If you are a mental health therapist, you will know that professional body membership is an important part of our ethical governance. For me, it also brought a sense of belonging in an otherwise solitary vocation. However, what my ethical body did not provide me with, was the support I naively thought was part of my membership, when they received a complaint against me. Instead, this well-known body facilitated a highly questionable, vexatious complaint, without question. I became trapped in a remarkable process which still does not make any sense, a year, and a half later, after it happened. I would encourage anyone reading this to ensure you know what your membership truly offers. Thankfully we have a choice now. I offer this post from my own experience, in the hope to protect others.
I am approaching the mid-Autumn stages of life and have been practising full-time as a registered counsellor for 15 years. I have held accreditation for twelve of them. For 13 of these years, I felt proud to put my professional body’s logo after my signature. But since my complaint experience, it only reminds me of what harmful power this small mark truly represents. During the Summer of 2021, I received an email from the professional body I previously had membership with, to say a complaint had been lodged against me. This was the first in all my years of well-earned respected practice. After a few minutes of total bewilderment, my first thought was “who did I let down or upset in some way”? as I would never intentionally do this and couldn’t think of who it was.
As I opened the complaint, I was shocked to see a familiar name. The complainant was not a client, but in fact an ex-intimate, who had stalked me sporadically and relentlessly for ten years since I ended our brief relationship. Full law protection is not available, so my stalker is free to continue this campaign against me. The complainant claimed she/he was a client a decade ago and that I had broken all manner of ethics since, and that I was being investigated by the police for harassing her/him. This complaint was lodged and timed later than the body’s 3-year window, so it was raised through a “serious harm” additional process. This is available to use by the ethical body, in cases where members act unprofessionally in work or personal life or bring the reputation of the profession into question.
In all complaints processes, however, there is a transparency clause ensuring all submissions from each party to be shared with each other. I repeatedly asked for this to be reviewed but was ignored. Effectively, I was being forced to have third party contact with my stalker, if I wanted to clear my reputation and keep my membership for my livelihood. He/she saw my submission andin return I saw his/hers. My stalker claimed I offered this counselling for free, so was unable to provide bank statements or receipts to support the claims. Confidentiality breaches and my pursuit of him/her romantically, was also listed in the complaint including quotes from people he/she was unable to name. The only hard evidence given by the complainant were some love notes I gave her/him during our brief liaison over ten years ago.
Within a week I replied to my professional body, and provided a “response”, including evidence by way of :
- a current police email, clearly confirming there was no police investigation against me
- further evidence that I had been stalked for ten years and the extreme lengths I went to, to hide from this person, and to get it stopped, which included political support
- a copy of a Court ordered Letter of Undertaking, ordering him/her to stay away from me
This did not seem to matter as the ethical body waited for further evidence from the complainant (my stalker). While waiting on an update from the body, I was, once again, aggressively catapulted back into my past. I experienced the trauma of the years of being hunted, reputationally degraded, and viciously surveillanced, during which time I was also threatened with being shot. It terrified me that he/she had contact with me, yet again!
No matter how many times I emailed the professional body explaining she/he was my stalker and never a client, they kept the case open. I was denied any support from them apart from one call a month later, which was void of any empathy. It baffled me completely that this was the treatment I was given, from a charity whose purpose is mental health focused, and whose primary income was from membership fees. “Was I, a member, and my membership, not of any value to them”?
I found the ethical body’s behaviour towards me perplexing. The professional body not only refused to acknowledge my emails for updates, but also ignored my pleas to remove the transparency clause so I could provide further supporting evidence. I also asked for a personality disorder and/or stalking expert, who would understand the issue straight away, but was not replied to. As time went on, I became increasingly anxious. It took approximately a month for me to understand, that I was being treated as if guilty from the outset! I felt victimised all over again. I had to muster all my own inner resources to manage my full case load of vulnerable clients, and to balance this with some form of normal living. My clients did not know that I, their therapist, was enduring the highest level of retriggered trauma, that I had worked with that year.
I clung to my supervisor who was my main source of support. I reached out to my close colleagues also, as the complainant was not a client, so I was not breaking confidentiality. They were as bewildered as I was. As time went on, and emails remained unanswered my supervisor recommended I took a reviewable, two weeks off work, to de-escalate my heightened anxiety and ensure best practice for my full case load of clients. I was also advised by my doctor to start medication to help restore some form of calm to my life. I felt beyond devastated that this stalking was happening to me all over again.
In those few weeks I started considering three things:
- Why was one questionable, non-evidenced complaint, prioritised over my own welfare and indirectly all the people I was supporting in my practice?. My own case load of clients was not considered at all in any of this, except by my supervisor and myself.
- And how could an ethical governing organisation, whose business is for counsellors and psychotherapists, seem to be so insensitive to the impact on all parties concerned?
- And did the ethical body set a target for itself to have a number of upheld complaints? If so I wondered whether my case was in the middle of this as one those statistics?.
I also realised that my professional credibility and my 15 years of experience, was irrelevant. In other words, my reputation and references seemed to count for nothing, and I was treated as someone who couldn’t possibly be believed right from the outset. In fact, I found the whole experience so stressful and upsetting, that it began to overshadow the love I had for my chosen vocation.
In all, it took a total of ten weeks for the professional body to close the complaint and deem it to be vexatious. There was a proviso that should the complainant produce any further substantive evidence that the case may be reopened. I did not feel relief as it should not have happened in the first place. This was not work related and should not have been entertained from the outset.
I would like to offer the following personal conclusions for other therapists who might read this:-
- Membership benefits are for enforcing complaint processes, endorsement purposes, CPD and ethical guidance if needed. It is not to support the member.
- In spite of strong evidence, the professional body was reluctant to accept any presented evidence in spite of its strength. The truth is irrelevant.
- At no time did I get a sense that the ethical body might begin to grasp that perhaps this complaint had been made with less than honourable intentions. Everything is considered and will start a complaints process.
- My professional body did not have or offer the necessary expertise to allow them to make the necessary judgements, as my complaint was made with an underlying, ill intended motive.
- The body in question ignored the true nature of my work, and the inevitable, associated, complexities than can arise from people with mental health issues. In my case not from a client.
- The treatment I experienced was strongly legalised. I realised this more so afterwards, as in their own evidence section of their complaint’s procedure……the evidence “whether or not” it is evidential, in civil or criminal proceedings, can be used. This has explained in part, the unfairness of what happened to me.
I hope that those of you who have experienced complaints and have read my post will understand that you are not alone. If you find yourself where a minimal or vexatious complaint is made about you, I would strongly advise instructing a civil litigation solicitor. Seek one who understands mental health issues the moment you are approached with a complaint. Do not respond without a solicitor and consider joining a union in the meantime.
And this is why. No matter what reputation, credibility, and years of practice you may have, it will not matter when it comes to complaints with a certain professional body. All will be explored to pass a threshold test, which can take some time to conclude. By all means, if a therapist is not fit to practice, I would certainly encourage a strong but fair and proportionate complaints process. But too many colleagues are sharing a similar experience. What is currently in place is biased in favour of the complainant, it ignores any offerings of truth or evidence, and is highly disproportionate in most cases. This is your reputation, career, and livelihood, so fight for it, as it deserves to be protected.
Please note I did not gender my stalker to limit identifiable issues.
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