Psychologist reprimanded and disqualified for professional misconduct

23 Sep 2016

A tribunal has reprimanded a psychologist for engaging in professional misconduct.

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) has found that Mr Mark Tunstall engaged in professional misconduct and reprimanded him, disqualifying him from applying for registration for 18 months. Mr Tunstall had previously let his registration lapse in November 2012.

The Psychology Board of Australia (the Board) referred the matter to the tribunal in October 2015, after a notification was received by Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) concerning Mr Tunstall's conduct as a registered psychologist, namely entering into a relationship with a client.

During its investigation, the Board found that:

  • In February 2010, the client in question was referred to Mr Tunstall under an Employee Assistance Program.
  • In April 2010, those sessions ended. A general practitioner re-referred the client to Mr Tunstall under a Mental Health Plan. Mr Tunstall diagnosed the client with Dissociative Identity Disorder and treating her was complex, difficult and challenging.
  • From May 2010 onwards, Mr Tunstall and the client spoke on the telephone and sent each other text messages. At his invitation, the client sent him email messages which over time became of a personal nature. He then took or accompanied the client to outdoor locations, including parks and shopping centres.
  • In October 2010, Mr Tunstall had lunch at the client’s house, following a treatment session there. Shortly after that, he and the client commenced a sexual relationship.
  • In November 2010, he gave the client a present of jewellery.
  • In December 2010, he and the client started living together. During their relationship they attended relationship counselling. Until at least April 2011, Mr Tunstall continued to provide psychological treatment to the client.
  • In October 2012, the client ended the personal and sexual relationship.

The tribunal found Mr Tunstall while working as a psychologist, engaged in professional misconduct in relation to all five allegations made by the Board, which included:

  • Practicing outside scope of professional competence, where the practitioner failed to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the client at their first, or in any subsequent, consultation, formulate and implement an appropriate treatment plan, demonstrate the knowledge or skill needed to respond in an appropriate and therapeutically effective manner to the client’s condition and refer her to an appropriately qualified psychologist or to otherwise ensure she received appropriate treatment.

  • Failing to seek professional supervision, because of the client’s complex presentation, Mr Tunstall required professional supervision to ensure he was able to provide appropriate psychological services to the client and to maintain professional boundaries. He was required to arrange such supervision under the Code and, importantly, to seek professional assistance in the circumstances in which he found himself before the personal/sexual relationship started.

  • Personal relationship with the client, between May 2010 and October 2010, Mr Tunstall transgressed the professional boundary that should have been maintained.

  • Sexual relationship, by entering a romantic and sexual relationship with a current client until at least April 2011 and a former client thereafter, the tribunal considered Mr Tunstall had engaged in professional misconduct of the most serious nature.

  • Failure to disclose to other health professionals, between July 2010 and October 2012 Mr Tunstall failed to disclose to other health professionals involved in the client’s care that he was in a personal and then sexual relationship with her.

VCAT took into account Mr Tunstall’s admissions, the changes in his life, and the time that has elapsed since the offending behaviour. It, however, pointed out the he had not taken any further education in the field of psychology, nor sought professional help to analyse his own shortcomings that would be required to support any application for future registration.

As Mr Tunstall had not been registered as a psychologist since November 2012, the determinations that could be imposed were limited. VCAT reprimanded Mr Tunstall, further disqualifying him from applying for registration as a registered psychologist until 27 January 2018 (a period of 18 months) and indicated that any shorter period would fail to convey to the profession its strong disapproval of Mr Tunstall’s conduct.

The full decision is available on the Austlii website.

 
 
Page reviewed 23/09/2016