I’m worried about one of my clients who was very depressed and overwhelmed in our last session. How should I decide whether to call her before our next session?
This is a common and distressing situation for students in psychotherapy training. You may find yourself preoccupied with worry and uncertainty about your client’s wellbeing, especially if you are personally vulnerable to anxiety. Part of the developmental process in clinical psychology training is expanding your focus from alleviating your own distress to evaluating the impact on your client of different interventions. As behavioral health professionals, our primary responsibility is client welfare so all of our clinical interactions should be centered on that consideration.
Regarding a depressed, overwhelmed client, your first step should be consulting with your supervisor. This is especially important if you are in your first practicum or field placement setting and you should continue to consult with your supervisor throughout your training whenever you are concerned about a client’s safety. These situations bring up intense feelings for clinicians and it is hard to be objective in evaluating the most appropriate response when you are caught in the emotional intensity. Some of us respond to intense emotions by shutting down and minimizing the client’s risk and others of us become agitated and overestimate the risk.
Some of the factors to consider in evaluating your client’s risk, in consultation with your supervisor, are the length of your relationship with the client, whether the client’s emotional state is a change in response to a recent stressor or is more longstanding, how the client has coped or reacted to similar feelings in the past, and what internal strengths and external supports are available to the client. Clients who are new to you, who are reacting to a recent precipitating event, who use self-destructive or impulsive coping strategies, and have few strengths and supports are at greater risk. If you are concerned about suicidality, use a risk assessment tool such as the Suicide Assessment Five-step Evaluation and Triage.
If you and your supervisor agree that the client’s risk is high, you should contact the client to make a further assessment. If the client’s risk is low, you can wait until your next session to do further assessment. If there is a moderate level of risk, your decision will be based on your understanding of the meaning your intervention will have to your client. You may contact the client as a way to communicate your care and concern, but the client may experience your call as intrusive and undermining. You can develop an understanding of your client’s likely interpretation of your interventions based on your knowledge of her/his early experiences with parents and other caregivers and your observations of her/his relational patterns. A client who experienced neglect and has an expectation that others will be absent and uncaring will respond more positively to an unexpected call from you than a client who experienced abuse and intrusion. However, because psychotherapy always has the overriding goal of supporting client autonomy and self-determination, it is safer to refrain from initiating contact with a client unless there is a clear reason to do so.
After consultation and consideration of your client’s welfare, you may determine that contact with the client isn’t appropriate but still feel worried. This is the time to refocus your attention on your own coping strategies and self-care. Learning psychotherapy involves strengthening your ability to manage intense emotions and placing the client’s welfare above your personal needs. It also involves differentiating between your relationships with family and friends and your professional relationships with clients.
I hope this has been helpful to you. Please email me with feedback or suggestions for future blog topics.