Maintaining Boundaries – Working with Clients: Guest Post by Andrew C

I work for a state crisis line for addiction. I won’t say what state, and will keep all other details confidential due to HIPAA regulations. What I can say is that it is a free-service that is funded by the state. Anyone can call in looking for help.

It is a challenging position, and also rewarding. On one hand, I get to do good work for people who really need it. The hope is that they get pointed on the road to recovery from substance abuse. On the other hand, it can be heartbreaking to hear the struggles that callers go through.

Due to the nature of the work, I’m often put in a position where I want to tell the clients “hey, I understand, I’ve been there.” Nearly all of them face circumstances that I can relate to, or else have experienced firsthand, or have known many others who experienced them.

This of course, brings up an ethical dilemma. If you have ever attended, belonged to, or visited a 12 step program such as AA, NA, or GA, then it is easy to see how members use their experience to benefit others. The principle of one person talking to another so they can self-identify is one of the core reasons that such fellowships have proven so effective.

However, in working with clients on a professional level, there is a different relationship. It is not just two friends talking over coffee, or leaning on one another for support. It is also not a sponsor>sponsee relationship that is typical for 12 step programs, where one person with more experience offers guidance to someone who is inexperienced. Professional work with clients is, indeed, a business relationship.

Although you may share common characteristics and experiences, you are not a clients’ friend. You may want to do all you can to help them, and you may want to share your own life story when you think it will help, but there are boundary lines that should not be crossed. This is especially true if the clients are paying for services.

Why is this the case?

Well, mental health work and substance disorder work isn’t designed as therapy for me. It isn’t about discussing my issues. It is about getting the client to honestly look at their own issues and address them. After all, they are the one calling and asking for support. The person who is offering the support shouldn’t get caught up in a client’s issues, even if the client asks “have you ever used drugs or had a drinking problem?” They may ask this because they distrust professional services. Or, they may want to relate to someone. I can suggest with confidence that you can gain their trust and help them relate without the need for self-identification or self-disclosure.

Another consideration is that self-disclosure can be harmful for professionals. It can lead clients to believe that you are more than a professional providing a service. It can make them feel as if they are your friend, or even mislead them into thinking there is a romantic interest. This can open up a world of trouble, including loss of license, or court-related problems for any mental health professional.

In addition to his other work, Andy is a blogger for Step One Rehab. Through his writing, he attempts to raise awareness about addiction, substance abuse, and mental health issues. The goal of Step One Rehab is to match premium addiction treatment facilities with the needs of clients. Andy writes daily articles for Step One’s blog. To learn more, visit their website or check them out on Facebook, or Twitter.

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