Feature Archive

When Cybertherapy Goes Bad

WebMD Feature

July 24, 2000 -- "I don't recommend that anyone with a diagnosis like mine use the Internet," says Chris Brandon. But that's exactly what she did.

A 31-year-old computer programming student, she was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder three years ago. "It scared the living life out of me," she says. Like many people with a new medical diagnosis, she turned to the Internet for information. What she found, she says, nearly drove her to suicide.

As more and more people seek psychotherapy online, experts worry that charlatans may take advantage of them. "The Internet is beyond government control, so people have to take more responsibility for what they consume online," says Storm King, MS, past president of the International Society for Mental Health Online, an organization of patients and professionals concerned with the use of the Internet for mental health. "Unfortunately, people with mental illness may not have the best judgment."

So far, incidents of such abuse are fairly rare, according to those tracking the phenomenon. Martha Ainsworth, who checks the credentials of cybertherapists at her web site ( www.metanoia.org), says she knows of no lawsuits filed against online therapists. She has found only one in four years who claims to be credentialed but is not.