28 January 2013

Counselling and Psychotherapy - Unregulated Professions

I have come to realise that many members of the general public are not aware that counsellors and psychotherapists are in an unregulated profession. I think that may partially be because we supposedly live in an age of litigation and accountability, and it is taken for granted that those with whom we entrust our deepest, darkest secrets would have somebody to answer to if they acted in an unethical way towards their clients.

Look at this typical response from somebody when I tell them that therapists aren't accountable:

"Lack of regulation seems like a recipe for a lot of abuse and misconduct. Who couldn't recognize all the potential hazards considering how vulnerable people are when they seek treatment?"

I CHOOSE TO BE ACCOUNTABLE. I am a member of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy - the UK's largest professional body for counsellors. I attended a BACP accredited course because it made sense to me to start off my career as I meant to go on. The Iron Mill Institute's counselling courses are accredited by the BACP which means, according to the BACP website:

"...that (the course) has been assessed by BACP against the criteria for course accreditation as detailed by the BACP public Accreditation of Training Courses (BACP 2002) and awarded accreditation...that they can offer quality training to a high standard, which is recognised by employers, colleagues and prospective clients."

So it was part of the training from Certificate level (the preliminary training) that we were made aware of the BACP Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling. This is actually a very well written document and far from constraining the profession, I think that it gives a lot of leeway for creativity. Note that it is framework, not a list of rules and regulations. It is very sensible and really, I would be worried if anybody counselling out there had a problem with adhering to the principles set therein as they correlate with the qualities and ethics of any decent person.

I could see from the start the clear advantages to being a member of a professional body, for the therapist and for the client. I have struggled to understand the opposing view - that regulation would restrict the profession such that the service we supply would be impaired. This struggle has increased as a result of my falling victim to unethical practice. I am unable to divulge much about the actual situation and have been threatened with being "put in a cardboard box" (yes by another counsellor, who has recently resigned from the BACP...) if I publish details of who this person is.

I'm happy with that, not the cardboard box bit, but I do understand that official procedures are needed at times like this. It's all very well when counselling and psychotherapy goes well, and everybody behaves and acts professionally, but like doctors, policemen, teachers, priests...every single profession in fact, there are a few rotten apples. So we have the inconvenient issue of, how do we deal with those rotten apples? Well, if they have acted in an illegal way then it is a matter for the police. We all know that this is not foolproof and without overwhelming evidence, and because of the stress of going through the legal system, many people don't bother or give up part of the way through.

Now, unfortunately, the therapist whom I fell victim to chooses not to be a member of a regulatory organisation so, apart from complaining against the organisation which he owns and works for, he is personally unaccountable. He can hide behind the organisation and carry on his private, unethical practice. I assume it will continue to be unethical because he refuses to see that anything he has done is wrong. I think he knows it must be wrong because he is completely denying the truth and is attacking from as many angles as possible anybody who is trying to raise awareness of his behaviour.

If this therapist were a member of a professional body then a formal complaints process could be had and he and the victims would have the opportunity to provide evidence and cross-examine and the body could make a decision on whether it was unethical or not. I know in theory that at least 18 paragraphs of the BACP Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling have been contravened, in my case. It would just be a case of proving it, and given that there are several women who are prepared to write statements of their experiences it should be fairly cut and dry. Except that he isn't accountable. So he can carry on, and the public need not know anything.

I want potential clients to know that this is what can happen if you choose to see a therapist who chooses NOT to be accountable.

Of course no system is faultless and there is the risk of therapists slipping through and of being falsely accused. This is part of parcel of the medical profession so why not the therapy industry? Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater because there might be an unfair sanction? Shall we abolish the whole justice system so that we don't make the mistake of incarcerating an innocent? Of course not. Surely it's possible to have a system that protects clients from unethical practice, and no it won't stop it completely (Harold Shipman keeps getting mentioned in these arguments), but it will provide a process, a safety net, for those that would like to raise awareness of potential unethical practice because they have been on the receiving end of it. And maybe, just maybe, they will receive the validation they need in the face of having had their trust abused.

I would not like to have to go through the complaints process myself, but in doing so, I would be confident that I do run my counselling by the guidelines suggested, I do check out my own motives and my own blindspots regularly, and if it was ever found that I had acted unethically I would want to do the right thing, alter my practice if needs be, and apologise to the person who was on the receiving end of it. This is the very opposite of what I am getting. I do not want anybody else to be in this position.

Here's what the BACP say on this matter: http://www.bacp.co.uk/media/index.php?newsId=1769

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