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When Cybertherapy Goes Bad


WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

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 did.

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 suicide.

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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 says.

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 good."

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.

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