In response to mass shootings and California’s recent wildfires, many therapists and counselors have sought to support impacted areas. One way they’re doing so is with free services. Marketing therapy after disasters can be difficult, though. Done well, it reinforces our roles as community caregivers. It shows off the best of who we are as professionals. With some common mistakes, it can instead come off as a tacky form of marketing, accidentally pushing people in need away from help. Here’s how to tastefully and effectively offer counseling and therapy services to those in need.
1. Donate services without strings attached
Not every therapist and counselor is in a position to offer free services to those in need. That’s okay. If you’re simply continuing with your regular marketing efforts, see these guidelines. They come from the hotel industry, but aside from numbers 1 and 5, they apply well to therapists too.
If you do wish to offer help, your offer should be a true donation. If it looks like a marketing effort, even the people who could truly benefit from your help will avoid it.
Of course, even those who do provide free help are not expected to do so forever. But in the interest of clarifying this, some therapists go too far in the opposite direction. Offers like “first three sessions free” make what may well be a genuinely charitable endeavor appear to be lead-generation. Just offer three free sessions. Leave out the “first.”
And if you’re willing to offer new clients who want to stay with you a discount after that, do it on a case by case basis. Don’t say “4 sessions free, then all sessions 50% off.” Same issue: It looks like you’re trying to build a client base, instead of just being there to help.
As some of you know, my family lives in an area that was particularly hard hit by the Woolsey fire. We were lucky; our family and our home are both safe. (Check out this story from our area.) The outpouring of support our neighborhood has received has been overwhelming. We’re grateful for all of those who have provided assistance to us and our neighbors over the past week. Thank you. If you’re wanting to donate to those impacted by the recent fires and are able to do so, please consider the charities listed here. – Ben
2. Remember that individual needs differ
Not everyone copes or grieves in the same way. In fact, forcing people into vulnerable conversations after a disaster can impair their healing. That’s part of why Critical Incident Stress Debriefing underperformed in studies so much that the protocol was changed to be voluntary.
Be cautious in announcements, articles, and other public statements about how you frame the community’s response. Try to avoid making assumptions about the experiences of those impacted. Phrases like “We know you need […]” can be replaced with phrases like “You may need” or even better, “You or your neighbors may need.” Be particularly careful when using “everyone,” “all those impacted,” and the like.
3. De-prioritize your name and branding
It’s great to have a well-established brand. But a disaster shouldn’t be the time to build that brand. When you’re announcing free services for those in need, the service is the headline. Not the person or company providing it. So say “Free support group for those [in a specific area, affected by a specific event, or both].” Don’t say “Happiness House Therapy is providing a free support group…” While this kind of mistake is usually unintentional, it makes it look like the announcement is partly to promote the agency. Of course, you need to include information somewhere about who is providing the service. People need to know where to go! Just don’t start with that.
If you’re in a for-profit setting, you can avoid these concerns altogether by volunteering services through an established charity. Organizations like the American Red Cross work specifically to coordinate therapists’ disaster response for maximum impact. Then, if possible, have the for-profit business donate money to the charity. People in need can obtain your services through the charity without concern that they’re working with a business that ultimately wants to sell them something.
4. Recognize the length of the impact
Therapists who respond to disasters by offering free services sometimes report surprise at how few people take them up on it. But this makes sense in context: Many people who have been through a significant event want to be with their families, so they can work to restore a sense of normalcy. The emotional weight of a trauma may not be deeply felt for weeks or even months. If you offer your help in the week after a tragedy and not after that, some of those who could truly use your assistance will not be able to get it (or may not be able to afford it).
This does not mean that you are obligated to extend any offers of free help. I only bring this up in hopes that, if you want to support an affected community, you can maximize the impact of the support you’re providing. The need persists long after many early offers of assistance have expired.