A high-profile “anxiety expert” whose clients include several public figures has been reported to his regulatory body after BuzzFeed News found him offering treatment for people who worry they might be gay – by telling them they are straight.
Charles Linden, dubbed by his publisher “the world’s leading authority on anxiety”, boasts a clinic on Harley Street and an international anxiety treatment business. He claims on his website to be able to help people “recover” from what he calls “Homosexual Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” or “HOCD”.
HOCD – also called “Gay OCD” – is not recognised by the medical or psychiatric professions but is described by those who use the term as an obsessive fear of being gay.
BuzzFeed News can reveal that Linden, who has no medical, psychiatric, or psychotherapeutic training, offers through his website to “remove HOCD permanently”, while displaying apparent endorsements from two major organisations for mental health practitioners: the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).
After being alerted by BuzzFeed News, the BPS said it would be contacting Linden to remove their logos from his website, and will “consider further action”. A fellow of the BACP immediately reported Linden’s practice to the association’s head of professional standards. And a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, along with two leading LGBT psychotherapists, also condemned Linden's methods as dangerous.
“The term ‘Homosexual OCD’ is simply conversion therapy under another guise and something we strongly condemn as damaging," added Prof Elizabeth Peel, chair of the BPS's psychology of sexualities section.
BuzzFeed News discovered the website for the Linden Centre – also called Linden Tree Education – has a section devoted to HOCD entitled “Do you get anxious about the possibility of being gay?” under which Linden sets out what he sees as the features of the condition before advertising his services. He promises a “100% success rate”. After being contacted by BuzzFeed News, the Linden Centre made some changes to the HOCD page on its website; however, BuzzFeed News had already taken screenshots of the original.
“If you are experiencing HOCD … and the thoughts it causes,” the site until recently said, “you are not gay and when you do my Method to eliminate this and your other anxieties you’ll find out why you think you might be and why you certainly are NOT!”
Further down the page, Linden lists the supposed symptoms of HOCD: “Do you… 1. Obsess that you might be attracted to the same sex as yourself? 2. Look at people of the same sex and get sexual feelings? 3. Test your sexuality by looking at people of the same sex?”
According to the site, such behaviours “aren’t the same as the thoughts and feelings homosexuals go through as they discover their sexuality". Instead, it advises: “Nothing you are experiencing is ‘real’…the fact that you are having these thoughts means that you are NOT gay.”
Linden told BuzzFeed News he has treated “400 or 500 people” for HOCD.
The Linden Centre claims to have helped over 180,000 people in 60 countries recover from a variety of anxiety disorders, and pictures on its site a wealth of celebrities with whom Linden has worked, including Gok Wan, Jodie Kidd, and Coronation Street actor Kate Ford along with relatives of famous people such as Will Young and Linda Robson. Linden also claims on his site to be an “advisor to government” and “Hollywood stars”.
Its site promotes a range of products and services through which members of the public can access The Linden Method (a “structured programme of learning” for myriad anxiety conditions), which includes DVDs, home-learning packs, one-to-one sessions, and residential retreats. A Linden Method pack with membership costs £137.
While not claiming to convert gay people to heterosexuality, Linden instead prescribes his "method" as a cure for those who fear they are gay, and the centre’s HOCD page details how his method could “eliminate” such anxieties.
“How do you recover from Gay/homosexual OCD?” it says. “By, literally, switching off the mechanism that causes the thoughts to be generated and by correcting anxiety levels ‘systematically’ in the autonomic nervous system. It’s so scientific, simple and effective because it addresses the true causes of your HOCD.” Linden describes his method as “the ONLY humanly possible process to remove anxiety disorders”, which he claims he has used on all ages including “children of 5 years”.
The site also promises his treatment leads to a “swift” recovery “within minutes”. “Will it work?” the page says. “It can’t fail… this is just like eating to satisfy hunger… a preset process controls these thoughts… what we show you deactivates them.”
Dominic Davies, founder and director of Pink Therapy, a prominent psychotherapy service for LGBT people, told BuzzFeed News: “I am concerned that Linden thinks he can offer a rapid diagnosis of someone’s troubling mental heath concerns via a checklist of symptoms which could indeed apply to confused gay people, who would then get drawn into his organisation or buy his home treatment DVD and not get the skilled help they need.”
