A two-week course is all it takes to set up shop as a hypnotherapist - there are no regulations.Now experts are worried about the dangers of placing vulnerable minds in the care of inexperienced hypnotists. RICHARD GUILLIATT reports, in part two of a three-part series.
MS C is a 21-year-old woman who has come to a hypnotherapist to solve a mystery about her past. Her sister has accused their father of being a sexual abuser, but Ms C cannot remember the events her sister describes from their childhood. Could hypnosis unlock such a memory? "I am asking you now ..." says the therapist early in their first hypnotherapy session, "... whether you are a witness in the past to any impropriety that your father may or may not have committed towards your sister?" "No," replies the hypnotised woman. But as the session continues and the therapist repeatedly refers to the allegations madeagainst her father, Ms C undergoes a remarkable change of perspective, shifting from having no recollection to "recovering" a memory of something happening on a bed at her home many years before.
In her second and third hypnotherapy sessions, these memories begin to take shape, and as details emerge from a decade previously the therapist's tone has become more encouraging.
"It's worth it to expose whatever information is there, that you've been through ..." he urges. "Something that you previously, possibly, blocked off from your mind. Tried to ignore but for (your sister's) sake, for your sake and, strangely enough, for your mother's sake, you don't want to ignore it any more." By the end of the third session, Ms C is recounting detailed sexual encounters between her father and sister, and her therapist's tone has become congratulatory.
"Your subconscious mind is a memory bank and you can entrust a third party to help you resolve all that you've seen ..." he assures her. "So through Jesus Christ you can pray for this, that these issues be resolved for yourself, as a previous victim and now a survivor (and) for your sister, the victim but hopefully a survivor, through the grace of Jesus Christ ... I'm going to count from zero to five. On the count of five you will be wide awake, feeling really good ..." Professor Kevin McConkey, head of the school of psychology at the University of NSW, first heard the tape-recorded transcripts of this therapysession in his capacity as head of the Australian Psychological Society. The tapes came from a prosecutor who was mounting a criminal case against Ms C's father and wanted Professor McConkey's opinion about the reliability of her corroborative evidence. Ms C was convinced that the memories she had recoveredunder hypnosis were reliable, and her hypnotherapist assured police he had not used any leading questions or suggestive techniques during the counselling. Professor McConkey disagreed on both points.
To this day, Professor McConkey does not know how the case was resolved. But he cites it as an example of how a well-meaning hypnotherapist can help a patient recover vivid and explicit "memories" from childhood, which are extremely dubious in their reliability.
Hypnotherapy has never been regulated in NSW and today it is practised by hundreds of counsellors with wildly varying qualifications and belief systems, from fully qualified psychiatrists to medically unqualified "lay" hypnotists such as the one who treated Ms C. But the controversy about false memory which is now sweeping through the therapy professions has reactivated a debate about the damage that might be resulting from this laissez-faire policy.
Seven years ago, when the NSW Government introduced laws requiring minimum qualifications for psychologists, controls were proposed on hypnotherapists. But those proposals were withdrawn at the last minute, and NSW remains the only State which has not legislated to regulate hypnosis. That means anyone can set themselves up as a hypnotherapist, with no requirement for registration or professional monitoring of their work. A two-week course is enough to earn you an impressive diploma to hang on the wall of your rented suite. The only equipment required is a chair for your patients.
Sydney's hypnotherapists are a diverse bunch. Beverly A Bultitide, a Caringbah therapist, is a psychic who specialises in hands-on healing. Akash Olver, a qualified psychologist, uses hypnosis to explore his patients' "past lives". Denis Timothy Burke, who was disciplined by the South Australian Medical Board in 1979 for making inappropriate sexual remarks to his patients, has acknowledged using hypnotherapy in his past-life counselling. Mr Burke practises in Parramatta, apparently without complaint. These are all long-standing practitioners in NSW, but there is also a high turnover of others judging fromthe listings in the Sydney Yellow Pages. Of about 150 hypnotherapists who advertised three years ago, 70 are no longer listed.
"For some people who call themselves hypnotherapists, NSW is quack heaven," says Carol Boland, a psychologist who specialises in professional supervision of therapists. Ms Boland is particularly concerned about poorly trained therapists, who operate independently of the major organisations.
"The standards that exist all over the place are questionable as far as I am concerned," says Leon Cowen, a practitioner for more than 15 years and head of the Academy of Applied Hypnosis in the city.
"I'm surprised the Government has not done something before this," says Dr Alan Fahey, a medical practitioner, hypnotherapist and co-founder of the College Of Medical Hypnotherapy in Westmead. "I think most hypnotherapists have expected that at some stage the Government will regulate hypnotherapy in NSW. I think it's seen to be inevitable." Ironically, the reputation of hypnosis has markedly improved since the 1960s, when its image was largely based on sinister horror movies or stage shows in which hapless audience members were induced to cluck like chickens. Hypnosis is now used by many psychotherapists,psychologists and even some surgeons, most remarkably in the case of Dorothy Sayers, an Australian woman who had a gall-bladder operation under hypnosis without any general anaesthetic.
Hypnotherapists mounted a spirited campaign against the regulation of their business in 1988, arguing that hypnosis itself has never been shown to be harmful. While that is technically true, the "recovered memory" debate has highlighted just how dangerous poorly trained therapists can be when therapy aims to recover memories buried deeply in the past - particularly if those memories involve criminal acts such as incest.
