July 24, 2000 -- "I don't recommend that anyone with a diagnosis like
mine use the Internet," says Chris Brandon. But that's exactly what she
A 31-year-old computer programming student, she was diagnosed with multiple
personality disorder three years ago. "It scared the living life out of
me," she says. Like many people with a new medical diagnosis, she turned to
the Internet for information. What she found, she says, nearly drove her to
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As more and more people seek psychotherapy online, experts worry that
charlatans may take advantage of them. "The Internet is beyond government
control, so people have to take more responsibility for what they consume
online," says Storm King, MS, past president of the International Society
for Mental Health Online, an organization of patients and professionals
concerned with the use of the Internet for mental health. "Unfortunately,
people with mental illness may not have the best judgment."
So far, incidents of such abuse are fairly rare, according to those tracking
the phenomenon. Martha Ainsworth, who checks the credentials of cybertherapists
at her web site (www.metanoia.org), says
she knows of no lawsuits filed against online therapists. She has found only
one in four years who claims to be credentialed but is not.
But Brandon's case shows just how badly Internet therapy can turn out.
She first ran into problems when friends started telling her about a
self-styled "psychoanalyst," who frequented chat rooms for abuse
survivors and "multiples." Some women talked about going to his house
for Froot Loops and ice cream.
When a friend said she was going to visit him, Brandon decided to check his
credentials. "I knew that real therapists did not invite you to their
homes," she says. "I talked to him on the phone and he told me he was a
therapist, licensed in (two states). I called the licensing boards of those
states and they had never heard of him."
The man, who spoke with WebMD on the condition that his name not be used,
denies ever making these claims. But he admits he described himself, on one
archived bulletin board, as a psychoanalyst with seven year's experience.
"There are no laws against calling yourself a psychoanalyst," he
Although Brandon knew he was not licensed, she says she was eager to listen
to him because he told her that increasing her ability to function was more
important than integrating her personalities -- something she wanted to hear.
"He told me to give the various personalities time and let them do whatever
they wanted. This was not good therapy. But he made it all sound so
Relying on the online "psychoanalyst," Brandon says she didn't get
the professional help she really needed. Eventually, confused and depressed,
she took an overdose of a tranquilizer. It wasn't enough to kill her, but the
experience led her to check into a mental hospital where she finally began to
get effective treatment.