The Prevention of Professional Abuse Network (Popan) said it had helped 637 people to overcome the effects of abuse in 1998-99, an 85 per cent rise on the previous year. Cases included sexual exploitation, bullying, threatening behaviour and racist abuse.
Most of the abusers were senior practitioners who "ought to have known better", Frances Blunden, the director said. Their seniority made it difficult for patients to challenge their behaviour or complain.
One-third of professional abusers were therapists or counsellors, one- quarter were doctors - GPs and psychiatrists - and one in ten was a nurse.
Speaking at a London conference, "Breaking the silence", organised by Popan, Ms Blunden said the figures represented only a small fraction of all cases. "Most abuse goes on in secret and isolation. The number of cases getting through to complaints significantly underestimates the scale of the problem. People are often so traumatised by abuse that they can't face making a complaint," she said.
Often the abuse began gradually, with a breaching of professional boundaries by inappropriate touching, intimate disclosures or the giving of gifts. This process of "grooming" the patient - often seen in child abuse - could then lead to a full sexual relationship, emotional abuse or demands for money. Most of those who complained of abuse - 70 per cent - were being treated for mental health problems and the abuse made their problems worse.
"We have seen many more people coming to us - whether because there is more abuse or more awareness of it I don't know," Ms Blunden said.
Cases so far this year are up a further 45 per cent on last year and one in four of those contacting the charity is a man, a higher proportion than in previous years.
Ms Blunden said 90 per cent of the cases brought to Popan had a pattern that rang true. "You pretty well know they have been abused but the level of proof doesn't reach the threshold necessary to prevent them from practising," she said.Reuse content