Category Archives: Case Management

When to Engage in Client Advocacy

I have had six sessions with a client who initially presented with symptoms of depression. Since the first session, she has tohispanic young woman in therapyld me about being treated unfairly at her last job, which resulted in her being laid off and led to her depression. She has filed a complaint against her employer and has asked me to talk with her attorney. She would like me to write a letter supporting her complaint and describing the impact of her former employer’s unfair treatment. I feel strongly about advocating for clients in issues of justice so I would like to support her, but my supervisor has advised against doing this.

Like your supervisor, I generally recommend against taking a direct position in a complex legal case like this. I’ll outline some of the ways in which advocacy can be helpful and the reasons it is inadvisable to become involved in a legal or administrative dispute between your client and a third party.

Client advocacy is an important part of psychotherapy with many clients, especially those who come from minority cultural communities and other disenfranchised populations. Advocacy often has the purpose of facilitating access to needed resources such as contacting another agency or a government department to gain information about your client’s eligibility, accompanying your client to an intake appointment for social services or public assistance, or providing verbal or written support for your client’s application for services. We also provide advocacy to our clients when we encourage them to act in the service of their needs and goals, by providing information and/or support. For example, if your client wants to attend a community college course but doesn’t know how to apply, you might get the application information for your client, pass this on to her, and talk with her about the thoughts and feelings that arise as she completes the application. This information and support serves to empower your client in acting on her own behalf.

Your client’s request for advocacy goes beyond the functions of accessing resources and supporting her empowerment. There are several issues that are wise to consider when your client asks you to become involved in a legal or other type of dispute. First, it is important to keep in mind that you are hearing only your client’s side of the conflict and that the other party has a different perspective on the events. The ability to hold more than one point of view on the same situation is a skill that develops as part of professional development, and that ability is useful in this type of case. It isn’t necessary to challenge your client’s perspective or to try to arrive at an objective view, but it is important to remember that your view is based on your client’s interpretation of the events and their meaning.

Second, when your client is involved in a legal case she probably has at least two sources of motivation for treatment. One is to reduce her symptoms and improve the quality of her life, and another is to build support for her argument that she has been wronged and deserves compensation. The presence of these conflicting sources of motivation makes your therapeutic relationship complex, and being clear about your role and boundaries is especially important. You are on solid ground in your role as her therapist, working to help her improve her quality of life, and that requires you to refrain from taking an advocacy role in her complaint.

Third, providing an opinion in a legal case requires special training and expertise which is usually obtained after licensure. Individuals who work with the legal system in this way are functioning in the role of evaluator, with the goal of forming an objective opinion, rather than therapist, with the goal of understanding the client’s point of view. It is unlikely that you have sufficient information to determine a causal relationship between your client’s symptoms and her employer’s actions, and you are have entered a therapeutic rather than an evaluative relationship with your client.

I hope this expands your understanding of the complexity of client requests for advocacy. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Sharing Client Information in a Team

Teachers TalkingI am a counselor at a high school, and the teachers often ask me about my clients’ progress. I know they have good intentions, but I’m uncomfortable answering their questions. How much should I share and how do I explain the reason I can’t answer some of their questions?

This is an example of working in a team with other professionals who have different expectations and requirements regarding confidentiality and privacy of information. Your client work is probably covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which carries more limitations on sharing information than the regulations applicable to educational information. It is likely that the teachers know you can’t share fully with them, but your role in the school supports the students’ academic success so it is important to find ways to communicate productively with teachers. This requires that you create a collaborative working relationship with the teachers and other staff in the high school. I will recommend several steps you can take to establish yourself as part of a professional team.

One step is to have a short response regarding confidentiality requirements that you can use when a teacher asks you for specific information. An example is “you probably know I can’t share any details about the counseling, but I’d like to work together within the constraints I have to follow.” This establishes the limits of confidentiality while also communicating your desire to collaborate. Remember that teachers are often working in difficult circumstances and may be looking for support. When you can express your understanding of their concern for the students and the challenges they face in the classroom, the teachers will see you as an ally even if you can’t answer their questions. Follow your statement about confidentiality with an acknowledgement of their concern and desire for the student to get the help he/she needs.

Often, the next step will be to open a conversation with the teacher about how the student is doing in class. You might say “has anything happened lately that I should know about?” or “I’m interested in your perspective on how things are going.” The teacher’s question to you about the student’s progress may represent a desire to tell you something about the student’s life or a recent incident in the classroom. This information can be valuable background in your understanding of the student. Your client may present very differently in your counseling sessions than in the classroom or with teachers and peers. HIPAA limits the information you can share about treatment, but it doesn’t limit what you can hear from others.

