Enhancing Therapeutic Effectiveness When Working with Vegan Clients

This article was published in The Greater Washington Society for Clinical Social Work, News & Views, September 2017

As clinicians, we see all kinds of people who present with a myriad of problems. Some of the presenting problems will be familiar to us, issues we have confronted in our own lives, but some issues will be new to us, and the question arises, how will we deal with these in a clinically effective way? This could include transgender issues, sexual orientation, or political beliefs or religious practices far removed from our own. Included in this category for most clinicians would be ethical veganism.

Ethical vegans see veganism as a moral baseline of nonviolence and nonuse for all beings, without restriction or caveat. Over the years, the word has also come to be used by people when they follow a plant-based diet, but do not adhere to the moral consideration of nonhuman animals. In this piece, I use the term vegan to connote someone with an ethical concern with our treatment of animals, human and nonhuman, and who has deep convictions that run counter to conventional thinking.

Being vegan is a profoundly different experience than not being vegan in our current non-vegan world. Often, vegans experience PTSD symptoms from bearing witness to our treatment of nonhuman animals. Where non-vegans see a bucket of chicken wings, vegans see images of tortured beings. Non-vegan friends talk about enjoying dairy ice cream, ethical vegans imagine the heartbreak of forced separation between mother and child and their violent deaths. Ethical vegans see the hypocrisy in a local Humane Society raising money for dogs and cats in their care by holding a barbecue.

The social work profession is concerned with treating all clients and their needs. The vegan population in the USA comprises 1.5 percent of adults aged 18 and older (3.7 million adults). This figure does not distinguish between those who see themselves as ethical vegans and those eating a plant-based diet. By comparison, there are 1.4 million Americans, around 0.6 percent of the U.S. population, who identify as transgender and yet there are many training programs to help therapists work with transgender clients. In my experience, there is a lack of trainings to help therapists work with the relatively larger potential population of vegan clients. The purpose of this article is to start to address this need.

We may want to ask ourselves the following:

• How do we face this moral difference in a way that keeps the therapeutic alliance safe?

• Can we be open to our own sensitivities and prejudices so that we can help the vegan client feel safe and understood?

By considering these questions, we can better manage our countertransference and talk with our clients about our interactions when we feel it would be therapeutic to do so.

I will briefly discuss three areas for non-vegan therapists to be tuned into when working with a vegan client:

• The therapist may have some office decorations or other products that are animal-based. The therapist’s office might have leather chairs or a leather couch. Maybe there is a hunting picture on the wall or milk chocolate candy in the waiting room. Perhaps the therapist just finished a hamburger before the session and the client smells the food in the room. Vegans perceive unfairness and violence in animalbased products.

• Another reason for a vegan client to not feel safe may be reactions on the part of the therapist. The therapist might become defensive because of what is called “do-gooder derogation,” the putting down of morally motivated others. Research by Julia Minson and Benoit Monin of non-vegetarians’ reactions to vegetarians indicates a “kneejerk defensive reaction to the threat of being morally judged and found wanting” (p. 205, Do-Gooder Derogation: Disparaging Morally Motivated Minorities to Defuse Anticipated Reproach). The therapist might also become defensive because he or she is uncomfortable with this topic of conversation. Perhaps the vegan client is heartbroken over our treatment of our fellow earthlings and is vividly describing the violence and torture to which she bears witness. Defensive reactions can be statements, non-verbal cues, steering the conversation away from a topic, or silence. Examples of statements from therapists that vegans in therapy have shared with me include: “That’s an extreme diet,” “By being vegan, you’re limiting the people you can date,” “Would you consider being a little less rigid with your veganism?” and “You’re being judgmental.” Vegans are likely to experience do-gooder derogation and other defensive reactions in their daily lives so it is especially important that therapists be aware of the possibility of this trigger reaction within themselves to prevent defensiveness from happening or to be able to process it if it does.

• An additional barrier for vegans to forge a safe relationship with non-vegan therapists is that vegans are profoundly aware of a point of disconnect. Non-vegans disconnect from the fact that by consuming or using animal products, whether for food, entertainment, clothing, etc., they are participating in what vegans see as the daily use, torture and killing of billions of nonhuman animals. By disconnecting from the violence in animal-based products, they cannot access the experience of what it is like to be vegan. As was told to me by a vegan who has been to non-vegan therapists: “In my experience, my therapists have been very careful not to offend too much. It is more that they really do not get what I am saying when I talk about the feelings caused by the constant and eternal holocaust. I can see that they do not get it. They just cannot comprehend the magnitude of it and its crushing weight. When they respond, I do not think that they really understand that what they are saying will not help.”

Even if a vegan client is not talking to a therapist about what it is like to be vegan in a not-yet-vegan world, e.g., the client is talking about their relationships or work stress, this aspect of their life is, almost assuredly, always with them. In either case, it is important for therapists to understand the barriers that could keep a client from feeling safe and understood so that these issues can be addressed in therapy. By doing so, the safety and connection between a non-vegan therapist and vegan client will increase and, therefore, improve the help the client receives.