Psychiatric Association Statement on Repressed Memories

Psychiatric Association Statement on “Repressed” Memories of Abuse

In an attempt to guide psychiatrists dealing with patients who now recall memories of childhood sexual abuse, the American Psychiatric Association in February issued a formal statement on the issue (“Statement on Memories of Sexual Abuse”)

 “We are especially concerned,” the statement reads, “that the public confusion and dismay over this issue and the possibility of false accusations not discredit the reports of patients who have indeed been traumatized by actual previous abuse.” Indeed, the coping mechanisms used by abused children sometimes “result in a lack of conscious awareness of the abuse for varying periods of time. Conscious thoughts and feelings stemming from the abuse may emerge at a later date.” Yet the statement notes that in cases which are not well-documented, “it is not known how to distinguish, with complete accuracy, memories based on true events from those derived from other sources.”

In fact “memories can be significantly influenced by questioning, especially in young children. Memories also can be significantly influenced by a trusted person (e.g., therapist, parent in a custody dispute) who suggests abuse as an explanation for symptoms/problems, despite initial lack of memory of such abuse. It has also been shown that repeated questioning may lead individuals to report 'memories' of events that never occurred.”

In the end, the statement concludes, “It is not known what proportion of adults who report memories of sexual abuse were actually abused. Many individuals who recover memories of abuse have been able to find corroborating information about their memories. However, no such information can be found, or is possible to obtain, in some situations.”

Clinicians, the report urges, should maintain an empathetic, non-judgmental, neutral stance. . . A strong prior belief by the psychiatrist that sexual abuse, or other factors, are or are not the cause of the patient's problems is likely to interfere with appropriate assessment and treatment. . . Expression of disbelief is likely to cause the patient further pain and decrease his/her willingness to seek needed psychiatric treatment. Similarly, clinicians should not exert pressure on patients to believe in events that may not have occurred, or to prematurely disrupt important decisions based on these speculations.

“Clinicians who have not had the training necessary to evaluate and treat patients with a broad range of psychiatric disorders are at risk of causing harm by providing inadequate care for the patient's psychiatric problems and by increasing the patient's resistance to obtaining and responding to appropriate treatment in the future. In addition, special knowledge and experience are necessary to properly evaluate and/or treat patients who report the emergence of memories during the use of specialized interview techniques (e.g., the use of hypnosis or amytal), or during the course of litigation.

(From “APA Issues Statement on Memories of Sexual Abuse,” Psychiatric Times, Feb. 26, 1994)

Reprinted from Cult Observer, Volume 11, Number 4, 1994.