Recovered Memory Debate Revisited: Practice Implications for Mental Health Counselors

By Colangelo, James J. | Journal of Mental Health Counseling, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Recovered Memory Debate Revisited: Practice Implications for Mental Health Counselors


Colangelo, James J., Journal of Mental Health Counseling


With the high incidence of childhood sexual abuse and the attendant serious negative consequences resulting from it clearly documented, there is a high probability that many mental health counselors will at some point in their career provide treatment to members of this population. Since memory retrieval is an integral part of the treatment protocol when working with such clients, it is imperative that clinicians have a good understanding of the controversy over recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. This article revisits the controversy, provides a detailed discussion of the issues involved, and offers practice implications for mental health counselors.

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Since the early 1990s there has been a great deal of controversy within the mental health community over the recovery of previously repressed or dissociated memories of childhood sexual abuse. There were a number of factors contributing to the increased interest in this psychological phenomenon, beginning with a tremendous increase in cases where individuals reported the recovery of such forgotten memories after a period of many years. The memories were allegedly repressed or dissociated and subsequently recovered, often when the individual began therapy (Baker, 1998; Courtois, 1999; Loftus & Ketcham, 1994; Lynn & McConkey, 1998; Pendergast, 1995; Pope & Brown, 1996; Whitfield, 1995).

State legislative changes allowing victims to prosecute perpetrators many years after the events had occurred added momentum to the controversy resulting in numerous lawsuits filed against parents. The central component and catalyst for the controversy were claims made by alleged perpetrators that accusations made were false and based on memories often induced, or suggested, by the victims' psychotherapists. Often such claims were substantiated when individuals who had recovered memories in therapy recanted, reporting that they were actually false and implanted by their therapists' suggestion (Magner & Parkinson, 2001; Wakefield & Underwager, 1992).

The major mental health organizations responded by initiating task forces to examine the controversy. This resulted in guidelines for treating clients claiming recovery of memories of childhood sexual abuse during therapy (Courtois, 1999). While the current trend is towards a more balanced perspective and the extreme positions of the past have been modified, there still is disagreement within the mental health community over the veracity of such memories (Brown, 2004; Davies & Dalgleish, 2001).

Given the documented incidence of childhood sexual abuse there is high probability that mental health counselors will encounter clients who present with this problem or who suspect they may have been sexually abused and seek treatment in uncovering memories related to this suspicion. Therefore, it is critical that mental health counselors have a clear understanding of this ongoing controversy and, more importantly, of how to effectively treat clients with such backgrounds. This article presents a discussion of the contributing factors in the longstanding debate. It also provides suggestions for mental health counselors to consider when treating clients who claim to have recovered memories of sexual abuse or who want to retrieve such memories because they believe they were sexually abused.

PREVALENCE AND IMPACT OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE

Numerous studies have substantiated a history of childhood sexual abuse among adults seeking therapeutic services. Finkelhor (1994) noted prevalence rates ranging from 7% to 36% for women and from 3% to 29% for men, while Gorey and Leslie (1997) reported prevalence rates of 22% for women and 9% for men. In a study conducted of U.S. women, Consentino and Collins (1996) reported that 25% to 33% revealed sexual abuse before age 18. Jones and Finkelhor (2001), citing data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, found a prevalence rate of 32. …

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