Davies, a fellow of the BACP – Britain’s largest organisation for therapists – expressed concern about Linden’s “simplistic view of homosexuality”, adding: “I doubt the confused and troubled client would be adequately served.” Davies has reported Linden to the BACP’s head of professional standards, as Linden “might be in violation of the BACP Ethical Framework” – its code of conduct.
The centre's website uses logos from the BACP and the BPS throughout, with references to being “regulated” and “accredited” by these organisations. “All my staff are MBACP/BPS accredited and members,” it says. But the BACP and the BPS confirmed to BuzzFeed News that at least two employees are not members of either the BACP or the BPS, and none are “accredited” members (a higher level of attainment) of the BACP.
While Linden Tree Education does not have corporate membership of the BACP, the BACP informed BuzzFeed News that the Linden Tree Corporation, its parent company, does. “If we become aware that an organisation is falsely advertising themselves on promotional material then this is something we would investigate and potentially report to the Advertising Standards Authority and Trading Standards,” the BACP added.
Prof Dinesh Bhuga, a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, also criticised Linden’s claims and use of this term.
“HOCD is not a recognised condition,” he told BuzzFeed News. “By ‘creating’ such a condition there is a serious danger of medicalising normal human emotions and turning lots of people who are in various stages of coming out, and for various reasons are struggling to accept their sexuality, into ‘ill’ individuals.”
Bhugra added: “Creating false unscientific diagnoses like HOCD is also likely to undermine the seriousness of OCD which can be crippling.”
Dr Paul Blenkiron, a consultant psychiatrist at Tees, Esk and Wear Valley NHS Foundation speaking on behalf of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “I have not heard of anyone with OCD presenting as having an ‘obsessive’ fear of being gay. So I doubt that this would be the same problem as obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is something different.”
When contacted by BuzzFeed News, however, Linden defended his service.
“There are a lot of people walking around that have HOCD,” he said. “They go through their lives not understanding why they’re having these thoughts, not understanding that they’re actually risk assessments. As a heterosexual man my risk assessment would be, ‘what if I like men?’…because it’s the worst-case scenario. So when people with HOCD are having thoughts like, ‘What if I’m gay?’ then clearly it’s a risk assessment for them for the worst-case scenario.”
He added: “You only have HOCD if you’re heterosexual. If you read the page it says, ‘If you suffer from HOCD it’s not because you’re gay.’”
Asked how he decides whether a client is gay or has HOCD, he replied: “It’s a bit of a process, like lining up the ducks. You just shoot down the ducks.”
He distanced himself from the term HOCD, which he did not coin, explaining that the Linden Centre uses it “within the general terms of what we do as a business because it is what people recognise".
The list of HOCD symptoms on the website, said Linden, is to comfort heterosexual men: “You can’t possibly provide information that reassures straight men that think they’re gay without mentioning how it makes them feel.”
But the BPS's Elizabeth Peel said: “It is not a legitimate therapy. Perpetuating the notion that thoughts about, and desires for, people of the same or different genders, or both, is a disorder requiring treatment is harmful.”
She added: “People should be wary of the way this therapy is being promoted, and there are no published peer-reviewed studies to back up the claims that are being made.”
The BPS is writing to Linden to demand he remove its logos from his website. “We are concerned that the Linden Tree Education Centre appears to be inappropriately using official Society logos such as to give the misleading impression that the Society endorses their services," a BPS spokesperson said. "We will be contacting them to advise that they should remove these logos from their websites immediately. We have written to this organisation raising our concerns and will consider further action if necessary.”
However, Linden insisted he is not trying to “cure” homosexuality and rebutted the suggestion there is any danger of people who might in fact be bisexual or gay thinking they instead have HOCD after seeing his page.
“My gay friends knew from an early age what they were,” he said. “That page is about HOCD, not about being gay. Gay men don’t get HOCD where they question their sexuality, because they know they’re gay.”
When challenged that many gay people question their sexuality, Linden replied that these are “not obsessive thoughts” and therefore distinct from HOCD. Linden continued: “This page is specifically angled to people who are heterosexual who are having inappropriate thoughts about the same sex. I’ve never had anyone ever misunderstand this or anything I’ve ever said to them before.”
