A sexual relationship will develop in up to ten percent of cases where a psychotherapist is male and the client is female, according to research from UNSW.
The blurring of boundaries between the client and the therapist is the focus of one UNSW presentation at the World Psychiatry Association International Congress, which was held in Melbourne recently.
"Patients often idealise their therapists and that's a phase of the process. If the therapist manages it properly, it is not a problem," says UNSW Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Carolyn Quadrio.
"The problem is with this significant minority of therapists who like being idealised and leave their patients stuck in this pattern," she says.
"In a sense, they are on an ego trip. They are narcissistic. They lose perspective and think that it is right that they should be adored. From there, a sexual relationship often develops - particularly if the client has been abused or has gone through trauma as a child."
"Clearly, these therapists are in need of help themselves. They may be someone who because of their background needs to feel loved and admired and perhaps this is why they are attracted to the profession.
"As ethical practitioners we need to work within the frame of professional boundaries and assist our clients to construct and maintain boundaries.
"For survivors of childhood trauma and abuse, therapy may be a new and difficult but ultimately very healing experience. Thus, respect for boundaries is not only a question of ethics, it is a matter of therapeutics as well."
Also presenting at the Congress were three leading UNSW psychiatrists who were amongst 17 local researchers selected by the Australasian Society for Psychiatric Research to give presentations because they have most significantly contributed to psychiatry research on an international level.
UNSW Scientia Professor Gordon Parker, who is the Executive Director of the Black Dog Institute, spoke about "mythbusting". Initially, he focused on a myth dominant in the 1970s that parents 'caused' most psychiatric disorders.
"It became clear that anomalous parenting was of antecedent causal relevance to some disorders, more a consequence ... of problems in the child in other disorders, and irrelevant to other conditions," he says.
Professor Parker's research has suggested a new model for modelling and measuring personality disorders and it has challenged much of the logic underpinning the treatment of depression.
Professor Phillip Mitchell spoke about the genetics of mood disorders, while Professor Gavin Andrews argued that present diagnostic criteria are too complex and that instead, a reduced criterion set that can be remembered by clinicians should be used.
Other UNSW research showcased at the Congress included a presentation on the role of genetics in major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia as portrayed by the Australian media over the past decade.
For media queries: Susi Hamilton, UNSW media unit, 0422 934 024 or 9385 1583