Therapists seek laws on sex with patients: Celia Hall at the British Pyschological Society conference

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PSYCHOLOGISTS want the Department of Health to prepare new legislation to regulate their profession after a survey revealed that 1 in 25 National Health Service psychologists has sexual intercourse with patients.

Doctors who transgress face disciplinary proceedings before the General Medical Council for serious professional misconduct. The GMC can strike them off the register, making it illegal for them to practice medicine.

But no rules exist for the 2,500 NHS psychologists or thousands of unregulated therapists and counsellors. Today, the British Psychological Society will discuss the problems of unethical behaviour of members at its annual conference, in Blackpool. However, its leaders acknowledged yesterday that the only power they have is to revoke the offending psychologist's membership.

During the year, 588 clinical psychologists were interviewed and asked about sexual relationships with clients. Dr Sue Llewelyn, senior psychology lecturer at Edinburgh University, said that 4 per cent said they had had a sexual relationship with a client. In America, more extensive research points to a figure of between 2 and 12 per cent.

In addition, in this country, 22 per cent of therapists said that they had taken on clients who told them of sex with a previous therapist. Dr Llewelyn said: 'It is normal and acceptable for a client to feel all sorts of irrational things about the therapist, because of the power between the two and the dependency that can occur. But the therapist must behave in a responsible way much as you would expect a parent not to abuse a child's dependency.'

Dr Llewelyn said that American clients who had been involved with therapists were predominantly single women aged about 24, who were unmarried, separated or divorced. All of them suffered from low self-esteem and dependent personalities.

No one knows how many people in this country receive therapy or counselling but there are nearly 150 different psycho-therapy organisations and more people are seeking help.

Graeme Geldart, assistant secretary of the BPS and administrator of the disciplinary system, said last year that eight NHS psychologists had been the subject of disciplinary proceedings but five had resigned before the hearings. All had either resigned from their jobs or been sacked, he said.

However, one man had moved to Northern Ireland and started practising again. Details of this case have been sent to Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, in the society's bid for statutory regulation. 'Ninety per cent of therapists admit to being sexually attracted to their clients at some stage during therapy but most put their clients' feelings before their own and act professionally . . . Our advice to members in this position is to seek supervision from another psychologist,' Mr Geldart said.