Headspace Psychologist Patrick Dunne Suspended 2 Years for Inappropriate Messages to Vulnerable Teen Patient

August 14, 2023

A psychologist who texted “we are all free to self-harm or end our life” to an extremely vulnerable teenager recovering from attempted self-harm has been banned for two years.

Paul Dunne had practised as a registered psychologist for more than two decades when a regulator began investigating his work at Headspace, which provides mental health services to young people aged 12 to 25.

A tribunal heard he texted a 19-year-old client recovering in hospital after an attempt at self-harm to see how she was.

In the body of the text Dunne wrote “we are all free to self-harm or end our life and then come back and do it again.”

“Then we can come back and do it some other way,” he messaged.

The Psychology Board of Australia, which brought the tribunal proceedings against Dunne, who surrendered his registration in 2019 after restrictions were placed on it following the investigation, said the text was “professionally inappropriate and amounted to a boundary violation”.

Psychologist Paul Dunne was banned from registering as a health practitioner for two years.

Expert witness Dr. Louise Roufeil told the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal the message was a “real concern.”

She considered it to be “a moderate to severe departure from the standards expected of a psychologist.”

Dunne told the tribunal that he had developed a trusting and supporting rapport with the client and he was the only practitioner the girl would trust and consistently turn to for support.

“My intention would always be to support, encourage, guide and empower a client such as this,” he said.

The girl thanked Dunne for checking in on her, the tribunal heard.

The tribunal said the message didn’t indicate Dunne had a lack of concern about his client’s welfare but it failed the expectations of both his professional peers and the public.

The message formed one of five grounds, namely inappropriate communication, the Board alleged constituted professional misconduct.

The other grounds included use of non-evidence-based treatments, failing to conduct risk assessments, failing to maintain adequate clinical records and inappropriate physical contact and/or failing to obtain or record adequate or appropriate informed consent.

Dunne admitted using non-evidence based treatment including a combination of applied kinesiology, emotional freedom technique and energy psychology on 10 clients and agreed, even though he had Headspace approval, it was “in unprofessional conduct” but denied it was professional misconduct.

He denied the remaining four grounds amounted to unprofessional conduct or professional misconduct.

Dunne told the tribunal his conduct never “caused harm or had the potential to cause harm to any of my clients.”

“(I) always acted in the best interests of and prioritised client wellbeing, safety and care,” he said in a written response.

The tribunal accepted his practices were consistent “with sincerely held beliefs and genuine concern for his clients’ wellbeing” however it found Dunne’s practices and treatments were contrary to the established practices and standards applicable to registered psychologists.

The physical contact related to applied kinesiology which involves muscle testing, the tribunal heard.

Dr. Roufeil said that physical contact between a psychologist and a client “is a rarity” but if it was to be part of treatment then informed consent would need to be carefully obtained and documented.

Dunne accepted he did not record consent but said he “always sought permission.”

The tribunal accepted he obtained consent from clients prior to physical contact however it said verbal consent was “manifestly inadequate and contrary to a number of relevant guidelines.”

The tribunal found all five grounds amounted to professional misconduct.

It noted no actual harm to clients was in evidence however said “there was potential for harm.”

Dunne, who had no prior disciplinary history, said he may not be an “appropriate individual” to be accepted as a psychologist “because I have stepped outside the confines of the Board’s image of what a psychologist needs to present to the public.”

The tribunal banned him from registering as a health practitioner for two years and prohibited him from providing any health service involving mental health, psychological or counselling services until he was registered.

Source: Patrick Billings, “Paul Dunne banned for two years from registering in profession,” Courier Mail, Aug. 4, 2023.


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