Clients or Patients

Posted on January 24, 2013


When I talk with people about the work that I do, I am sometimes asked if those that I work with are “patients.”  For me they are not patients, but clients.  Once upon a time, the mental health profession looked at those we treated as patients.  This was consistent with the medical model that looked at treating diseases.  The idea was that the primary function of therapists was to treat mental illness.  Being a patient for a mental health practitioner was much like seeing a physician.  Something doesn’t feel well.  You tell the doctor what bothers you.  He or she makes a diagnosis and prescribes treatment.

Compare and contrast that with the concept of being a client that retains a professional with expertise in the area for which you would like help.  If you have a legal problem, you don’t have a disease, but you do want someone with an advanced degree in law assisting you (i.e. an attorney).  Further, you want someone who has seen and successfully helped with this type of problem before.  As the old adage (sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln) goes, “A man who represents himself has a fool for a client.”  It is worth it to have expert help.

Back before we all had computers in our homes, before there was turbo-tax, I used to prepare my own tax returns.  I held out doing my own for longer than I should have.  A CPA whom I knew to be very knowledgeable in tax was always very gracious about answering questions for me whenever I got stuck.  The process seemed to work well enough for a time (particularly being the frugal fellow that I am).  Then one year, I was getting bogged down and finally said, “enough of this.”  I hired that same CPA to prepare my returns.  In the course of preparing that year’s return, he also amended my previous year’s return and got me a refund of several thousand dollars.  His expertise was more than worth the cost of his services.  That was over 20 years ago; he is still my accountant.  It is good to be a client of someone who can really help you.

So what if the problem is with a relationship?  Wouldn’t you want some help from someone with expertise in that area?  You might say that a master’s in marital and family therapy is a graduate degree in relationships and how to help them.  Helping people improve their relationships is our area of expertise; it is what we do.  If a marriage is distressed, it is a painful situation with which to live.  Divorce is one of those stressful life experiences one can have.  And let’s face it; living with another human being is difficult.  There is a third alternative to staying in a distressed marriage or divorcing: make the current relationship better.  When marriage is emotionally safe and we feel secure, it is a wonderful buffer against all of the stresses of life.  When that relationship is in continual conflict, or worse, emotionally disconnected, it can feel unbearable.  Distressed couples are not diseased, they are stuck in patterns that are really failed attempts to have their needs met.  Life is short.  Be a client of a professional with expertise in helping couples make their relationships more satisfying.  It is totally worth it.