By Jim Seckman, MAC, CACII, CCS
*Article published in GACA Professional Update Newsletter, Summer 2012
“One of our responsibilities as counselors is to have healthy boundaries. These boundaries can easily become blurred if, or when, we begin to intrude on the personal lives of clients outside the professional relationship.”
“Professional judgment includes how we conduct ourselves in public, even in our leisure time, which includes what we post on a Facebook page for all to view.”
Frances Patterson, PhD, MAC, To Facebook or Not to Facebook, NAADAC News, March/April 2012
Social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) has become an integral part of our lives. No matter how active our involvement, we cannot deny the impact that this form of communication has had on our society. Social media has given us unprecedented abilities to communicate to large numbers of people, and therein lies the problem. Whether we like it or not, we leave behind a digital footprint nearly everywhere we go. Dialogue placed within social media outlets is broadcasted to the public arena, whereby individuals read and interpret such communication any way they wish.
Reputations, both personally and professionally, have become tarnished in an instant; confidential information can quickly become public knowledge; and company bad-mouthing can spread like wildfire.
We, as citizens, have the constitutional right to freedom of speech; however, as addiction treatment professionals, we have an ethical responsibility to represent our field, our colleagues and our facilities, in both our professional and personal lives, with respect, courtesy, sensitivity and fairness. When we lose sight of this responsibility, our boundaries loosen, and that can lead to ethical violations in the form of dialogues that are inappropriate, insensitive to colleagues and hurtful to clients.
Most ethical standards and confidentiality laws have not really caught up with what is taking place in the world of social networking. But, the NAADAC Code of Ethics was revised in 2011 and offers guidelines by which we as treatment professionals can determine the ethical implications of our social media involvement:
NAADAC recognizes and encourages the notion that personal and professional ethics cannot be dealt with as separate domains. […] Addiction professionals must act in such a way that they would have no embarrassment if their behavior became a matter of public knowledge and would have no difficulty defending their actions before any competent authority.
—Introduction, NAADAC Code of Ethics
The NAADAC Code of Ethics state very clearly that professional ethics and personal ethics should remain consistent in the life of the treatment professional. Any actions, words or behavior, whether professional or personal, are held against the same standard. If we live our lives from two disparate ethical perspectives, we will not only experience internal conflict, but the negative viewpoints and behaviors of one will ultimately contaminate the more positive viewpoints and behaviors of the other as well.
The addiction professional shall avoid any action that might appear to impose on others’ acceptance of their religious/spiritual, political or other personal beliefs. . .
—Dual Relationships, NAADAC Code of Ethics
We have a lot of power as professionals. Often, we don’t understand just how much power we have in the lives of clients. When we make public our opinions and beliefs, particularly in a manner that comes across as forceful, it is no longer just a matter of debate or discourse. Our opinions are seen as having more value and authority by our clients. We must be extremely careful what we say, how we say it and where we say it.
The addiction professional understands that every decision and action has ethical implications leading either to benefit or harm, and will carefully consider whether decisions or actions have the potential to produce harm of a physical, psychological, financial, legal or spiritual nature before implementing them. The addiction professional recognizes that even in a life well lived, harm may be done to others by thoughtless words and actions. If he or she becomes aware that any word or action has done harm to anyone, the professional readily admits it and does what is possible to repair or ameliorate the harm except where doing so might cause greater harm.
—Preventing Harm, NAADAC Code of Ethics
How do we live our lives? As treatment professionals, we dedicate our working lives to the healing and benefit of others. Our personal lives should reflect the same dedication.
Oftentimes we might express things that we intended to be taken lightly or casually, but others interpret them as offensive. At that point, it no longer matters whether or not we intended them to be offensive—they simply are offensive. It is always our responsibility to consider our actions and, if necessary, make amends. Ethical guidelines exist so that, as treatment professionals, we have:
- A common understanding of expectations
- A corrective influence on personal bias/problems
- A common understanding and obligation among members of the profession
- Responsibility and accountability
- Boundaries for the protection of the client and the professional
Social media is challenging our boundaries and ethical guidelines in ways we could not conceive of 10 years ago. It is critically important that we maintain congruency in our lives, both professionally and personally. Our involvement with social media places a greater responsibility on us as professionals to maintain healthy boundaries, and is either an opportunity for, or a detriment to, respect, healing and recovery.
Jim Seckman, MAC, CACII, CCS is the Clinical Director at MARR. He has over 20 years experience working in the field of addiction treatment in a variety of clinical settings, including inpatient, outpatient and residential. Jim is past president of GARR (Georgia Association of Recovery Residences), has served on the Ethics Committee for GACA (Georgia Addiction Counselors Association) and conducts regular training workshops on addiction treatment. For more information on social media and ethical standards, email him at [email protected].