Patients seduced by their therapists start to shed shame

A BETRAYAL OF TRUST

March 29, 1992|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

An article in Sunday's Sun about therapists who become sexually involved with their patients incorrectly stated the duration of a relationship between a therapist and Shirley Siegel of Seattle. Although she was in therapy for 17 years, she said, the sexual involvement was limited to four or five encounters that occurred during the last four years.

The Sun regrets the errors.

It seemed a strange remark for a therapist to make to a patient who was drowning in depression and the trauma of her failed marriage. The problem, she recalls him saying, was that she secretly wished he'd embrace her but was too shy to ask.

Previously, his uninvited touching and flirtations created what she describes as "a feel of sex in the air." But this time, he was bold. He sat next to her and suggested that she rest her head on his lap.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"He said it would be therapeutic for me," said Sharon Kennick, 37, of Germantown. Trusting his judgment more than hers, she agreed. That began a five-year sexual relationship that she now regards with disgust and anger. This year, she filed a lawsuit against the psychologist. His lawyer declined to comment.

Arlene Davis of Hunt Valley also remembers the day 15 years ago when, she said, therapy turned to sex. Suicidally depressed after divorcing a man who had beaten her, she said she had been visiting a psychologist near the New York suburb where she lived. He could not be reached for comment.

Mrs. Davis, 57, recalls his overture: "You know, Arlene, the one thing we have to have is trust. That's very important between a doctor and patient. You've had a dysfunctional life. You have a lot of baggage. Would you take your blouse off?"

Sex between therapists and patients has been debated throughout this century. But victims are beginning to overcome the shame that once kept the problem a dirty secret the public heard little about.

It's impossible to say whether the problem is on the increase or decline. But it seems that the recent focus on sexual harassment -- notably in the testimony of Anita Hill -- has stirred the emotions of patients who believe that they have been victimized.

"I don't think there's any more going on than in the past, but women are becoming less afraid to come forward," said Shirley Siegel of Seattle, who founded an advocacy group, Stop Abuse by Counselors, in 1980 after ending a 15-year sexual relationship with a therapist.

"It's just snowballing," she said. Women are filing complaints and lawsuits, forming support groups and speaking out publicly against a type of exploitation that strikes people at their most vulnerable: when they have reached out for help with mental illness.

For patients, the repercussions of a therapist's desire can be disastrous.

'There have been suicides'

Like the women interviewed for this article, many victims went to therapists because they were suffering the emotional wounds of past sexual or physical abuse. When therapy turns to sex, authorities agree, any hope of getting better stops.

"And when the therapist becomes another abuser, it can totally destroy her faith in any therapist, certainly male therapists," said Dr. Michael Plaut, a Baltimore psychologist, sex therapist and national authority on the problem of doctor-patient sex. "There have been documented suicides that have resulted from this type of event."

When asked why they engaged in sex with their patients, almost a fifth of psychiatrists who admitted to this behavior in a national survey said they did it to enhance the patient's self-esteem. However, almost three-quarters said they started their affairs for "love" or "pleasure."

The survey, conducted in 1986 by Dr. Nanette Gartrell of San Francisco, found that 7.1 percent of male psychiatrists and 3.1 percent of female psychiatrists had sexually exploited patients at least once during their careers.

Other surveys -- whether of psychiatrists, psychologists or other therapists -- have found roughly the same prevalence. "The estimates in the best studies range from 5 [percent] to 10 percent," said Dr. Plaut, an assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

This month, the issue became prominent in Maryland when two men were barred from practicing psychiatry after they admitted to sexual relationships with patients.

The most recent was Dr. Philip D. Walls of Rosedale, who had had a five-month affair. Before that, Dr. John M. Hamilton of Columbia admitted to a two-year affair with a female patient.

Dr. Hamilton, 68, had a long history of public service and enjoyed national stature. Among other things, he served since 1988 as the deputy medical director of the American Psychiatric Association. His repute was so high that the APA had called on him to be co-author of a manual setting treatment standards for the profession.

Dr. Hamilton has referred all questions to his attorney, George Russell. Mr. Russell has declined to comment.

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