With most of your clients, your friends and family, and everyone you meet on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and similar sites, social media represents an ethical minefield for private practice mental health therapists. For decades, the line between a therapist’s private and professional life has been sacrosanct. Social media tempts both therapists and clients to blur the line.
What will you do if a client attempts to friend you on Facebook? Would you share a client’s personal story with your followers on Twitter? What if a client pressures you to follow their Instagram account?
Some therapists decide it’s simply easier to give up on social media altogether — for personal and professional use. But for many others, that’s not an option.
First, social media has become so embedded in modern society, it’s almost impossible to live without it. Second, sites like Facebook are heavily trafficked online destinations. With the intense competition for therapy clients in some areas, it’s hard to turn your back on this ripe opportunity to market your private practice.
Want to learn more? View our web guide: Marketing for Therapists.
Why You Need a Social Media Policy for Your Therapy Practice
As a therapist, you face many more ethical and legal complications on social media than your typical small business owner. As therapy marketing expert Daniel Wendler points out, other businesses can (and probably should) chat with their customers on Twitter, post coupons on Facebook, and ask clients to share their posts with friends online. You can’t do any of that.
Social media is hard for therapists because:
- HIPAA laws strictly require all healthcare professionals to safeguard their clients’ privacy. Social media counts.
- You must secure your clients’ trust to develop productive working relationships with them. Social media offers ample opportunities to betray that trust.
- Your clients may not understand the ethical and legal boundaries that constrain you. As a result, they may push those boundaries.
A written social media policy will codify your approach to social media and explain it in clear terms to your clients before you begin your work together. If you want to avoid misunderstandings and disappointment later on, a social media policy can be one of your most effective tools.
What to Include in Your Social Media Policy
The American Psychological Association recommends including a social media policy in your informed consent process. What should you include in your policy? Here are a few suggestions:
Why the Policy Exists
Your social media policy should explain to your clients why you have a social media policy in the first place. Be clear that it’s not because you don’t trust them; in fact, it’s the opposite. You have a social media policy because you’re committed to protecting your clients’ privacy and building strong, trusting relationships with them.
How You Handle Friending and Following
Explain to your clients what (if any) social media presences you maintain and how you use them.
If you have a Twitter account where you interact with other therapists and share articles, for example, explain to your clients that you do not expect that they will follow you. If they do follow you, explain that you will not reply to their comments on Twitter or follow them back.
If you are on Facebook, tell your clients you will not reply to friend requests, nor will you make friend requests.
Also, make it clear that you will never share information about your clients or their sessions with anyone on any social media platform.
How You Can Be Contacted
Some clients may try to contact you with questions about their treatment via Facebook or other social media platforms. Inform your clients that these messaging tools are insecure and not appropriate for discussing their treatment.
The Use of Business Review Sites
Business review sites like Yelp may add your practice to their listings without asking you first. If they do, clients and former clients may leave comments (positive and negative) about your practice there.
Your social media policy should explain to your clients that you don’t expect them to review your practice online and if they do, you won’t engage with them on business review sites or respond to their comments.
(It’s also a good idea to note that if they have a concern about your practice, clients should come to you directly.)
It’s Your Policy
No boilerplate social media policy will work for every therapy practice. Your social media policy will depend on which social media sites you use and which sites your particular mix of clients frequent.
As a starting point, psychologist Keely Kolmes offers a free-to-use-and-adapt social media policy on her website. This discussion among three mental health professionals about social media and digital ethics will also give you some ideas.
To learn more about marketing your private practice, including more social media tips, visit our complete marketing guide for therapists.