Any confusion resulting from the page is not Linden’s fault, he said, as people viewing the site “have to be able to self-monitor”. Furthermore, he added, one has to have a certain “level of intellect” in order to develop anxiety problems. “It’s a genetic prerequisite to having an anxiety disorder,” he said.
LGBT psychotherapist Matthew Stinson, an accredited member of the BACP and head of the counselling service at the University of the Creative Arts, told BuzzFeed News: “A lot of people take a long time coming to terms with their sexuality – they may not know what their sexuality is and particularly young people are often trying to understand their sexuality, so it’s completely naïve to assume a gay person has a fully formed sense of their identity.”
Stinson also condemned Linden’s use of the term HOCD to advertise the Linden Centre’s services.
“It’s dangerous to pathologise people,” he said. “Particularly when someone doesn’t have proper training to be able to make diagnoses. Using a term like HOCD can cause further damage to people – if a young person comes along feeling uncertain about their sexuality, it may lead that person to believe they have a mental illness when they do not. It could be very damaging in the long term.”
He said the case highlighted the wider failure in Britain to properly regulate psychological treatment. “In the UK there is no statutory regulation of psychotherapy and as a result anyone can call themselves a leading expert in anxiety or anything because they’re not bound by law to meet a certain level of standard," he said. “Until that changes we will continue to have people call themselves anything they want.”
Linden defended his use of the term by referring to the fact that OCD UK, an organisation devoted to obsessive-compulsive disorder, mentions it on its website. However, the OCD UK website states that HOCD is “not a medically recognised condition”.
He explained that when a patient asks him to treat their HOCD, the process involves removing overall anxiety. “You have to lead them back to what I call ‘physical and emotional equilibrium,’” he said, “that kind of birth preset, that purity of when that first breath was taken after birth.”
Linden added: “So if a gay man sat opposite me says, ‘I don’t know if I’m gay or not – I might have HOCD but I might be attracted to men,' it’s not for me to answer to that, it’s for us to manoeuvre him to anxiety recovery, and then if the HOCD-type thoughts and symptoms regress and he gets a girlfriend, gets married, and has kids, he’s solved his own problem.”
Linden told BuzzFeed News he has “personally helped 400 or 500 people … young men and women who go to sleep at night considering taking their own lives because they can’t live with the consequences of their dad or mum believing they might be gay.”
His site claims “over 2 million sufferers have used his Resources and Programs”; that the Linden Method is “recommended by the NHS”, “used by government agencies”, “used and referred to by doctors and psychologists world-over”; and that Linden has received referrals from “psychologists, doctors, psychiatrists, health authorities, insurance companies and other organisations around the world”.
He told BuzzFeed News he has also had meetings with mental health trusts and clinical commissioning groups (CCGS) with a view to providing the Linden Method through the NHS, but the Department of Health was unable to confirm this claim.
A spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: “We do not currently recognise HOCD as a condition separate to OCD … We would advise anyone choosing to undergo mental health treatment to make sure that the person they choose is appropriately qualified and registered. It is completely unacceptable for anyone to claim to be a consultant or ‘recommended by the NHS’ without the necessary qualifications.”
Linden and the Linden Method have been featured widely in the national press, including The Times (which called him the “Allen Carr of anxiety”), the Sunday Times, The Independent, and the Daily Mail, with Plum Sykes, the contributing editor of Vogue, personally endorsing its efficacy for treating anxiety.
Linden’s website features photographs of him with Gok Wan while filming an episode of Gok’s Teens, a Channel 4 series. But these scenes were not broadcast, and a representative for Wan told BuzzFeed News they had no idea Linden was using this material and would be contacting their lawyer to have such references removed from the site.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the Linden Centre said: “We treat causes of anxiety and the Method resolves the anxiety and any manifestations of that anxiety, regardless of how people describe it.”
On the use of the term HOCD, the centre said: “Patients do refer to the condition in this way which is why we speak of it in the same terms.”
And following the claims on its website of a “100% success” rate, the centre said: “We do not claim 100% success – trials indicate a reduction from GAD7 18.24 to 2.84 post treatment."
However, the centre did not provide a source or explanation for these figures.