Issues of Personal Safety
In my years as a therapist, an overwhelming majority of my interactions with clients have been positive. But when you’re dealing with mental health, stress, and strong, sometimes repressed, emotions, you always have to keep in mind that things can go pear shaped. It may not have personally happened to you, and it probably won’t ever happen. But it’s important to be prepared in case it does.
When setting up your practice (or, if you’re already established but haven’t considered this yet), you must consider your personal safety.
Here are some tips on how to do that, both from my own experience, and fellow colleagues’:
Screen clients on the phone before they come in - I always have a conversation with a new client before our first session. It gives me a feel for who is coming into the work space and gives me time to put things in place if I am not totally convinced that all is 100% as it should be.
Think about outside spaces - Sally Despenser, a therapist who found herself in a dangerous situation with a client, points out that before you rent or purchase space for your practice, it’s a good idea to consider how safe the parking area is. Is it well-lit at night? Is it isolated, or visible to passersby? Also keep in mind other areas in your building that could be hard to escape from – for example, a stairwell.
Stay near the door - As you’re setting up your consulting space, be sure you have a way to get out quickly and without obstacles, if the need should ever arise. One of the easiest ways to do this is by placing your chair or general workspace close to the door. This can be a bit of a challenge when you are trying to incorporate things like feng shui principles and décor, but consider it.
Don’t give away private details - Another thing Despenser advises is keeping private information away from clients’ eyes. It’s not just photographs or artwork made by your children that can give away information about your personal life. For example, if you leave your mobile on a table and it rings, could a client see the name of the person calling? Also consider paperwork, which may reveal personal details like your home address or home phone number. Before you welcome a client in, be sure everything is put away. Protect your own privacy just as you do your clients.
Be aware of dangerous objects - In a piece on the American Psychological Association(APA)’s website, psychologist Reid Meloy, author of Violence Risk and Threat Assessment: A Practical Guide for Mental Health and Criminal Justice Professionals, advises foregoing typical desk items like letter openers and heavy paperweights, which could easily be used as weapons. Meloy also recommends choosing chairs that are as heavy as possible, so that clients won’t be able to lift or move them. This might sound a bit melodramatic, but the reality is that this sort of thing is not about your everday situation, its about that one unusual situation, or unwell client.
Have an alarm system - If a client starts to get dodgy, a personal alarm can literally be a life-saver. There are many kinds to choose from. An inexpensive option is a keychain or pendant device that, when pressed, sets off a painfully loud noise that should essentially stun an attacker. More costly options include small devices whose buttons are connected to an emergency number or contact. For more information, have a look at this helpful guide to personal alarms.
Have an excuse - Another safety technique the APA suggests, is to find a reason to leave the room if you feel a client is becoming agitated to the point where the session is no longer safe. It could be as simple as saying you have to go to the toilet.
Get or give a ring - If you have reception, have them ring you at end of each session, if you’re not out by a certain time. If you work on your own, or if it’s a weekend or time when no one else is at your clinic or office, make a similar plan with a friend or family member: one of you will text or call the other at a given time after a session.
Therapy is about positivity and healing. As a trained therapist you have the knowledge and skill to manage situations that can come up in client sessions, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of possible dangers. On a building site, it is standard practice to ensure that everyone onsite is safe, and that all eventualities are covered - it's a normal work practice, and it just makes sense.
You give your clients a safe place in which to do their change work, why wouldn’t you ensure that you are in a safe place too?