Some adult survivors of abuse who have never forgotten what happened to them are also being told they have false memory syndrome. In one case, a 25-year-old woman killed herself shortly after being told her memories were false.
A leading specialist in eating disorders, a common symptom of abuse, says that patients are being denied the treatment they need and that, as a result, genuine cases of incest and abuse will be forced back into the shadows.
Marjorie Orr, the director of Accuracy about Abuse, said there now exists a culture of fear among therapists in the wake of high-profile cases alleging that false memories of abuse were implanted in the minds of patients. "Our research shows that people are being denied the help they need and that they are being routinely told they have false memories," she said.
Ms Orr added that her organisation's research had shown that adult survivors of childhood abuse were now finding it increasingly difficult to get help because therapists feared malpractice allegations or complaints.
For some years it has been accepted by many therapists that people who had undergone trauma could bury the memory of that event. The memory only resurfaces in response to some kind of trigger, often a crisis or other emotional event in later life.
But there have been counter-claims, often by families where abuse was alleged, that therapists have implanted false memories in patients. A father and daughter are suing a Scottish hospital trust after she falsely accused him of rape and murder while being treated in a psychiatric unit; it is believed to be the first case of its kind in Britain. It is psychotherapists' fear of this sort of action that makes some of them reluctant to handle abuse cases.
Professor John Morton of University College, London, spokesman for the British Psychological Society on recovered memories, said: "There is an unwillingness to take on sexual abuse cases - adults who have developed problems which they might attribute to sexual abuse having been remembered, or never having been forgotten. There is an unwillingness because there are a number of people crying false memory at the slightest opportunity. The fear is litigation."
Dr Jill Welbourne, who has been treating patients with eating disorders for more than 20 years, said: "People don't want to get involved with sexual abuse cases any more. They are trouble. There is the risk of complaints, the cumbersome child protection procedures and the shadow of litigation. Therapists are increasingly reluctant to take on this kind of work."
One mother, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, made a formal complaint about the practitioner who told her daughter that she had false memory syndrome. Her daughter killed herself two years ago, two weeks after she was told.
She said: "My daughter had been abused by her father from the age of seven until 15. She had developed psychiatric problems and was admitted voluntarily to a clinic, where she was seen by the therapist. She rang me afterwards and was in a terrible state. She had been told that the abuse was part of false memory syndrome.
"Two weeks later she took an overdose of prescription medication and died. I believe that had my daughter been believed, she would have stayed at the unit and would be alive today."Reuse content