 1990’s therapists generally agreed this practice was wrong. So the decline in survey responses could really just mean fewer therapists are admitting it.

Even a consensual sexual relationship with a therapist is considered abuse

Some would argue that two consenting adults have a constitutional right to sleep together. But by the 2000s many states outlawed any sexual relationships between therapists and patients. In Arizona, for example, a therapist can go to jail for 2 years for having consensual sex with their patient (these penalties DO NOT apply to the patient, only the therapist).

Why would the state make this a crime?

It is likely because the therapeutic community has become aware of how common, and how easy, this type of behavior is. It usually begins with the well-documented phenomenon called “transference.” Sigmund Freud originally coined this term when he was commenting on his friend Carl Jung having sex with a patient (mentioned above). But in a very general sense, transference has come to refer to any time a patient transfers feelings for someone else to the therapist. Often these feelings are sexual.

Transference is especially common when a woman is expressing deep-felt emotions to her male therapist. It is so common that many of the boards which govern mental health professionals tell therapists to expect it to happen. There are also guidelines for what therapists should do when it happens. Transferred feelings can be analyzed, but never reciprocated. If this proves too difficult for a therapist, the therapist must refer to the patient to a colleague.

Unfortunately, some therapists take advantage of their patient’s transferred sexual feelings and instead of helping the patient, they seek self-gratification through sexual acts. Instead of behaving like a professional, they use their authority to convince patients it is OK or that the patient and therapist are meant to be together.

In a majority of these relationships, the therapist and patient retreat into what one researcher called a “claustrophilic collapse” where the patient and therapist create an idealized fantasy of themselves and share deep secrets with each other in a “hyper-confidential” relationship.

It is all too easy for the therapist to continue this relationship as the patient is often seeking treatment during periods of mental instability, depression, or deep grief. This should not surprise anyone—it is wisdom as old as the Bible that “they that are whole need not a physician.” A therapist’s patients are not whole—they need treatment which is why they come to a therapist for help.

But eventually the fantasy phase of the therapist/patient relationship ends, and the patient is left with a broken marriage, depression, and anxiety. In some case (especially when a patient has a history of being sexually abused), the abuse by the therapists can irreversibly damage the patient’s ability to have future healthy relationships. Many patients also experience syndromes unique to therapy abuse which can last lifetimes if not properly treated. The patient’s family is also harmed by this behavior as it leads to divorce, anger, grief, anxiety, etc.

These are just some of the reasons many states make it a crime for therapists to engage in sexual relations with their patients.

What should you do if you know of a therapist who abuses his or her patients?

If you know about a therapist who engages in abusive behavior, you might consider reporting the conduct to the Board of Behavioral Health or Board of Psychology. Doing this may help stop the practice from continuing.

You may also consider filing a lawsuit against your therapist (or a family member’s therapist) for mental trauma. If  for you or a family member you can call our office and discuss your case for free.

This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you or someone you know wishes to seek the help of an experienced personal injury attorney regarding any type of injury, or other personal injury matters, call 480-461-5300 to speak to an attorney or email for a free consultation to discuss your rights and options. Udall Shumway PLC is located in Mesa, Arizona and is a full-service law firm. We assist Individuals, families, businesses, schools and municipalities in Mesa and the Phoenix/East Valley.