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American therapy that could blow your minds

Multiple Personality Disorder is the latest 'illness' to cross the Atlantic, but not everyone is convinced.

Milly Jenkins
Sunday 09 February 1997 00:02 GMT

"Making monsters" is how one writer famously described Recovered Memory Therapy, in which adult patients unearth apparently repressed memories of childhood abuse. Other sceptics, many of them accused parents, have called it False Memory Syndrome. Now they say there is a new "monster" on the horizon: Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD).

MPD is described as a condition in which several identities co- exist in the same person. Patients are usually diagnosed as having MPD after recovering lost memories of traumas. Sufferers switch rapidly from personality to personality. Some therapists have reported patients with hundreds of different personalities or "alters".

Dr Colin Ross, a Canadian psychiatrist and leading proponent of MPD and dissociative disorders, is in Britain this week to give a series of lectures and masterclasses on the subject. Dr Ross has written several books on MPD and set up the Ross Institute in Dallas, which in five years has dealt with more than 500 cases, 80 per cent of which, he says, were genuine.

MPD has become something of a phenomenon in North America, with thousands of people diagnosed as sufferers. It is relatively unknown in Britain, however. Dr Ross says it is "mostly undiagnosed because psychiatrists don't ask or inquire about it". But Dr Ray Aldridge-Morris, a clinical psychologist who has written a book on MPD, describes it as a "transatlantic hoax".

"I'm a complete sceptic," he says. "I think that MPD is an iatrogenic phenomenon, meaning that doctors induce it. I don't believe it exists. The people who have been diagnosed with MPD are in fact suffering from a fragmentation of personality which has more to do with the social role- play involved in a particular style of evangelical therapy.

"It affects vulnerable people and it can have tragic consequences. These patients clearly have problems, but they are being directed down all sorts of blind alleys that make them far more ill."

Roger Scotford of the British False Memory Society, which represents 800 parents who have been accused of sexual abuse after their children apparently recovered memories, is deeply concerned about Dr Ross's visit. He said: "As yet, none of the cases we deal with involves MPD, but there are more than 150 therapists going to his lectures and workshops. We're worried that it's going to take off as a fad in this country."

Professor Sydney Brandon of the Royal Society of Psychiatrists has been chairing a working party to draw up guidelines for clinicians dealing with recovered-memory cases. He says that the majority of doctors in Britain are sceptical about MPD and that "there is no doubt that it can be induced by therapists". He had watched videos of American therapists at work, gradually coaxing patients into believing that different ideas and opinions they held were actually personalities.

Dr Ross says he does "not dispute that there are cases of malpractice by therapists, resulting in severe damage to people and their families", but he rejects the common accusation that patients are encouraged to believe they have been abused: "The idea that they come with no recollection is not so."

He also emphasises that psychiatrists like himself do not always believe their patients' memories of abuse: "The amount of distortion in memories has no limit." He says he has given evidence in many court cases against people who claim sexual abuse on the basis of recovered memories, testifying that their memories have in fact been implanted by therapists.

But at the same time he does not believe that false memories are necessarily harmful to patients: "There is no evidence that iatrogenic therapy is harmful. It could be that MPD helps you resolve conflicts and deal with them." He says he does not encourage patients to sue their parents for previous abuse.

Although Dr Ross stopped working in Canada in the early Nineties, he is being investigated by the Canadian Psychiatric Association and the Canadian Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. A former Canadian patient, Roma Hart, is also suing him for alleged malpractice.

She was a patient of his for five years and claims "he created MPD in me". "I told him in my first visits that I had no memories of my father abusing me," she says. "After a few sessions he started planting seeds of doubt. It went on to heavy uses of drugs and hypnosis and I accused my parents, their friends and ministers at the church of being satanic abusers." She says she developed numerous personalities, but after a break from therapy, decided not to go back and eventually retracted all her claims of abuse.

Dr Aldridge-Morris says his scepticism about MPD believers is fuelled by the fact that "they tend to believe in satanic abuse and even alien abductions". Dr Ross, who has written a book on satanic abuse, says he believes "there may be some real satanic abuse going on, but if you read what I've published on this, I nowhere state a belief in widespread satanic abuse".

Dr Aldridge-Morris also voices concern that those most interested in MPD are self-styled therapists and social workers, with no qualifications. Professor Brandon agrees: "Those who are actively prosecuting the idea of MPD are not doctors but social workers and psychologists."

Dr Ross has been invited to Britain by the Robinson-Howes ConsuItancy, which is run by two social workers who train police, teachers and health workers to deal with cases involving trauma. Brenda Robinson-Fell also works at a child trauma clinic in Canterbury, as well as taking in private patients.

She says that MPD is bound to raise suspicions because "it's a new subject and it puts childhood trauma at the root of a lot of adult mental illness, which is a controversial thing to do". She adds: "We want to take a look at the whole subject with an open and informed mind. The people signed up to Dr Ross's lectures are calm people trying to learn about a new subject. They're not going to be dashing off to implement the theory."

That is just what the False Memory Society and Dr Aldridge-Morris fear. Dr Aldridge-Morris says it is what happened after a conference on MPD held in Amsterdam: "It only takes a conference and a charismatic character to start a surge."

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