You may also want to schedule a more formal conversation with one or more of your student’s teachers to ask specific questions that will aid in your assessment and treatment planning. It is wise to prepare a list of questions in advance so you can be focused in your discussion with the teacher and insure that you get the information you need. As treatment progresses, check in with the teachers periodically to get updates on the student’s progress in the classroom both academically and behaviorally. This information will enhance your review of treatment goals and help you to shape the direction of treatment.

Last, there may be times when you feel it would be helpful for you to share your impressions of the student with one or more teachers. You might have suggestions that the teacher could implement in the classroom or you might be able to provide an explanation for some of the student’s behavior that is otherwise confusing or creates conflict. If this is the case, you will need to have written permission from the parents and/or your client. Generally, parental consent is required for sharing treatment information for children under 18, but some states allow a minor to consent to treatment which would require that you get the student’s permission to share information. Even if it isn’t required by law, it is clinically sound to talk with the student about what you plan to share with the teachers and the reasons you think it would be helpful.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in working as part of a team. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.

Making Referrals to Additional Services

hispanic young woman in therapyI have been seeing a client for a couple months and I think she needs more help than I can provide with individual psychotherapy. I have recommended that she get a psychiatric evaluation, join a DBT group, and sign up for a subsidized housing program. All of these services are available at the agency where I am doing my practicum training, but so far she hasn’t followed up on any of my referrals. How can I encourage her to get the additional help she needs?

Many clients in individual psychotherapy also need and benefit from additional services. Therefore, our work as therapists often involves some case management such as making referrals and collaborating with other professionals. We sometimes think of these case management tasks as outside of our therapeutic role and handle them pragmatically. This blog posting will help you think about making referrals as an integral part of the psychotherapy, which may lead to a better outcome.

I’ll start with some discussion of the reasons for recommending additional services. The combination of services you mention suggests you have multiple purposes for your referrals: clarifying the client’s diagnosis, managing crises or instability, improving living circumstances that contribute to symptoms, and following the recommended practice for specific clinical presentations. It also seems like your client presents with a complex set of emotional and psychosocial issues and you may be feeling overwhelmed. I would suggest first that you take some time to reflect on your countertransference responses to this client, preferably with some consultation from your supervisor and colleagues. This may clarify the support you need in managing this case and help you identify the reasons for your referrals. With a clearer perspective you can develop the most effective method for helping your client.

Once you have become clearer about the purpose of your referrals, approach them in order of priority. You can prioritize the referrals based on the client’s preferences and goals as well as safety concerns. It may be useful to use a harm reduction approach, which is often used with substance use disorders and has application for other situations involving safety. Identify the areas of greatest potential harm to your client and work first to reduce that harm, through your work in therapy as well as through referral to additional services. For example, if your client’s suicidal ideation puts her at serious risk, you would begin by looking for ways to reduce that risk. She might benefit from any of the referrals listed above or from accessing a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline, and the best recommendation would be the one that she is most willing to pursue. The remaining referrals would be deferred until her suicidal risk is reduced.

You express a view that your client needs more help that you can provide. There are some instances in which individual therapy can only be effective in conjunction with other resources. Talk with your supervisor about the client’s risk so s/he can help you decide whether to require the client to use one or more other services as a condition of individual therapy. That is sometimes the best decision to make in a complex, volatile clinical situation.

A final issue to consider is the therapeutic tone and manner of your referral recommendations. Pay particular attention to your countertransference and the possibility that you want to hand off this client to someone else because she feels like too much for you to handle. It is easy for a client to experience a referral as a sign of rejection rather than support. The client is bringing her concerns and difficulties to you and may feel your ambivalence about helping her. She is more likely to experience your support if you discuss your countertransference with your supervisor, then make it clear to the client that you plan to continue working with her. It will also help to describe how you believe the other services will contribute to the therapy rather than being a substitute.

I hope you found this blog helpful in making referrals in a therapeutic manner. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.

Mandated Treatment

mandated therapyI have been assigned to work with a client who has to attend therapy as part of his probation requirement. How can I build trust with someone who probably doesn’t want to be in treatment?

It is challenging to work with someone who isn’t seeking therapy voluntarily. Therapy is sometimes required as part of probation, a child abuse investigation, or other legal situation. There are complications in developing a therapeutic relationship when treatment is mandated by a third party. This blog contains a few suggestions that will help you work through some of these complications.

