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How online self-disclosure benefits LGBTQIA+ therapists with lived experience

Posted: 2-18-22 | Teresa Theophano

Therapist self-disclosure should be a thoughtful and intentional process. A person of color in grey loungewear and bare feet looks down at a laptop. They are surrounded by cartoon images that represent social media content and considerations about the benefits and risks of disclosing parts of their identities in online therapist communities.

Self-Disclosure and Community Building

We know that LGBTQIA+ community members are resourceful and resilient. We also know about startling disparities in the mental health of queer and trans individuals v. that of cisgender and heterosexual ones. As a queer femme clinical social worker who has spoken openly and published about my own lived experience of major depression and trauma–thereby “coming out” many times over the years–I posit that normalizing such experiences through mindful self-disclosure benefits LGBTQIA+ therapists and can make for healthier workplaces. One way in which we can help de-stigmatize lived experience among clinicians, as I will explore in this article, is by building online community via social media. My hope is that, through establishing online outlets for support and authentic discussion with other lived-experience practitioners, LGBTQIA+ psychotherapists living with mental health conditions ourselves can build stronger and genuinely thriving communities of practice.

Self-Disclosure in Clinician Communities

Therapist self-disclosure (TSD) has been examined and categorized in specific ways in extant literature, and clinicians may be familiar with some terminology surrounding immediate v. non-immediate TSD; deliberate v. unavoidable TSD; and accidental, inappropriate, and client-initiated TSD (Alfi-Yogev et al, 2020, Zur, 2009) to clients. Some literature also explores disclosure to and identification with LGBTQ+ clients, and how this shows up both in queer and TGNB community as well as in relational practice (Hansbury and Bennett, 2014). But the possibilities for positive change when we share about our own lived experience with other practitioners, particularly via social media, have not been explored at length.
In other words, we can easily find commentary and research on the risks and benefits of TSD to clients. But what about the risks and benefits of disclosure within communities of practice, i.e. among therapists in a clinic or group practice setting–or between clinicians and workers such as certified peer specialists, whose lived experience is a requirement of their position because it is seen as a strength (Byrne et al., 2016, Marino & Child, 2015)? King et al. (2020) frame mental health professionals with lived experience as an underutilized resource, one whose presence and authenticity can help lessen stigma and foster healthier mental health service-oriented workplaces overall. At the same time, practitioners such as peer specialists face “the unique challenges of…being professionally isolated, feeling outnumbered and ostracised,” especially when few of them are employed in a given workplace (Moran et al., 2013, as cited in Byrne et al., 2016, p. 11).

Self-Disclosure and Resilience

First, we might consider here the stress induced by identity concealment, and how research has shown that the pressure of hiding our true selves as LGBTQIA+ people results in negative psychological responses associated with PTSD (Alessi & Martin, 2017). Support from online communities can potentially help mitigate these stressors for those of us who are both queer and living with mental health conditions, allowing for therapists with lived experience to be seen and valued for the unique gifts we bring to the workplace.

While self-help models have long been grounded in the principles of discussing lived and shared experiences, and peer models can indeed be enhanced by self-disclosure (Psychopathology Committee of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, 2001), it seems that few conversations are happening about how TSD among practitioners–LGBTQIA+ ones in particular–can benefit us. Yet I have found that my own self-disclosure has led to my sense of increased authenticity and even self-efficacy. This is especially salient considering that lived experience is a form of expertise, albeit one that is frequently undervalued in mental health care professions, unto itself.

Mindful Self-Disclosure

In exploring the idea of online TSD, we may consider that some transparency is simply unavoidable, as it would be if we were living in a small town; in fact, Zur (2015) conceptualizes the Internet as a “global village.” This is particularly relevant to social media use–in addition to shared physical social spaces–among LGBTQIA+ community, which tends to be surprisingly small and deeply interconnected even in major metropolitan areas such as my hometown of New York City.

