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A Dark Side of Therapists Online

Several years ago, I got into an online squabble with a friend who was in grad school, getting her MSW for a future career as a counselor.

The whole thing unfolded in the comments section of my blog and concluded (along with the friendship) when she spluttered that I am “…WEAK! And I MOCK weak people!”

Wow, I thought. Your future clients are in for a treat.

This incident came to mind when a Twitter buddy sent me a note wondering if any research had been done into “potential damage done by therapists who tweet/blog judgmental, hurtful views, jokes…?”

This person, a retired counselor, first noted a former mentee doing it. “I talked to her about it and she thanked me, stopped it.”

But that young counselor was the exception. When my friend noticed a couple of others doing the same, “I gently pointed out to both of them the problems both career wise and client wise with some of their postings (fat put down jokes, sharing very personal info about their own issues, sarcastic misuse of words like crazy and psycho etc) Both ignored me; one posted to mind my own business.

“All of this was done with their full names and locations and accessible to any of their clients with a quick google search,” my friend said.

“I know how hard it is for most clients to trust and how vulnerable they are to being judged,” she continued. “I can just image how crushing it would be for a desperate, suicidal client to read something demeaning/too revealing written by the person they expect to be compassionate, stable and on their side.”

The Internet strikes again.

My friend’s concern is compelling, so I went looking for research into this sort of thing. But really, it’s all too new. The world is changing too fast for research to keep up, though I’m sure we’ll see more over time.

I found an article in Counseling Today, the publication of the American Counseling Association, that focuses more on the benefits of the Internet for counselors, in terms of marketing and education and online therapy, as well as risks of, for example, making themselves accessible to clients 24/7 via text and email.

An article in Training and Education in Professional Psychology explored how common it is for psychologists-in-training to google clients, and the potential benefits or drawbacks, and ethics, of this.

And The Lancet mulls the matter in the article “Facebook friend request from a patient?”, noting:

Cases where health-care professionals have taken things too far are rare but well publicised. In February, a physician assistant working at a medical centre in New York state was found to have posted photos on Facebook showing him holding a syringe at a man’s neck. He said: “When you can’t start a line in a junkie’s arm…go for the neck”, reported The Journal News, a local newspaper.

One wonders how that PA’s career is going.

Dr. Stephen Behnke, ethics director of the American Psychological Association, wrote about the ethical and professional issues raised by psychologists’ self-disclosure online, and was interviewed about the ethical challenges the Internet poses. These are not yet officially addressed in the APA’s ethics code, he explains, because it was last revised in 2005, before social networking took over the world. But you can bet your app it will be addressed in the next revision.

It appears that what we know so far about social networking and its risks to the therapeutic relationship is mostly anecdotal and speculative. But it doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to see that my Twitter friend’s concern is legitimate. Sure, therapists are only human and what they say behind closed doors is, to some extent, their business. And certainly dark humor can help people in stressful careers. But taking that humor public is taking a risk. A big one.

Hearing a therapist make ugly comments publicly about weakness, or obesity, or mental illness has to make you wonder if that person is fit to be helping others in trouble.

So even if these comments never reach clients’ ears (or eyes)— the most troubling scenario—they could have a chilling effect on a career.

Would you recommend a counselor who proudly claims to mock weakness?

Illustration by Pete Simon via Flickr (Creative Commons).

A Dark Side of Therapists Online

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2012). A Dark Side of Therapists Online. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Jan 2012
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