First, I recommend that you get clear information at the beginning of treatment about what you will be required to report to the mandating authority. Your client may come with a referral form or blank progress report that will have these instructions, or you may need to ask for his authorization to talk with the mandating authority about their expectations and requirements. If possible, it is best to report general information only, such as dates of attendance, issues discussed and treatment goals. As a therapist, you are not evaluating your client in relation to his legal situation so you cannot advocate for a specific outcome or express an evaluative opinion.

Once you are clear about what the mandating authority requires, you should share this with your client, letting him know what you will share and what you can keep confidential. This conversation is in addition to a discussion of the general limits of confidentiality you have with all clients. By talking openly with him about the reporting requirements, you establish clear and direct communication which is the beginning of a therapeutic relationship.

Second, acknowledge that your client has mixed feelings about being required to attend therapy and talk about the impact the mandate has on his ability to feel open and trusting of you. An example would be “Since coming to therapy is required rather than something you decided on your own, I imagine it will be hard to decide how much you want to talk about with me.” Acknowledging his ambivalence is likely to help him feel more trusting rather than less, and it communicates your ability and willingness to discuss things that are difficult. This should be an ongoing issue for discussion, since he will continue to have questions about trust as the relationship develops.

Third, bring up the possibility that the client may not feel comfortable sharing truthfully with you. He may have other requirements like maintaining sobriety, attending parenting classes, or detaching from conflictual or violent situations and it will be difficult to know whether he is being truthful when he reports complying with those requirements or reaching treatment goals. One way to discuss this is to raise a hypothetical question like “If you had started drinking again, do you think you’d be able to tell me?” In this way, you bring the issue of truthfulness into your relationship without being accusatory. Even if the client assures you he would be able to tell you, raising this question acknowledges the impact of the mandated requirement on his communication and relationship with you. As with the issue of ambivalence, you should raise this periodically as an ongoing issue in the relationship.

I hope you find this helpful in doing therapy with clients whose treatment is mandated. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.

Adjusting to Different Clinical Roles

I have worked as new2a 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.

Clinical Approach to Case Management

therapy1I have a part-time job as a case manager at a homeless shelter while I am gaining hours toward licensure.  I don’t know what to do when my clients don’t follow through on the referrals and other support I give them.  Since I’m not their therapist, I can’t talk to them as I do with my therapy clients to understand what’s getting in the way.

It is true that your relationships with clients as a case manager are different from the relationships you have as a therapist.  However, some of the interventions you use as a therapist are valuable in case management, and your clinical knowledge is a valuable tool for understanding the reasons for your clients’ lack of follow through.

Motivational Interviewing is a useful approach when clients show ambivalence about getting help or about changing aspects of their lives that are problematic (www.motivationalinterview.org).  Using this as the basis for your work helps you establish a collaborative relationship and puts the client at the center of the decision making about change.  Identifying and resolving ambivalence is a central feature.  Talking with the client in a way that is consistent with Motivational Interviewing may help you to shift from a position of responsibility to help the client use your referrals and support to a position of supporting the client to identify her/his goals and the steps s/he is ready to take.

Your experience as a therapist may also be helpful in understanding the basis for the client not following through with your referrals or suggestions.  You can develop a conceptualization of the client’s difficulties and strengths as you would do with a therapy client, based on the information you have about her/his history and diagnosis.  As a case manager, you are probably working with more limited information than you have in psychotherapy, but you may have enough information to make some inferences about the underlying reasons for the client’s lack of follow through.  For example, clients with a history of trauma may be sensitive to feeling coerced, clients who have a psychotic disorder diagnosis may misinterpret your suggestions or be confused about the information you give them, and clients who have lived on the streets for many years may need the sense of community and self-identity of homelessness to feel safe.

Another application of your clinical skill is in identifying the client’s interpersonal style with you as a way to understand her/his internal template for relationships.  This will help you develop ways to work with the client based on her/his assumptions and fears about relating to others.  For example, if you feel intimidated by the client you can infer that s/he organizes relationships around issues of power with one person holding power and the other being powerless.  This would indicate that interacting with the client in an authoritative but non-punitive way is likely to be more productive than either attempting to take charge or responding passively.  A statement reflecting this middle ground would be “I have some ideas that might be helpful to you, but it’s hard for me to sit here with you when you’re yelling at me.  Would you be willing to stop for a moment and see if any of these resources are relevant for you?”  Using your clinical skill in this way will result in subtle but important differences in how you talk with different clients and is likely to be more effective in helping the clients use the resources you have to offer.