Both Zur (2015) and Longley (2021) caution that therapists may not be aware of the information clients have uncovered about them online, thus leaving them unable to appropriately address unintentional disclosures in session. Clinicians considering issues of disclosure around lived experience will want to bear this in mind. If we operate from the assumption that our clients as well as our colleagues have read any- and everything we have written for publication, online or off, we will be better prepared for the possibility of our authentic selves to show up in the therapy room as well as the conference room–or the Zoom rooms! Further conversations about self-disclosure from different intersections have been explored in previous articles published by The Affirmative Couch by Mandy Simmons and Jerry St. Louis

Online Communities for Therapists

We might look to Facebook and Twitter for an idea of what intentional social media-based disclosures within communities of practice can look like. Both are homes to LGBTQIA+ mental health discussions in the forms of groups and chats, but it can be difficult to find dedicated space to share support around being a queer therapist with lived experience. Frustrated with the lack of such spaces, I started a small, private Facebook group in early 2020, inviting a few clinicians I knew who had openly shared their status as peers. The intention was to create a safer space in which we could discuss our work and lives. Some themes that have emerged include professionally navigating dual identities as clinicians and peers; potential over-identification with clients with similar lived experiences; and how much disclosure, and to whom, feels safe. With fewer than 20 members at present, the group is low-traffic, but an available and hopefully growing resource for LGBTQIA+ therapists with lived experience.

Risks and Benefits of Online TSD

The risks and benefits of TSD in terms of client impact is familiar terrain in the literature. Risks include violating boundaries and burdening the client with extraneous personal information that detracts from focus on the client, while benefits include potentially enhancing trust and strengthening the therapeutic alliance (Alfi-Yogev et al., 2020; Johnsen & Ding, 2021; Lehavot, 2010; Longley, 2021; Moody et al, 2021; Psychopathology Committee of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, 2001; Zur, 2009). Some psychotherapeutic modalities, including dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and relational therapy, may better lend themselves to TSD than others, such as traditional psychoanalytic models (Hansbury and Bennett, 2014; Psychopathology Committee of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, 2001).
Worth noting, per Lehavot et al. (2010), is the tension of the generational divide between therapists born into an Internet-savvy world v. those born prior to the Internet’s omnipresence, and how this can factor into differing attitudes about online TSD. Generational and cultural differences persist, and different schools of thought on privacy-related values may clash. Traditional psychotherapeutic views on self-disclosure, online or off, may certainly err on the side of conservatism and eschew clinician authenticity; after all, in classical psychoanalysis, “self-disclosure was thought to result in gratification of patients’ wishes rather than analysis of them” (Psychopathology Committee of the Group for Advancement of Psychiatry, 2001, p. 1489).

Meantime, more modern viewpoints support that some self-disclosure can provide role modeling and confirm what is already publicly available online, thereby deepening trust with clients (Johnsen & Ding, 2021). Therapists who choose to disclose should be mindful about their rationale and have thoughtful responses at the ready, considering that revealing a diagnosis can elicit bias from clients, colleagues, and employers. This is why I encourage us all to reflect on the validity of lived experience as a form of expertise, and consider sharing pertinent literature–such as some of the articles in the below reference list–as tools for further learning.

Further Recommendations 

Further education can help those who harbor bias and stigmatize individuals with lived experience unlearn harmful attitudes, and perhaps even their own internalized oppression. It is difficult to locate any data regarding the risks and benefits of LGBTQIA+ therapists themselves disclosing to each other, whether online or in person. What we do know is that LGBTQIA+ community members frequently use social media to discuss their mental health concerns and care. Interestingly, researchers have found social media usage to be both a risk factor for and a protective factor against depression for LGB people. Per Escobar-Viera et al. (2018), who draw on the Meyer minority stress model, social media can be conducive to the formation of social support and connection among queer folks, thereby encouraging stress reduction and forming protective factors against depression. At the same time, social media use can also foster social comparison and yield experiences of cyberbullying and stigmatization, leading to such negative outcomes as lowered self-esteem and symptoms of depression (Escobar-Viera et al., 2018).

Perhaps we can extrapolate some ideas from existing literature about the general benefits of sharing in alleviating self-stigma. Normalizing disclosure among not only “lived experience practitioners,” such as certified peer specialists, but also licensed mental health clinicians can provide both personal and community-wide benefits, eliminating feelings of isolation, being outnumbered and stigmatized in the workplace, and easing distress around identity concealment (Byrne et al., 2019; King et al., 2020). When we, as LGBTQIA+ clinicians, share about our lived experience and provide support to each other online, discussing our experiences of workplace challenges, we can make it more feasible for ourselves and each other to disclose to colleagues in our clinics, agencies, and organizations. This kind of effort can lead to further understanding of diverse experiences, identities, and states of mind, which ultimately benefits everyone.

