Counselors and other human service professionals that deal with confidential information have an obligation to ensure the privacy of the individuals that use their services. The internet has especially presented another challenge for mental health professionals. Clients and patients can use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other forms of social media to communicate outside of the professional setting. It’s only natural to develop a friendly but professional relationship with some clients. However, the introduction of social media can make for a very awkward situation.
As a counselor or therapist, what do you do when you get a friend request from a client? Do you accept it? Do you decline it? How do you address it the next time you see the client in person? What if the client is offended if they are declined? These are some of the questions you have to ask yourself as a professional in this new age of technology.
1. Follow Agency Policy- If the agency policy states that you can’t be connected to clients on social networks, then the answer is easy. However, most agencies don’t have a specific written policy on this since it’s a relatively new issue in the workplace.
2. Set Social Networks to Private- It’s a good idea to set any social networks to a private setting if there is a concern about personal boundaries. The problem is trying to private on a “social” network. It’s pretty much impossible since everything on the internet has the potential to be exposed to the public.
3. Have Public and Private Social Networks- If you want to put in the work you can have both public and private networks. I know some people who have a public Facebook page and a private page for just family and close friends. You have to ask yourself is it worth the work to manage multiple social network pages. Unless you want managing social networks to be your part-time job, I would reconsider this option.
4. Use Good Judgment- Sometimes just good old common sense is the best option. Do you mind having a client seeing pictures of your children and other personal information? The nature of your job may play a role in how you answer that question. However, most human service jobs involve working with clients and families who have some kind of personal issues whether it’s mental, physical, developmental, financial or all of the above. Connecting with them through social media may expose details about their lives that were not intended to be public. This could compromise the privacy of protected health information, which could land you in trouble regardless of your agency’s policy on social media.
5. Just Say No- The safest option is just to say no and decline all requests from any clients you serve or work with professionally. The clear boundary leaves no doubt and eliminates any questions. This protects both you and the client.
The other side to consider is discussing work related comments on social media. We’ve all had a bad day at work and would just like to vent to the world. A bad session with a client, a day full of crisis, or an irate phone call from a parent can make even the coolest clinician feel a little frustrated. However, social media is not the place to discuss work frustration. Making work related comments or posting pictures without permission could be cause for automatic termination. Even indirect comments could land you in trouble. If you’re having work related problems, it’s best to discuss this with a supervisor and stay off the social media.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) was passed to protect patient health information.