I have worked as a crisis hotline counselor and a client advocate in a domestic violence support agency. Now I am starting my first practicum placement as a graduate student and will be doing psychotherapy with women and children who have experienced domestic violence. How will this be different than the work I have done in the past?
Your question is a common one, since many people work in paid or volunteer positions in a social service agency or helping profession before entering graduate school. There are both similarities and differences between your role as a counselor and advocate and your role as a psychotherapist.
Let’s begin with what is similar in those roles. As a psychotherapist, you will continue to be supportive of your clients and to prioritize your clients’ safety and well-being. You will also be personally touched and emotionally engaged by your clients. Your relationship with them and belief in their strengths will continue to be an importance source of healing in your clients’ growth and therapeutic progress. Many of the qualities that have made you a successful and committed counselor and advocate will continue to serve you well as a psychotherapist.
There are important differences in these roles too, as your question suggests. One of these is related to professional boundaries. As a psychotherapist, you will see clients at a specified time and place, usually once a week for a 50-minute session. You will limit your self-disclosure of personal information about your life or experiences that may be similar to your clients’ lives and experiences. You will also keep confidentiality of all information shared with you, with exceptions for safety of your client or others, unless your client gives written permission for you to share information. As a psychotherapist, you are bound by the legal and ethical requirements of the profession which are more stringent than the requirements for paraprofessional counselors and advocates.
A second difference in these roles is that a psychotherapist is less involved in taking direct action for or on behalf of the client, with the exception of situations involving imminent danger. In psychotherapy, you will be facilitating and supporting your client taking action and examining the obstacles she faces both internally and externally. A psychotherapist provides information to clients about resources that may be helpful, for housing or employment or financial assistance. Generally, a psychotherapist does not contact the resource directly, make an appointment for the client, provide transportation or assist the client in completing an application as a client advocate often does. If you believe it is in your client’s interest for you to do take direct action in these ways, I recommend talking with your supervisor to insure that is in the client’s best interest.
A third difference in the role of psychotherapist and the role of counselor or advocate is that psychotherapy includes a focus on building skills and capacities that reduce future risk or vulnerability. When the client enters psychotherapy in crisis, there is an initial focus on safety and stability of the immediate situation. Even in a period of crisis, however, there is an emphasis on developing and using coping skills. As the client’s situation becomes more stable, the therapy process moves toward exploration of more longstanding patterns that contributed to the crisis. Most psychotherapists have a goal of assisting the client to understand and shift these longstanding patterns. Crisis counseling and client advocacy generally ends when the immediate crisis is resolved and the client has reached stability.
I hope you find this explanation helpful in beginning to work as a psychotherapist. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.