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Friday, October 23, 1998 Published at 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK


Abused by the complaints system

Seventy per cent of callers say they have been abused by mental health workers

Patients who claim they have been abused by a doctor are waiting up to 10 years to get their complaint heard, claims a charity.

The Prevention of Professional Abuse Network (POPAN) says the complaints procedure can take years and is often distressing for patients.

Dr Fleur Fisher, co-chair of POPAN and a former head of ethics at the British Medical Association, said many patients felt they had been abused all over again by the process.

POPAN runs a helpline for patients who have been abused. It says one of its clients is still waiting for a hearing 10 years after they filed a complaint.

POPAN wants professional bodies to develop standardised procedures which are sensitive to the possible distress caused to patients and which have fixed time limits.

Mentally ill

According to its annual report, which was launched by junior health minister Paul Boateng this week, 80% of callers who said they had been abused by someone in the medical profession had previously been abused as a child.

Seventy per cent of all callers said they had been abused by someone in the mental health services.

[ image: Around 80% of POPAN's callers say they have been abused as children]
Around 80% of POPAN's callers say they have been abused as children
A third had been abused by counsellors or psychotherapists who are not subject to compulsory registration.

Dr Fisher called for statutory regulation of the profession.

"No minimum standards of competence or training are required before somebody can practise as a counsellor or psychotherapist and there is no compulsory registration.

"The damage caused through such a relationship is no less serious than when the abuser is a doctor or nurse," she said.

Dr Fisher said there was particular concern about hypnotists who treat problems such as eating disorders


The United Kingdom Council of Psychotherapy, the UK Register of Counsellors and the British Association of Counselling all have a register of members who are subject to certain regulations and standards.

The UKCP has been trying to regulate the profession through registering training sessions.

Trainees on the courses are recommended for membership.

POPAN says it has seen a big rise in the numbers of people calling its helpline in the last year.

In 1997, 341 rang the helpline, compared with 431 so far this year.

In 1997, 27% of callers had been abused by a doctor, 24% by a psychotherapist, 12% by a counsellor and 10% by a nurse.

Thirty-two per cent claimed to have been sexually abused, 9% physically ill-treated and the rest said they had suffered emotional abuse, including bullying and breaches of confidence.

Several callers said they had been abused by the same person.

Attempted suicide

US research suggests up to 10% of patients may be abused by someone in the medical profession. In the UK, the figure is estimated at 4%.

Mental health charity Mind says studies have shown at least half of all women in psychiatric settings have been abused as children.

In secure hospitals, the numbers may be higher.

POPAN says the after-effects can be profound and can include depression, low self-esteem and attempted suicide.

"They often have a deep mistrust of any caring professional. This can fundamentally affect their future access to help from health and social services," says the report.

Mind's chief executive Judi Clements said she was not surprised by POPAN's statistics.

"People with mental health problems are very vulnerable and those on wards are often captive victims."

She added that people who had been abused as children often felt they deserved to be ill-treated, which would partly account for the high number of POPAN callers who said they had been abused as children.

Catch 22

Mind, which has campaigned against abuse of women in psychiatric settings, says people are often frightened to report abuse and worried they will not be taken seriously.

"In fact, if they make a report, it can be taken as a symptom of their mental illness," said Ms Clements. "It is Catch 22."

She said it was not enough for mental health institutions to have complaints systems on paper.

[ image: Paul Boateng spoke at POPAN's annual conference]
Paul Boateng spoke at POPAN's annual conference
They had to change their whole culture to make it easy for people to report abuse, for example, by employing trained women key workers to deal with abuse cases.

She backed POPAN's calls for tougher regulation of the psychotherapy and counselling profession and advised patients to consult recognised professional bodies before seeking treatment.

And she welcomed the fact that Paul Boateng had launched the POPAN report, saying it showed the government was taking the issue seriously.

It has begun looking at ways of toughening up regulation of the care system.

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