For Therapists: Dealing with Challenging Clients Who Harass and Stalk
Therapists offer a safe space for clients to talk about their problems and figure out ways to overcome them. But, in the process of guiding towards the betterment of their mental health, therapists are some times left in a vulnerable position. Therapists are prone to stalking and harassment by their clients.
Stalking can last anywhere between a few days to years. During this time, the victims of stalking experience extreme distress and fear due to safety concerns. The fear of not knowing when and where the victim might confront the stalker is terrifying.
Client stalking therapist is not uncommon. As high as 15% of therapists in the U.S. are victims of stalking by former patients. But, they fail to recognize, respond, and cope with such challenges.
When a person engages in any two of the following behaviors for a minimum of two weeks, it is stalking or harassment.
- following the therapist
- surveil the therapist
- making unwelcomed and undesirable approaches
- trespassing, interfering or loitering around the therapist's property
- sending unpleasant and unwanted correspondence
- making uninvited phone calls
- threatening to harm the therapist and the family
- sending offensive and hostile materials
- spreading spiteful gossip
- adopt false identities and aliases to contact the therapist
Often, the main reason for stalking is the client's desire to develop an intimate relationship with the therapist.
Here are the ways a therapist can recognize and deal with stalking behavior.
Stalking has three elements - pattern, threat, and fear. But, if you are not aware that you are being stalked, then there is no crime.
The fact that therapists empathize and trust their clients makes them not expect a client's stalking behavior.
Therapists must be aware and learn to identify stalking behaviors. Therapists must prepare for the possibility of being stalked by clients and take action accordingly. You must know where to turn in case the stalking escalates and poses a threat to your life.
You must know how to deal with difficult clients in therapy. You could ask your patients to sign an informed consent that "sets boundaries" - no giving gifts, no interaction outside therapy sessions, and no contact on social media. If the patient violates such boundaries, it would be easier for you to take steps accordingly.
Therapists could consider keeping records of any unwanted and unpleasing contacts by patients such as email, phone calls, and messages. It would act as evidence in case the harassment escalates.
Define time limits for each session. The patient must have a clear understanding of what's acceptable and what's not. It is not advisable to meet your clients outside your office unless it's an emergency.
Protect your online information
Clients who have found to stalk their therapists have found the personal or professionals details from social media and other online platforms. Protect personal information by adopting aliases on social media and disable location-based settings on social media.
Clients harassing therapists find information by spying on their spouse's or children's social media accounts. Take necessary precautions in such cases.
Therapists could establish connections with their colleagues, supervisors, other health care professionals, law enforcement, doctors, nurses, and hospital administration.
Get to know all those professionals and officials in your jurisdiction trained in violence risk assessment. In the case of unprecedented situations, you could seek their support.
You could engage with a supervisor to confront the client and set boundaries if you notice any signs of stalking behavior. If the stalking behavior persists, you could consider referring the client to another therapist who is maybe aware of the client's history. In extreme cases, you could seek help from law enforcement to intervene and arrest the stalker.
Stalking victims experience significant trauma, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and fear. Therapists seldom receive any support to deal with the effects of stalking by clients. They have to cope with the stigma in professional circles, alienation by colleagues, and frequent gossips.
Many end up installing security systems in their office and homes, and some even change their jobs or relocate.
Health care establishments have to help therapists who are victims of stalking by connecting them with lawyers, legal practitioners, and other mental health professionals who have been in similar situations.
The fact that someone is intentionally invading your life with a possible intent to harm is terrifying. It is okay to stop seeing challenging clients in therapy.
Even though alerting the authority, in this case, may seem to violate patient-therapist confidentiality, the clause is no longer valid if your client crosses set boundaries to stalk, harass, and harm you. You would not be held liable for doing so.
You are not alone in facing this type of issue. It is crucial to know about the difference between criminal and clinical.