Sunday, July 03, 2016

Should counselor tell client she lives close by?

For several years, A.L. has worked as a mental health counselor in a neighborhood health center in the Northeast. She sees clients of all ages, most of whom live in the part of the city where the center is located.

A.L. also lives close to the center, but until recently her clients lived in neighborhoods other than hers. A few weeks ago, as A.L. was meeting with a client for the first time, she started collecting basic information and family history, as she does with all new clients. She had no recollection of ever having seen the client before, but when it came time for her to give her address, A.L. noticed that the client lived on the same street as she did, about five or six houses down the block.

Typically, A.L. says that she does not disclose personal information about herself during her meetings with clients. She stays focused on the clients' needs and works with them to address whatever issues they might be facing.

But A.L. is concerned that she might run into the new client in her day-to-day life. If she does run into her new client in the neighborhood, she wonders if she might find it odd that A.L. never mentioned living so close by.

She's run into clients before at the grocery store, a close-by shopping mall, or the movie theater. On such occasions, she always waits for the clients to acknowledge her before she says anything to them, out of respect for their privacy.

Still, A.L. wants to know if she should tell her new client that they are neighbors since they live so close to one another. Doing so might avoid some awkwardness if they run into one another, she figures, but it also would go against how she has decided to disclose her personal information to clients in the past. She wants to know the right thing to do.

I am not a mental health counselor nor a psychologist, so I do not know if A.L. licensing agency has a particular set of guidelines that address such instances. If it does, obviously A.L should consult and follow any professional guidelines.

Absent her concerns being specifically addressed in her professional guidelines, when it comes to disclosing any personal information about herself, the right thing for A.L. to do is to treat this new client precisely in the same manner she has disclosed information to other clients in the past.

It's important for the new client to know about A.L.'s experience and credentials. If it hasn't been relevant or useful for A.L. to disclose personal information, then she should stick with that approach.

If A.L. does happen to run into her new client in their neighborhood, she has experience on how to deal with such occasions. Just as she has waited for clients to make the first acknowledgment in the past when she has run into them in public places, she should wait for the new client to do so as well.

The important thing is for A.L. to continue her practice of focusing on her clients' needs. Unless disclosing her home's proximity to the client's is relevant to the client's care, the right thing is not to disclose the information. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Phil Clutts said...

Since the client is a new one, I would “come clean” now if I were A.L. to preclude the potential awkwardness of a chance encounter, which could result in the client’s perception that A.L. wasn’t forthcoming with her. Maybe nobody will ever know, but I would be uncomfortable with the knowledge that my psychiatrist lived just a few doors (neighbors) away. There’s just too much potential for something to go wrong despite the best ethical practices of the psychiatrist. That situation is “too close for comfort” and in my opinion deserves an exception to A.L.’s normal practice of not disclosing her personal information.

Anonymous said...

Jeff's points are well taken. But Phil makes a good point and probably should be followed. I initially thought about unscheduled home visits by the client which would be bad but such was not mentioned by either.
Mention it in passing briefly with no discussion and this should satisfy all. It probably does not matter and A.L. can let nature take its course. If it comes up then nobody will be surprised.
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma

Anonymous said...

I would just let the patient know that she lives in the neighborhood. I would also explain how I handle chance encounters. I don't think it needs to be a big deal.

Anonymous said...

Having lived in a small town where there were lots of "dual relationships" (eg coach is also deputy sheriff is also next door neighbor, etc.), I would not share the exact house or block, but I would disclose that I live in the neighborhood. This would be a great opportunity to make a plan for any potential future instances like bumping into each other at the grocery store or post office. After that, I would redirect the conversation back to the reasons the client is seeking therapy if he/she brings up the neighbor issue ... or at least to why this is on the client's mind if he/she continues to bring it up.