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Smears, STIs and manipulating other people’s mental health problems – is this acceptable behaviour from a psychotherapist?

April 13th, 2009

Dr Petra

You may well have seen the extensive press coverage in the UK media yesterday and today about plans Labour party promoters had to discredit the opposition.

The story broke in the News of the World yesterday. It alleged spin doctor Damien McBride, and editor of Labour List and psychotherapist Derek Draper planned a smear campaign on prominent members of the Conservative party via a planned ‘gossip’ website (to be called Red Rag). Among numerous stories considered for publication on the site were insinuations the leader of the opposition had an ‘embarrassing illness’ (including a plan to show a photo of the private doctor who supposedly gave treatment), outing a homosexual politician, and highlighting how an MP’s wife’s mental health was deteriorating.

It is for other people to discuss this issue in terms of politics and blogging, search the news and blogs for plenty of coverage on this story.

My concern is about Mr Draper’s fitness to practice as a psychotherapist. I have previously raised concerns about Mr Draper’s skills following his apparent endorsement of gender inequality within the home. Others, particularly blogger Gimpy, have also questioned Mr Draper’s qualifications.

As a psychotherapist Mr Draper is a member of the British Associate of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) http://www.bacp.co.uk/prof_conduct. Following this recent scandal, Gimpy has written a further thought provoking blog which highlights the professional guidelines set out for psychotherapists by BACP – and shows where Mr Draper falls short of those professional standards by his recent behaviour.

Although Mr Draper has written an apology on website Labour List for the planned smear campaign, his initial response was to say he didn’t need to apologise for emails he hadn’t published. While his initial response to the proposed stories for Red Rag was “absolutely totally brilliant, Damian. I’ll think about timing”.

Which leaves us wondering whether he thought it was okay to promote stories that outed people on the basis of their sexuality or mental health, or implied they had an STI – either on the grounds they were amusing, or were in the interest of promoting the Labour party via the blogosphere, or were just a means of discrediting others.

Let’s take the issue of outing, mental health and STIs and see why it’s a problem in terms of Mr Draper’s psychotherapy practice, and within a wider UK health context.

Sexually Transmitted Infections

We’re used to this mantra by now. Our STI rates are rising, we have a major problem with the under 25s being infected, and we also have rising rates among older people too. This is costing us a lot of money in both treatment, and prevention messages. The government has been tasked with bringing down the STI rates and promoting sexual health – including normalising condom use and encouraging people to manage their own sexual wellbeing. Included in this messaging has been an attempt to de-stigmatise STIs while emphasising the negative impact they can have if caught.

One would hope that as a psychotherapist Mr Draper would be aware of these issues, but even if he wasn’t as a supposed Labour promoter/spokesperson he certainly ought to be aware of the efforts being made within the Department of Health to tackle this issue.

In either case, what does it say about someone’s ethics and professional competency if they are happy to suggest the leader of the opposition has a sexually transmitted infection? And consider publishing a photo of the doctor who supposedly treated said infection? If you’re feeling generous you could see this as a schoolboy jibe, but with the plan to expose a practitioner and a client it’s really highly judgemental, insensitive, and has the potential to undermine existing campaigns that Mr Draper’s party is supposed to be managing.

Homosexuality

While we’ve recently heard that a minority of therapists don’t follow the evidence base around understanding sexuality and have sought to ‘cure’ homosexuality, it is unlikely that any therapist would not know the damage that outing someone would do to their personal and mental wellbeing. So one really has to question what Mr Draper thought might happen if, as planned with Mr McBride, a closeted gay MP was exposed.

Mental Health

Mr Draper has frequently justified his skills base within the media and to critics. Within his list of qualifications he regularly mentions being ‘MIND journalist of the year 2007’. It is hard to reconcile how a mental health charity (MIND) can stand by while someone they’ve commended appeared to enthusiastically welcome the idea of playing on the wife of an opposition MP’s supposed deteriorating mental state. Interestingly MIND is a charity who has taken a strong stance on mental health and sexuality. I wonder how comfortable this organisation will be to be associated so publicly with a mental health practitioner who endorses outing in the name of promoting a political party.

Regardless of Mr Draper’s association with MIND, there’s the additional concern that a psychotherapist does not seem to find it problematic to endorse a public campaign that would imply a wife of an opposition MP was going mad. Either this suggests Mr Draper’s training and supervision have not adequately prepared him to understand the damage this might do to someone (whether they have mental health problems or not); or it indicates Mr Draper is aware of the harm this might do but seemed willing to overlook it anyway.

Even though the suggested Red Rag website and associated ‘gossip’ about opposition MPs never materialised, the planning behind it certainly seemed to go further than a few joke emails between friends. Mr Draper’s defence has been to say he is sorry and that the site was never developed. You decide whether you feel this is an adequate explanation.

Supervision

Psychotherapists are supposed to be trained and supervised as part of their professional practice. Such supervision is there to develop skills, encourage reflection, and explore issues emerging from clients. While the alleged activities around Red Rag were not directly linked with Mr Draper’s psychotherapy practice, one has to ask what level of supervision he is receiving given he appears eager to engage in petty disputes within the blogosphere that have resulted in this recent scandal. Surely a supervisor might spot the stress this would be causing to a person and want them to address why they were engaging in blogging in this manner – and what impact it might have on their competency as a therapist. After all, if you’re embroiled in a spat within the blogosphere it’s going to have an impact on your wellbeing, which in turn is going to affect your ability to offer appropriate therapeutic support to your clients.

Again we need to ask whether Mr Draper is either being inadequately supervised, or is being supervised but is ignoring that process.

Therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and other health personnel are not supposed to talk about celebrities or other case studies directly within the media. The reason for this is very simple. If you know the person in a professional capacity (say as their therapist or GP) and you go on record about them you are breaching client/practitioner confidentiality. It doesn’t matter if they’re famous or not or what’s going on in their lives, you don’t have the right to breach their right to privacy.

And if you don’t know them personally, then you can’t talk about them because you don’t know them and would simply be speculating on their behaviour – what I call ‘gossipology’.

We’re so used to this bad practice we don’t even recognise it as such – and journalists particularly seem unaware that it’s a breach of professional guidelines to analyse cases/celebrities. Unfortunately there are countless ‘media therapists’ who make a living out of dishing the dirt on other people’s suffering.

But what do you do with this latest case of Mr Draper? That’s taken us to a whole new level where someone isn’t just speculating on a case study. From the media coverage of this case it appears Mr Draper is endorsing invented scandals to be used within a media context to discredit people.

While the media’s been obsessing over blogs and politics I think they’ve missed a major shift within ‘media therapy’. We’ve seen therapists speculate and judge to benefit their own careers, but now we’re seeing the potential case of them creating problems in order to benefit themselves AND which have the ability to deliberately harm others.

I wish there was another way of looking at this case, but I can’t see it. And it scares the hell out of me.

Do you think Mr Draper is fit to practice as a psychotherapist? If you think Mr Draper has not acted professionally you need to complain to BACP and MIND. You should ask them if they think Mr Draper is fit to practice, has acted in a professional manner, and what they intend to do about the situation. I’ll be getting in contact with both organisations and I’ll post any responses on this blog.

In case you were wondering why this bothers me so much, it’s because I am sick to my stomach with therapists and others abusing their position in the media to judge, ‘analyse’ – and latterly – smear. It makes a mockery of good practice, ethics, evidence and our duty of care.

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