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October 12, 2000 Psychotherapists discuss what shouldn't be disclosed



Photo of Mary Kay O'Neil

Psychoanalyst Mary Kay O'Neil


by Barbara Black

When Tony Soprano told Dr. Jennifer Melfi about the family business, she got more than she bargained for. She had to take a sudden vacation when it wasn’t even August.

The motif underlying the popular TV series The Sopranos, which has a mobster confiding to a psychotherapist, is timely. Thanks to mandatory reporting laws, therapists have become players in the affairs of the wider community, whether they like it or not, and they are beginning to examine what this means for their profession.

This is one of a number of issues to be examined at an international interdisciplinary conference called Confidentiality and Society: Psychotherapy, Ethics and the Law this weekend, and a number of Concordians are playing an active part.

Mary Kay O’Neil is a member of the conference steering committee, and, with Professor William Bukowski, helped secure a $10,000 SSHRC grant for the conference and will be moderating two workshops. She is a psychoanalyst and an assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Toronto, where she does research on emotional problems in young adults. She’s also a visiting scholar in Concordia’s Psychology Department, and is actively involved in ethical issues.

Concordia Rector Frederick Lowy, Dr. O’Neil’s husband, is also a psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and ethicist, and will chair a plenary session. Anna Beth Doyle, from the Centre for Research in Human Development, housed in Concordia’s Psychology Department, will lead a post-panel workshop.

Allannah Furlong, who has been a lecturer in psychology at Concordia and a coordinator of the former Loyola Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, is now in private practice as a psychologist and psychoanalyst.

She has seen, over the past decade, “a rapid evolution in legislation” affecting her profession. She can list at least four cases during that period, most of them involving sexual assault, which went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada over whether an accused should be allowed access to the therapists’ files of the alleged victim.

“Since the majority of these cases involve patients who are women, children, or members of minorities, [Supreme Court Justice] Claire L’Heureux-Dubé has pointed out the risk of discrimination and stereotyping in allowing routine disclosure of confidential material to judges and defendants,” Furlong said. L’Heureux-Dubé will give the plenary address at the conference on Saturday morning, on “Privacy: A Human Right.”

In her written opinions, L’Heureux-Dubé has often shown sensitivity about another point of key importance to psychotherapists. Clients need the freedom that strict confidentiality provides; it is essential to whatever healing can take place.
Disclosure laws have proliferated in the United States and Canada since sexual abuse began to be discussed openly in the 1970s, because using their confessions to therapists was felt to be a powerful tool against abusers.

However, psychotherapy files began to be used by some defense lawyers to portray victims as neurotic, manipulative or unsure whether they were actually raped. In other cases, the growing awareness of the risk of false memory syndrome has thrown the files themselves into doubt.

One invited speaker at the conference is Christopher Bollas, co-author of The New Informants: The Betrayal of Confidentiality in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, a book that sounded the alarm within the profession in 1995. Another is Jonathan Lear, a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, author of Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul.

The conference takes place at the Omni Hotel in downtown Montreal. For more information, please consult http://home.ican.net/~analyst/confidentiality.html