The harm caused according to one study:
- 14% were suicidal after therapist abuse,
- another 1% died from suicide, and
- an additional 11% were hospitalized as a direct result of therapist abuse and misconduct.
That’s 26% of people dead, suicidal, or hospitalized because of therapist abuse.
And in another study:
- 92% had PTSD after a therapist’s sexual misconduct.
The effects of therapist abuse are huge and wide-reaching. Many women, myself included, say they don’t know if they will ever get over it. This illegal and unethical behavior destroys the very lives of people already hurting — people who had every reason to trust that their therapist would not harm or abuse them.
Some of the links on the resources page go in-depth in describing the effects therapist abuse and misconduct have on people victimized. TELL, in particular, has information for a wide range of people, from those who have been hurt to family members to information for other therapists. It’s an excellent website with a lot of material.
Because the power-dynamic is so unequal; because people who go to therapy are already vulnerable; and because therapy, by law and ethics statutes, is that the client is 100% safe from violation; when abuse and misconduct happen, it is devastating. The entire foundation of the client’s trust shatters. Many will never again see a mental health professional. Some won’t receive medical or dental care.
When the one person legally and ethically mandated not to hurt you uses you for their own enjoyment and satisfaction, the consequences can have broad and far-reaching impact.
Common Emotional Damage
Clients of unethical therapists and mental health professionals experience a range of emotions. They can include:
Ambivalence in Therapist Misconduct
Ambivalence is a complicated component that causes misunderstanding, confusion, and minimization by people who don’t understand the scope of therapist abuse.
The perception that sexual misconduct or other boundary violations is between two consenting adults is wrong. The client is a victim — always.
The client is often dependent on the therapist, and the therapist is in a very powerful position. The client is not an equal, and the client is never responsible for a therapist’s misconduct. When therapists cross the line, they are breaking the law in many locations, and violating their ethics code in all. The therapist has the legal and ethical obligation to maintain a safe, healthy, and professional therapeutic relationship.
Experts have loosely likened therapist abuse to incest. It’s easier to understand the ambivalence many people feel about reporting an unethical therapist via the incest metaphor. We understand when a child doesn’t want to tell on an abusive parent. The child knows the abuse is wrong, knows they’re getting hurt, but the parent is powerful, important, and knows them deeply and intimately. It’s very similar in therapy. After you’ve invested time, trust, and emotional dependence in a therapist, the same turmoil and ambivalent thinking applies.
It’s very confusing for victims. The misconduct doesn’t happen from the beginning; it evolves over time. An adored and trusted therapist gradually becomes a source of pain and harm. The therapist knows everything about you that you typically would not tell someone else. It’s crazy-making when a therapist, who is supposed to be helping you, begins using the information you’ve shared in trust against you. It’s even worse, when the therapist twists it into being “for your own good.”
Compounding the damage, people victimized often already have a trauma background, the details of which the therapist knows. For instance, Terry Ganaway knew that when a man expressed sexual interest in me in a private setting, I froze in fear. He knew that because I had told him, and he used that information for his own pleasure.
The very dynamic of the therapeutic setting creates a situation ideal for predators and causes people victimized a great deal of pain, confusion, bewilderment, fear, and shame.
Additionally, people in therapy typically don’t have a strong support system. A client may feel their therapist is their only source of support, comfort, and advice. Like a child who doesn’t want to lose a parent, a client may not want to lose their sole source of support even though it’s hurting them. These are all natural reactions.
The Scope of Harm
In a study I read, 14% of respondents claimed they were suicidal after therapist abuse, 1% died from suicide, and 11% were hospitalized as a direct result of therapist abuse and misconduct.
Others, like me, also become so terrified of medical and mental health professionals that they refuse to see doctors and dentists at all. Small issues can become large health challenges because former victims cannot handle the anxiety and fear of being alone in a room with another medical or mental health professional after the trauma they’ve suffered.
Since people are often more damaged from the therapist’s abuse than they were before starting therapy, they are in dire need of mental health care they are too terrified to receive for fear of more abuse, backlash, fear of being disbelieved, or an understandable unwillingness to trust another therapist and be in another vulnerable, one-sided relationship.
PTSD is very common, as are nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks, and severe depression. Former clients may also resort to drugs or alcohol to numb the shame, guilt, self-reproach, and self-loathing so common after therapist abuse.
Because a crucial trust-relationship has been destroyed, abused clients can feel on shaky ground all the time. They stop trusting their instincts and no longer know who they can trust and who they can’t.
Another common fallout for people who have been victimized by a therapist is that they make increasingly poor decisions in their relationships with others, their finances, and work situations.
Lastly, the client is usually not the only person harmed. Marriages and relationships break up as a result of the therapist’s misconduct, children’s lives are forever altered, friendships crumble, and many women find they are far worse off financially after such a horrible trauma to their lives.
It can take years to recover from the damage caused by therapist abuse. Lives are shattered. Many women, ten years later, say they still haven’t gotten over it. This kind of psychological damage burns deep, and there is no quick fix. Coupled with the general public’s lack of understanding, victims are often left very isolated.
I am one of many whose life has been destroyed by my therapist’s alleged disregard for his Code of Ethics and the law. I made several suicide attempts, I have had added anxiety and PTSD for several years now. Seeing the kind of car he drove causes panic. I still have nightmares. I can smell his breath and feel his tongue in my mouth.
From a practical standpoint, my life changed completely. I was so desperate to feel safe, so terrified of him, and so frantic that I moved to another country. I didn’t want anyone near me, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, and the only way I felt safe was to live in a place where I didn’t speak the language. I made myself mute.
Just before I moved to another country and also in a desperate effort to feel safe, I hastily married someone ill-suited for me and subsequently separated. It saddens me that the decent man I married and his family were also harmed by Terry’s alleged misconduct. Now, I am incapable of having a relationship, I’m agoraphobic, and I am aloof, cynical, reclusive, and untrusting.
Financially, I am completely broke now, whereas before I had a business I loved and a few assets. I lost my home because I was so messed up I was unable to cope. I loved my office, its location, and the people I saw on a daily basis. All of it is gone in an attempt to get away from him and try and heal.
I lost my whole life because of what he allegedly did– a life I liked and will never be able to get back.
I also literally almost died. (not just because of the suicide attempts prompted by his misconduct)
Numerous studies have shown that extreme stress and trauma wreak havoc on the body and cause health problems. Less than one year after leaving Florida, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. A tumor that wasn’t supposed to grow grew 40% in 4.5 months. While not provable, it is my belief that the stress and trauma Terry caused played a role in the tumor’s development and growth.
Like many other victims, I was terrified of receiving medical care and putting myself in a position to be victimized again. I made the choice to forego a life-saving operation and die versus the possibility of being hurt by another health professional. It sounds extreme until you’ve been through something like this. Death really was better to me than being violated again.
Here is a final email I sent him. I never received a response.
Despite Terry’s lack of response, I became so incapacitated that critical decisions were made around me, and I did end up having the surgery, thanks to the man I was separated from and a good friend. I was very close to being dead.
I wish I had magic words for anyone going through this. I don’t. I strongly feel it is important to advocate for more accountability, more understanding and support for victims, and more rigorous punishment by state officials. Therapist abuse and misconduct is too devastating for ‘slaps on the wrist’.
At the same time, if we, the people victimized, continue to disappear into oblivion and try to nurse our wounds in private, nothing will change. It’s up to us to make our voices heard so something starts to get done about this issue. We deserve it. We have paid dearly.