Power of psychotherapy raises questions: Jailing of Labour peer turns spotlight on counsellors to the emotionally vulnerable. Esther Oxford reports

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SPOUSES or lovers who feel that their loved ones have been 'robbed' from them by psychotherapists should be able to sue for 'alienation of affection', said Fay Weldon, author of a new book on therapy and its pitfalls.

'Psychotherapists wield enormous power. They can manipulate people's emotions. I think all therapists need to be held responsible for their actions,' Ms Weldon said.

Ms Weldon, who is separated from her husband, blames the collapse of her 30-year marriage on her husband's therapist. She claims that, over a number of counselling sessions, the female therapist persuaded Ron Weldon that he and his wife were 'incompatible'.

Ms Weldon's main concern is that untrained therapists have a free hand to exploit emotionally and physically vulnerable clients who come in search of answers. 'They turn up and surrender their will to this person who appears to have Knowledge. Quite often this power is abused by the therapist,' she said.

Her concern is shared. Last May, the United Kingdom's Conference of Psychotherapists became the first professional body to introduce a voluntary register of 'approved' psychotherapists.

In January, the British Confederation of Psychotherapists followed suit. Applicants have to meet required standards of training. They must also agree to abide by a code of ethics.

The next step, say professional psychotherapists, is to persuade the Government to introduce a statutory register where anyone wishing to work as a therapist would be obliged by law to abide by the rules and regulations.

This would further protect the public, said Jill Curtis, from the British Association of Psychotherapists. Anyone found to be flouting the rules would not be permitted to practise.

The problem would be the enforcement of such a register. There are currently 30,000 people earning a living from counselling, and a further 270,000 in the voluntary sector delivering counselling services.

On top of that, according to the Department of Employment, another 2.5 million people use counselling as a major component of their jobs as nurses, social workers, career guidance workers and general practitioners.

Dr Richard Lucas, from the British Psychotherapists Society, advises anyone concerned about the professional conduct of their therapist to ask for a referral from their GPs. 'That way they can be reassured that their therapist has reached the proper requirements in their training.'

On the whole, very few therapists resort to 'brainwashing' techniques, he said. 'Most psychotherapists encourage their clients to be more aware, more thoughtful. They are taught to make their own decisions.'

Any deviation from this approach, which encourages the client to become emotionally dependent on the therapist, can be construed as 'serious misconduct'.

Isobel Palmer, from the British Association for Counselling, clarified this point: 'All control should rest with the client. The counsellor's job is to feed questions and guidelines so that the client can look at their relationship and reach their own conclusions. We teach people to accept responsibility for their feelings. One person's unhappiness is not another's fault.

'A trained counsellor should be able to see when a client is becoming too involved, or too dependent on the therapist. If they feel that a client is becoming too dependent they should turn to a senior counsellor for support and an objective opinion. In the case of Lord Monkswell's relationship it does not appear to be a case of 'brainwashing'.

''The woman probably realised that a relationship with Lord Monkswell was not what she wanted. He was the one with the problem. Maybe he could not accept that she wanted to leave.

'People often go to therapists because they feel empty. Sometimes they realise that their unhappiness is because a relationship is not satisfactory. Outsiders cannot blame the therapist for that. The realisation is the client's own.'

Ms Weldon, author of the thinly disguised autobiography Affliction, does not agree. 'Many therapists have a basic assumption that the trouble with a person must be to do with a relationship - either with the family or with the spouse.'

Once 'diagnosed' the clients get sucked in, said Ms Weldon. They surrender their will. 'Quite often this power is abused. Instead of showing the client how to reach their own decision, the therapists make the mistake of advising,' Ms Weldon said.

Personally, she said, she felt great empathy with Lord Monkswell. 'It doesn't surprise me that some impetuous peer would be totally baffled. I've felt like throwing a spanner myself.'