Conclusions

Research on this topic moving forward should focus on the outcomes and benefits of disclosure in online communities formed specifically for this purpose–to provide support for queer and trans clinicians with lived experience. Worth noting is my own positionality in writing this article as a white cis femme for whom being doubly “out” as queer and having mental health-related diagnoses is, in some ways, relatively safe. Risks may be more significant for community members facing multiple forms of marginalizations; it is crucial to take an intersectional lens to the impact of self-disclosure and social media use on, for instance, LGBTQIA+ Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities (BIPoC) (Marino & Child, 2015). Future directions in research should address this when also examining how disclosure and authenticity in the workplace–i.e. outpatient clinics, group practices, and agency-based settings–benefits LGBTQIA+ clinicians with lived experience.

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References

Alfi-Yogev, T., Hasson-Ohayon, I., Lazarus, G., Ziv-Beiman, S., & Atzil-Slonim, D. (2020). When to disclose and to whom? Examining within-and between-client moderators of therapist self disclosure-outcome associations in psychodynamic psychotherapy. Psychotherapy Research, 1–11.

Alessi, E. J., & Martin, J. I. (2017). Intersection of trauma and identity. In K. L. Eckstrand & J. Potter (Eds.), Trauma, resilience, and health promotion in LGBT patients (pp. 3–14). Springer. DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-54509-7_1

Byrne, L., Roennfeldt, H., Davidson, L., Miller, R., & Bellamy, C. (2021). To disclose or not to disclose? Peer workers impact on a culture of safe disclosure for mental health professionals with lived experience. Psychological Services. https://doi.org/10/gj7w6r

Escobar-Viera, C. G., Whitfield, D. L., Wessel, C. B., Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Brown, A. L., Chandler, C. J., Hoffman, B. L., Marshal, M. P., & Primack, B. A. (2018). For better or for worse? A systematic review of the evidence on social media use and depression among lesbian, gay, and bisexual minorities. JMIR Mental Health, 5(3), e10496. https://doi.org/10.2196/10496

Hansbury, G., & Bennett, J. L. (2014). Working relationally with LGBT clients in clinical practice: Client and clinician in context. In Relational social work practice with diverse populations (pp. 197–214). Springer.

Johnsen, C., & Ding, H. T. (2021). Therapist self-disclosure: Let’s tackle the elephant in the room. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 26(2), 443–450. https://doi.org/10/gmvf8w

King, A. J., Brophy, L. M., Fortune, T. L., & Byrne, L. (2020). Factors affecting mental health professionals’ sharing of their lived experience in the workplace: A scoping review. Psychiatric Services, 71(10), 1047–1064. https://doi.org/10/gk87w8

Lehavot, K., Barnett, J., & Powers, D. (2010). Psychotherapy, professional relationships, and ethical considerations in the MySpace generation. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 41, 160–166. https://doi.org/10/btg4mw

Longley, H. (2021). A psychotherapist’s experience of self-disclosure, when practising in the digital era: A heuristic self-study [PhD Thesis]. Auckland University of Technology.

Marino, C. “Khaki,” Child, B., & Campbell Krasinski, V. (2016). Sharing Experience Learned Firsthand (SELF): Self-disclosure of lived experience in mental health services and supports. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 39(2), 154–160. https://doi.org/10/f8rkjh

Moody, K. J., Pomerantz, A. M., Ro, E., & Segrist, D. J. (2021). “Me too, a long time ago”: Therapist self-disclosure of past or present psychological problems similar to those of the client. Practice Innovations. https://doi.org/10/gmvf8x

Moran, G. S., Russinova, Z., Gidugu, V., & Gagne, C. (2013). Challenges experienced by paid peer providers in mental health recovery: a qualitative study. Community Mental Health Journal, 49(3), 281-291.
Psychopathology Committee of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry. (2001). Reexamination of therapist self-disclosure. Psychiatric Services, 52(11), 1489–1493. https://doi.org/10/bnhpwc

Zur, O., Williams, M. H., Lehavot, K., & Knapp, S. (2009). Psychotherapist self-disclosure and transparency in the Internet age. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 40(1), 22. https://doi.org/10/bss28g

Zur, O. (2015). The Google factor: Psychotherapists’ intentional and unwitting self-disclosure on the net. Zur Institute. http://www.zurinstitute.com/onlinedisclosure.htm

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