I hope you are able to use these suggestions in bringing your clinical knowledge into case management work.  Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.

Contacting Other Professionals

therapyI’m concerned that my client’s psychiatrist is prescribing the wrong medication.  She’s taking an anti-depressant instead of an anti-anxiety medication, and she says her anxiety hasn’t improved.  She signed a release giving me permission to contact the psychiatrist, so I plan to call him.

It’s often useful to talk with other professionals who are involved in your client’s health care, and preparing in advance makes the conversation more productive and collaborative.  In this instance, you have formed an impression of the psychiatrist’s professional judgment based on your client’s report which you should reflect on before contacting him.  I recommend approaching all conversations with other care providers with an assumption of competence and professionalism on their part.  There are many reasons your client may be telling you her anxiety hasn’t improved on her current medication regimen.  Before concluding that the psychiatrist has made a mistake, consider whether your client has been taking her medication as prescribed and for a sufficient length of time to be effective, whether she has tracked her anxiety symptoms on a regular basis to verify her subjective impression, and whether she has any history of addiction that could be related to her desire for and advisability of benzodiazepines for anxiety.  In addition, reflect on the interpersonal meaning of the client’s report to you and the triangle she has created between you, the psychiatrist and herself.  This may repeat an early family pattern related to conflict and loyalty that you want to handle differently than the client has experienced in the past.

Once you have checked your biases and can approach the conversation with an open, collaborative attitude, it’s good to take some time to prepare by writing down the questions you want to ask and a summary of information you want to share.  Make sure your questions are neutral and will not put him in a defensive position.  For example, it’s better to say “can you tell me how you made the decision to prescribe Zoloft?” than to say “do you think another medication would be more effective?”.  An open-ended question like “what information can you share that will help in my treatment of her anxiety?” is a good way to foster collaboration and may broaden your perspective.  When you write your summary or make notes about what you plan to share, remember to keep it brief, concise and relevant to the psychiatrist’s relationship with the client.  The client’s authorization gives you permission to exchange information, but HIPAA still obligates you to share only the minimum necessary information. When you talk with the psychiatrist by phone, start by asking questions and giving him a chance to share his ideas.  This will show you areas of agreement and consistency in your views of the client, and highlight what you may want to emphasize in your summary.  In your first conversation, I recommend that your agenda be only to establish a collaborative working relationship.  If you have areas of concern or disagreement, it is better to address those in a later conversation after some time has passed and you have had an opportunity to talk with a supervisor or colleague.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful in talking with a psychiatrist or other health care professional.  Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.

Field Placement Terminology

sunset_5What’s the difference between psychotherapy, case management, mental health and behavioral health programs?

If you are new to the field of psychology, marriage and family therapy or social work, you may have questions about some of the terms that are used to describe your practicum or field placement setting. Your program may use one of the terms above or a different term to describe the type of services provided to clients.

Psychotherapy involves a relationship between a client, which could be an individual or a family, and a therapist in a private, confidential setting for a specified time, traditionally 50 minutes once a week. In psychotherapy, the therapist and client identify goals for their work together, usually related to reduction of symptoms and improvement in areas of the client’s life, which may include homework or practice outside of the session. The therapist may coordinate with other health and social service providers, but the communication is primarily between the therapist and client. There are legal regulations restricting the provision of psychotherapy to individuals who meet certain education and experience qualifications.

Case management covers a broader range of activities in which the case manager may accompany the client to appointments, contact agencies and providers to advocate for the client, arrange and facilitate the client having access to housing or other resources, and/or serve as a mentor or coach. The length and frequency of sessions is based on the client’s needs and may vary from several hours multiple times per week to less than an hour once a month. The goals are often similar to goals of psychotherapy but the client and case manager may work on other practical goals with the case manager providing direct assistance. Case managers may be paraprofessionals, clinicians in training or licensed mental health professionals.

sunrise_vert_1A mental health or behavioral health program usually provides different types or levels of service to clients. Psychotherapy and case management are often included along with assessment and evaluation, inpatient or intensive outpatient treatment, medication management, and/or psychoeducation and support groups. Services may be coordinated within a treatment team of providers with different areas of specialty and expertise. The term behavioral health has been used increasingly during the last 20 years as programs and government departments began to combine mental health services with substance abuse services. The fact that these conditions overlap in a large proportion of individuals led to the rise of integrated services provided under the label “behavioral health.”

I hope this brief summary clarifies some of your questions. Please email me with comments, suggestions or further questions.