I have had six sessions with a client who initially presented with symptoms of depression. Since the first session, she has told 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.