People under hypnosis can be extremely vulnerable to suggestion, a phenomenon the hypnosis expert Dr Herbert Spiegel demonstrated on American television in 1968, when he convinced a man under hypnosis that radio and television stations across the US were under threat of communist takeover. When the man came out of hypnosis, he began describing the communist plot in elaborate detail, before Dr Spiegel hypnotised him again and erased it from his thoughts. This "honest liar" phenomenon has enormous implications for people who go to a hypnotherapist seeking to explore possible childhood traumas.
"People under hypnosis become far more confident that what they are remembering is true," says Lindsay Yeates, of the Rose Bay Hypnotherapy Centre. "There's no clear evidence that they actually remember anything more under hypnosis than out of it, but they may be 10 times more confident about what they remember." How many therapists use hypnosis in their "recovered memory" work is impossible to estimate, but anecdotal evidence suggests a significant number. A survey of 869 US therapists by the psychologist Michael Yapko found that more than half used it. Hypnosis has played a central role in the "discovery" ofMultiple Personality Disorder (MPD), a condition usually exhibited by women who claim to have recovered memories of childhood Satanic abuse. Dr Richard Kluft, one of America's leading proponents of MPD, held a seminar in Melbourne last year in which he taught hypnotic techniques for therapists dealing withrecovered memories of abuse.
The reliability of memories recovered during hypnosis is a source of great dispute and misunderstanding. Mr Yapko, for instance, found that almost half the US therapists he surveyed believed hypnosis memories were more reliable than ordinary memories, even though this has never been proved. Almost one in five falsely believed that people cannot lie under hypnosis, and more than half believed that hypnosis could be used to recall events "as far back as birth".
Many psychologists and psychiatrists argue that hypnosis should only be used by professionals with years of medical training. "There is no such thing as hypnotherapy," argues Professor McConkey. "Hypnosis is a useful therapeutic adjunct for some people and some disorders, some of the time. It is not an independent therapy. It should not be used for all people and all disorders and it definitely should not be used all the time." Some medically qualified hypnotherapists have, however, been disciplined in NSW. Dr David Collison, a Chatswood hypnotherapist who wrote the book Understanding Hypnosis and was apast president of the International Society Of Hypnosis and Psychosymatic Medicine, was struck off the medical register in 1991 for supplying drugs in exchange for a sexual relationship. Dr Collison did not dispute the charges and was found to have committed "gross errors of judgment", although there is nosuggestion that any further complaints have been made about him. And last December, Dr James Jackson, another Chatswood practitioner and author of the book Stress Control Through Self Hypnosis, was found guilty of professional misconduct after a woman claimed they had a sexual relationship during hertreatment for depression.
Hypnotherapists argue that psychologists and psychiatrists simply want control of a lucrative market. Lindsay Yeates believes medical practitioners are more prone to inducing false memories because they often dabble in hypnotherapy without having full training. He recalls being horrified by an authoritative 600-page guide put out by the American Society of Clinical Hypnotherapists which laid out highly suggestive techniques for helping Satanic ritual abuse victims "recover" their memories of abuse.
"According to my information, there is not one false memory court case in the US, Canada, or Australia against a lay hypnotherapist," Yeates says.
That might be true, but anyone wanting to complain about a lay hypnotherapist in NSW would have run up against a major problem in the past few decades - there was no independent body to complain to. Until last year, the Healthcare Complaints Commission had no jurisdiction over the conduct of "alternative" practitioners such as lay hypnotherapists.
Instead of a central body such as the Psychologists Registration Board, hypnotherapy operates under a dizzying array of competing bodies - the Australian Society Of Hypnosis, the Australian Society Of Clinical Hypnotherapists, the Australian Society Of Hypnotic Examiners, the Australian Hypnotherapists Association and the Society of Therapists.
These bodies are the most estblished in the field, but they often give accreditation to hypnotherapy schools with which they are closely linked. Hence the NSW School of Hypnotic Sciences is approved by the Australian Society Of Clinical Hypnotherapists (ASCH), which shares the same address as the school. The Brice-Wright School of Professional Hypnotherapy is accredited to the Centre For Analytical Hypnotherapy Research and Training (Australasia), which is run by Gregory Brice and Frank Wright. Leon Cowen's school, the Academy Of Applied Hypnosis, is accredited to the National Council For Experiential Therapies, anew organisation which Mr Cowen is helping to establish.
Elizabeth Carmen, honorary secretary of the ASCH, acknowledges that she is also the registrar of the NSW School For Hypnotic Sciences, that the two organisations share the same address and that many graduates of the school join the society, but she says the two organisations are "totally separate". Greg Brice agrees that there is an "incestuous" relationship between his school and its accrediting body, but says that is simply because CARTA is still in its infancy. And Leon Cowen argues that although he is a key member of the Council For Experiential Therapies, which accredits his school, he was not actually afounding member of the council.
Little wonder that attempts to amalgamate these associations or impose uniform minimum qualifications have frequently fallen apart, most recently last year when Mike Usher, of the Australian Hypnotherapists Association - the longest-established and most stringent professional body - tried to organise a self-regulating umbrella group for the industry. Many hypnotherapists admit that an agreement between all these competing interests is highly unlikely. So the ideal of a self-regulated hypnotherapy industry looks quite a way off. That's the problem with self-regulation: unlike hypnotism, it is very difficult toinduce.