People who practise the controversial recovered-memory therapy may soon have to be registered by a professional board, amid concerns that some are unqualified and could cause harm.
An inquiry led by state Health Services Commissioner Beth Wilson will examine the extent to which the therapy is practised in Victoria, and its scientific basis.
Ms Wilson told The Age it was of concern that unqualified people could offer recovered-memory therapy – as psychotherapists or counsellors – without being registered.
“I think most people would assume that the person was adequately trained and was registered,” she said.
This, in turn, meant there was no professional body to investigate a complaint, or to set standards of practice, she said.
Recovered-memory therapy is based on the idea that people can “forget” a serious trauma from childhood, particularly sexual abuse, through memory repression.
The theory is that the event can lead to particular psychological symptoms in adulthood and that remembering and confronting the event are the keys to recovery.
The main concern of critics is that the therapy can, in some cases, result in false or distorted memory recovery, which can, in turn, lead to false accusations of abuse against family members or others.
There is a voluntary register for therapists – the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia – which includes those who are not psychologists or psychiatrists.
The association does not have a formal position on the therapy. President Ron Perry said memory was “something very significant, but doesn’t always lead to the truth”.
Paul Mullen, a professor of forensic psychiatry at Monash University who has written a book on childhood sexual abuse, said the basis of the recovered-memory theory was flawed. He said that although being abused as a child increased the risk of psychological problems later in life, there were no specific symptoms that came from childhood abuse.
But a victims’ support group, Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse, believes in addressing the abuse and its consequences as a path to healing. Director Cathy Kezelman, a GP who experienced her own recovered memories of abuse, said she believed that, in most cases, recovered memories were legitimate. She agreed that counsellors should be registered.
Psychologist Anne Welfare, who works with memory in her practice, said it was established that people could forget childhood trauma. But therapists had to be very careful when dealing with recovered memories.
A spokeswoman for the Australian False Memory Association welcomed the inquiry into the therapy, which she said was “dangerous, unscientific, and just destroys families”.
Julian Freidin, president-elect of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, said the college was keen to see standards of practice in place and membership of a professional body to ensure supervision and a complaints process.
It was widely accepted that people could forget, or repress, traumatic events, he said. But while creating a completely false memory was difficult, distorting a memory could occur more readily. “I think that there are risks,” he said.