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.
But Brandon's case shows just how badly Internet therapy can turn out.
She first ran into problems when friends started telling her about a self-styled "psychoanalyst," who frequented chat rooms for abuse survivors and "multiples." Some women talked about going to his house for Froot Loops and ice cream.
When a friend said she was going to visit him, Brandon decided to check his credentials. "I knew that real therapists did not invite you to their homes," she says. "I talked to him on the phone and he told me he was a therapist, licensed in (two states). I called the licensing boards of those states and they had never heard of him."
The man, who spoke with WebMD on the condition that his name not be used, denies ever making these claims. But he admits he described himself, on one archived bulletin board, as a psychoanalyst with seven year's experience. "There are no laws against calling yourself a psychoanalyst," he says.
Although Brandon knew he was not licensed, she says she was eager to listen to him because he told her that increasing her ability to function was more important than integrating her personalities -- something she wanted to hear. "He told me to give the various personalities time and let them do whatever they wanted. This was not good therapy. But he made it all sound so good."
Relying on the online "psychoanalyst," Brandon says she didn't get the professional help she really needed. Eventually, confused and depressed, she took an overdose of a tranquilizer. It wasn't enough to kill her, but the experience led her to check into a mental hospital where she finally began to get effective treatment.
Local police began an investigation of the self-proclaimed "psychoanalyst," but he left that state before it was completed. The entire incident infuriated the online community of people with multiple personality disorder; one person posted a web page dedicated to exposing the unlicensed analyst.
In his discussion with WebMD, this man offered glowing references from other people he had helped. He pointed out that he doesn't charge for his therapy. And he has continued to offer counseling on his own web site.
Incidents like these show that chat rooms are clearly not the place to go for therapy, says Storm King of the International Society for Mental Health Online. Seriously depressed or ill people like Brandon need intensive therapy, face to face. "It's okay to try online therapy and see if it fits for you," says King. "But don't assume it's going to always work real well."
Barbara Burgower Hordern is a freelance writer based in Missouri City, Texas, a Houston suburb. Her work appears in publications ranging from Money to Biography to Ladies Home Journal.