ACC therapists told to watch for sexual assault survivors exaggerating symptoms

ACC therapists told to watch for sexual assault survivors exaggerating symptoms
Photo credit: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

By Louise Ternouth for RNZ

Survivors of sexual assault say ACC's process for getting long-term help and financial support can cause more harm than good.

It comes as Checkpoint can reveal ACC therapists are told to look out for people who might be exaggerating their symptoms.

Advocates say it is further proof the ACC system set up to help sexual assault survivors needs changing - with just 32 percent of sexual abuse and assault claims being accepted.

In 2007 Siân's life changed forever after she was sexually assaulted - leaving her with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

She turned to counselling - which was funded by ACC.

Despite continuing to see her counsellor, last year an event triggered her PTSD leaving her unable to work.

She applied for weekly compensation from ACC and was shocked at the process.

"The first recovery partner that I had, she told me five times how long it would take and was basically trying to put me off.

"Then going through the process, I needed to have the initial assessment which would give a formal diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder because the counsellor's diagnosis wasn't considered enough."

It meant she needed to go back to square one and have what ACC call a supported assessment to prove she had suffered a mental injury.

"I was probably in tears for 80 to 90 percent of that time. You do have to talk about any of the incidents that are part of the claim, and my psychiatrist did comment that he could see that I was being triggered."

Most do not make it through the supported assessment process, with almost half of survivors giving up their claims for long-term support.

Those that do say the process is triggering and traumatising.

Another woman, Lily*, experienced PTSD following a sexual assault.

She told Checkpoint the ACC process was not in survivors' best interests.

"There was so much stuff that you had to talk about that wasn't involved, because they are trying to separate if anything like PTSD or depression is from your sexual assault rather than from any previous trauma.

"So I had to run through a lot of previous trauma as well from upbringing to high school, so yeah, it was really triggering, it was traumatising."

She said reading the assessor's report made things even worse.

"That literally had my mental health in graphs put on spreadsheets, I saw my mental health through statistics, it pretty much destroyed me.

"It almost feels like it's adding on to victim blaming. In my ACC psychiatric assessment there was the word delusional and it had a percentage beside it, it took me weeks to acknowledge that they didn't mean they thought I had made up what had happened."

Information released to RNZ under the Official Information Act shows assessors must look for what they call 'symptom exaggeration' during the assessment.

ACC therapists told to watch for sexual assault survivors exaggerating symptoms
Photo credit: Getty Images

But ACC accredited counsellor and spokesperson for the Counsellor's Association Gay Puketapu-Andrews has found her clients tend to underplay their symptoms.

"People have said to me, 'I realised that I was holding back, that's what I do, that's what I've learned to do, was to kind of shut down or you know, not divulge'."

She feels the assessment process is re-traumatising, especially for survivors who have not shared their story with anyone.

"It takes an average of 15 years for people to disclose sexual abuse, but when it comes to the assessment process, there's such a lot of questioning and information required that there's a lot of what I'd say [are] hot points that can trigger people."

She said there is an easy solution.

"If ACC were prepared basically to take the therapist's word for it that this person has suffered some form of sexual abuse or sexual violence and therefore needs therapy, we wouldn't be where we are today."

That is something the Green Party wants to happen.

It's petition calling for Minister of ACC Carmel Sepuloni to change the current process has more than 10,000 signatures.

Green Party ACC spokesperson Jan Logie said the system makes the issue worse for survivors.

"All of the time spent in their therapy becomes about getting them ready for the assessment, not actually doing any of the work that they need to do to address the harm of the sexual violence."

She said it is unfair on the victims.  

"All for the purpose of ACC deciding whether they will accept or deny the claim of sexual violence is frankly sick."

ACC Minister, Carmel Sepuloni, said she is "seeking advice" on the supported assessment process, but could not indicate whether any changes would be made.

"Definitely aware of the fact that that some New Zealanders have raised their discontent with the process, and I want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to ensure that that system works as well as it should do, and so I'm waiting for that advice."

But victims like Siân want change now.

"Changing that mindset from being an insurance company to being a company that's helping people recover. It sounds like they're trying to figure out a way to not pay you,  it feels like they're trying to find any excuse that they don't have to."

In a statement, an ACC spokesperson said understanding what help a survivor needs involves assessing the impacts of sexual abuse and is never about whether someone did or didn't experience sexual abuse or violence.

They said they are sorry if any survivor found dealing with them difficult or traumatic and they welcome feedback to help improve.  


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