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It’s just a word…

November 29th, 2004

Dr Petra

The word ‘therapist’ means something. It’s a job title like ‘cardiologist’, ‘architect’, ‘choreographer’, or ‘solicitor’. You’d expect newspapers to get basic facts like this correct.

I opened my Sunday paper this morning to see myself described as ‘Dr Petra Boynton, Relationship Therapist’. Which is all very nice, except I’m not a therapist. I’m a psychologist who researches sex and relationships.

Perhaps you see no difference between the two. But if you called a solicitor a police officer, or perhaps lawyer, there would be problems.

Recently a number of complaints have been made in the press about people described as ‘sex therapists’ who have no qualifications, skills, or training in this field. Myself and other colleagues have let the media know it’s wrong for people give themselves titles they don’t deserve. It’s misleading and confuses the public at a time when trust in science, medicine, and research is at an all time low.

I told the newspaper three times that I wasn’t a therapist. Didn’t make any difference though, they still couldn’t get it right.

So maybe we’ve been wrong to criticise our colleagues for setting themselves up as ‘therapists’ and abusing their position. Perhaps they never described themselves like this at all. Perhaps the writer or sub editor assumed titles are simply interchangeable. After all, ‘it’s just a word’ as one journalist once told me.

Want to know what happens if you get it wrong? You face sneers from your colleagues, complaints from other practitioners, and possibly disciplinary action from your employer or any professional body to which you belong. Nobody believes you if you say you were misquoted. The public continues to mistrust what’s written, won’t accept advice from genuine professionals, and may put their emotional or physical health at risk as a result.

And if you think that academics or practitioners are going to want to talk to you a second time, after you’ve insulted they by getting their title wrong and probably got them into a whole heap of trouble, you can think again. They won’t trust you, and maybe they’d have a point. If papers can’t even get a simple thing like a job title right, can we trust anything else they say?

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