MARCH 31, 1997

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Opinion

Choose therapist with care

sexual abuse While the media reports the case of a plastic surgeon having sexual contact with unsuspecting patients, there are other situations which affect us in a more immediate way. According to studies published in professional journals, the counseling and psychotherapy fields have a major problem with sexual abuse. The incidence of counselors or therapists who have had sexual contact with a client ranges anywhere from 1 in every 20 practitioners to 1 in 8, depending on the study.
   Many professionals compare sexual contact between a client and their counselor or therapist to rape. The victims often become suicidal. Any form of intimacy or trust becomes extremely difficult; it may become terrifying to see a doctor or to mainain friendships. Unfortunately, victims often blame themselves and end up with such low self-esteem that they do not file a complaint, leaving the perpetrator in practice.
   People seeking counseling or therapy should be aware that the client/practitioner relationship is similar to a student/teacher or patient/doctor relationship. It is common for clients to experience feelings resembling admiration or even love for their therapists. For the practitioner to encourage and use such feelings for personal benefit is unethical and harms the client.
   Some client organizations suggest that people seeking counseling or therapy look for someone who is not only licensed but also belongs to a national professional association. Counselors and therapists are trained in behaviors that will elicit trust from clients; belonging to such an association is an indication of their professional attitude about that trust. Though it is difficult to be assertive when burdened with personal difficulties, clients should try to ask many questions, and remember that they have a right to be treated with respect. They should be as careful in choosing a therapist as choosing a surgeon.
   I have worked as a crisis line counselor for 2 years, and volunteered in the mental health field in various capacities assisting psychiatrists and social workers for 4 years. I did a one-year independent study class at the Univ. of Wash. Psychology Dept. in 1989-90 involving research with a graduate student in Clinical Psychology on the dynamics of the client/therapist relationship.

Maria Morris, Woodinville