Various relationship threads on A2K have touched on the issue of traumatic memories. Posters bring up the dangers of "false memories" where innocent people are falsely accused of abuse. Although this is a serious danger, it should not be forgotten that traumatic events actually do occur and that some have difficulty retrieving from memory the details of an actual traumatic event. A responsible psychologist can help a patient distinguish between details which have become distorted and details which are accurate.
The American Psychological Association gives the following advice:
The issue of repressed or suggested memories has been overreported and sensationalized by the news media. Media and entertainment portrayals of the memory issue have succeeded in presenting the least likely scenario (that of a total amnesia of a childhood event) as the most likely occurrence. The reality is that most people who are victims of childhood sexual abuse remember all or part of what happened to them. Also true is the fact that thousands of people see a psychologist every day and are helped to deal with such things as issues of personal adjustment, depression, substance abuse and problems in relationships. The issues of childhood abuse or questionable memory retrieval techniques never enter into the equation in the great majority of therapy relationships.
The American Psychological Association has released to the public the following advice to consider when seeking psychotherapy services.
First, know that there is no single set of symptoms which automatically indicates that a person was a victim of childhood abuse. There have been media reports of therapists who state that people (particularly women) with a particular set of problems or symptoms must have been victims of childhood sexual abuse. There is no scientific evidence that supports this conclusion.
Second, all questions concerning possible recovered memories of childhood abuse should be considered from an unbiased position. A therapist should not approach recovered memories with the preconceived notion that abuse must have happened or that abuse could not possibly have happened.
Third, when considering current problems, be wary of those therapists who offer an instant childhood abuse explanation, and those who dismiss claims or reports of sexual abuse without any exploration.
Fourth, when seeking psychotherapy, you are advised to see a licensed practitioner with training and experience in the issue for which you seek treatment. Ask the therapist about the kinds of treatment techniques he or she uses and how they could help you.
How can I expect a competent psychotherapist to react to a recovered memory? A competent psychotherapist will attempt to stick to the facts as you report them. He or she will be careful to let the information evolve as your memory does and not to steer you toward a particular conclusion or interpretation.A competent psychotherapist is likely to acknowledge that current knowledge does not allow the definite conclusion that a memory is real or false without other corroborating evidence.
What credentials should I look for when selecting a mental health provider? You should choose a mental health professional as carefully as you would choose a physical health provider. For example, licensed psychologists have earned an undergraduate degree and have completed 5-7 years of graduate study culminating in a doctoral degree and including a one-year, full-time internship. All psychologists are required to be licensed or certified by the state in which they practice and many states require that they keep their training current by completing continuing education classes every year. Members of the American Psychological Association are also bound by a strict code of ethical standards.
Once the provider's competency has been established, his or her experience dealing with the issues you want help with is important. Also important is your level of comfort with the provider. Psychotherapy is a cooperative effort between therapist and patient, so a high level of personal trust and comfort is necessary. However, you should be concerned if your therapist reports to you that a large number of his or her patients recover memories of childhood abuse while in treatment.
There are a number of good ways to get a referral to a mental health professional. Your state psychological association will be able to provide you with referrals to psychologists in your community. Many state associations are located in their state capital. Also, because so many physical ailments have psychological components, most family physicians have a working relationship with a psychologist. Ask your doctor about a referral. Your church or synagogue and school guidance program or university counseling centers also usually maintain lists of providers in the community.