Training modules/Dealing with online harassment/slides/mental-health-counseling

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Support you should not offer: Mental health counseling[edit | edit source]

There are some types of support and advice that you should not attempt to give to users. These include mental health counseling and legal advice, both of which should only be given by trained and qualified professionals.

If you handle harassment cases, you will be dealing with people in various levels of mental distress. Most people understand that users with advanced rights are not psychology professionals and will not expect you to provide counseling, but in cases where someone is in crisis or where you feel the appropriate mental health advice is obvious, it can be tempting to offer it – please don't.

Why shouldn't you offer counseling, even in a case where the person needs it or you believe you know what to do? For more than one reason:

  • Boundaries: As someone handling a harassment issue, your community expects you to act in a neutral, investigatory manner. Reaching past that role to counsel an involved user risks confusing them – "is this person an investigator or my friend/advisor?" – and overstepping the trust your community gave you.
  • Not dividing your energy: You hold advanced rights in your community because your community felt you had expertise in the skills that role calls for: discretion, knowledge of IP address technology, good judgment in resolving disputes, and so on. Even if you think advice beyond your role could be useful, remember that you are of most use to someone in a harassment situation by using the skills the community asked you to use; try not to get sidetracked by trying to offer other services as well.
  • Safety of the user: Unless you are a trained mental health professional, you simply cannot know the appropriate way to treat or counsel someone in a mental health crisis. Trying to do so without the necessary expertise means that, if you make a wrong treatment decision, you could inadvertently harm the person you are trying to help. In the case of mental health and crisis counseling, this kind of mistake could lead to a person in crises becoming even more upset, or causing a non-life-threatening situation to escalate into a life-threatening crisis.
  • Liability: By representing yourself as someone able to provide mental health advice, you could be violating laws in many places that govern who may give medical treatment. If such a law applies to you, you could be held legally responsible for negative repercussions from the advice you provided. Professional providers have insurance to protect them in this situation; you likely do not.

To sum up: In a harassment situation, it is in everyone's best interests for you to focus on assisting with your community and project expertise, not as a mental health counselor. You may optionally wish to suggest to a user who asks for counseling that they reach out to an organization like the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) (US only), which can help those in need find mental health treatment and resources. You can also provide links to a resource directory such as our international resource directory. You are not obligated to do so if you are not comfortable doing so.

IMPORTANT: If you believe a situation is an emergency where the target or someone else is in immediate physical danger, you should consider contacting local authorities.