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Bottomley urged to regulate 'New Age' alternative healers: MP wants code of practice to protect vulnerable patients

THE Secretary of State for Health, Virginia Bottomley, is being pressed to take action to regulate the booming 'New Age' alternative healing industry.

Jon Owen Jones, the Labour MP for Cardiff Central, has asked Mrs Bottomley if she will give details of how many complaints her department has received about psychic healers and hypnotherapists in each of the past 10 years and if she will introduce a code of practice.

Mr Jones predicts the figures will show a rising number of grievances about alternative healers and therapists who deal with vulnerable patients, who are often desperate, having tried traditional methods which have failed. Unlike their medical counterparts, alternative healers are completely unrestricted and unqualified.

His move has been prompted by a case involving a close relative of a constituent. The relative (Mr K) walked out on his wife and children after consulting a psychic healer.

In October 1990, Mr K began suffering agonising 'cluster' headaches, a condition caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. They are extremely difficult to treat and can often drive the patient to despair and even suicide.

Mr K, a solicitor, saw three NHS consultant neurologists before being referred to one of the country's acknowledged experts on cluster headaches, Nat Blau at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London. After trying various remedies without success, in April 1993, Dr Blau prescribed the powerful drug lithium.

The headaches continued, but thanks to 800mg of lithium a day they were not as bad. In May last year, Mr K was talking to a fellow lawyer, a well-known barrister, Mr W. The lawyer suggested Mr K consult his wife, a psychic healer and medium. Mrs W advised Mr K to stop taking the lithium. While he was on it, she argued, she was unable to help. In January this year, to assist with his withdrawal from the drug and to complete her course of treatment, he went to live away from his family, at the the barrister's flat in London.

Mr K went on sick leave, abandoned the lithium and turned to the help of the healer. Visits from his wife and their two children were forbidden. Shortly afterwards, Mr K went to live in the large house in rural Kent belonging to the barrister and his wife. Mrs W counselled him that to alleviate his suffering he needed to reach his 'highest good' - a state of mind that did not involve contact with his family, whom she felt had contributed to his condition.

Not only did Mr K virtually cease all contact with his family but his relatives allege, he also underwent a change in personality. His handwriting altered and he became abusive towards them. Mr K is still living with the barrister and his psychic healer wife and is filing for divorce. He is still thought to be suffering from his headaches.

His family called in Graham Baldwin, a director of Catalyst, a counselling group specialising in religious cults and possible situations of mind control.

Mr Baldwin said: 'What worries me are therapists and healers that have no code of ethics who come to a situation like this, tell the husband the cause of his problems are his wife. He then turns to them and starts to depend upon them.'

This phenomenon, know as 'transference' in psychotherapy, was especially alarming. 'In this case, for the healer to have him living in her house is clearly very worrying,' Mr Baldwin said.

In a written reply to Mr Jones, Tom Sackville, the health minister, said the Government had no plans to impose regulations: 'We do encourage voluntary regulation schemes that have an enforceable code of practice.'

But Mr Jones said: 'This is a growing problem which I believe is causing real anxiety and I will be pressing the Department of Health to change their policies.' Certain types of treatment, he argued, where patients were taken into healers' homes or split from their families, should be outlawed.

Mrs W refused to comment.