Mentally Ill Clients and Your Safety

Don’t be fearful of working with customers who have mental health challenges. Be respectful yet alert, and do what you would do for any client: Calm them when the transaction becomes overwhelming.
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Real estate professionals serve clients from all walks of life, including those who may be going down a difficult road mentally and emotionally. Mental illness is a natural health issue, and you’ll likely work with customers who—by no fault of their own—act erratically or display troubling behaviors because of their conditions.

Such behaviors may make you feel unsafe and wary of continuing a professional relationship with a mentally afflicted client. First, never shame a customer or make any assumptions about his or her mental state. Second, dispel stereotypical notions you may have about mental illness, and treat the client with as much respect as you would any other.

Misconceptions About the Mentally Ill

Many people believe the mentally ill are more likely to commit violent crimes, a false impression that can exacerbate a sense of fear about working with such clients, says Paul Appelbaum, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York. Appelbaum cites statistics showing that fewer than 5% of violent crimes in the U.S. involve people with mental illness.

“Bad behavior doesn’t mean what people call ‘crazy,’” adds Rob MacDougall, director of emergency services at the Johnson County Mental Health Center in Mission, Kan. The practice of blaming violence and other crimes on mental illness is a false narrative, he says. “Evil is not a mental illness. It’s hard for laypeople to tell the difference.”

Symptoms of mental illness include irrational behavior, delusions, abrupt mood swings, and psychotic episodes. However, these can also be symptoms of substance abuse or medical issues such as diabetic shock or Huntington’s disease, which causes the nerves in the brain to break down.

If you feel you must know your client’s situation for your own sense of safety, let him or her get comfortable enough to bring it up in conversation. If the client doesn’t want to share, use your best judgment about his or her behavior and remain vigilant. Don’t reveal any attempts to distance yourself from the client, and don’t automatically end the working relationship if you suspect mental illness.

You should, however, give yourself permission to modify your interactions with the client if you feel your safety may be in jeopardy. MacDougall says that if a client’s behavior makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, you can seek a subtle safety net, such as asking a colleague, friend, or family member to accompany you when meeting with the client. If their behavior can be considered dangerous or threatening, you should call your local mental health crisis hotline to report the client. The experts can then assess the situation and contact the client’s family members or law enforcement officials to determine next steps. Due to HIPAA laws, they can’t share this information with you.

You Can Affect Positive Change

You should also know that serving clients with mental illnesses can make a positive difference in your community, says Tameka Bryant, SFR, AHWD, president of The Real Estate House in Lee’s Summit, Mo. “I work with these clients for a variety of reasons, but one of the largest is because the mental health community is underserved,” she says.

Bryant has a client who was referred to her by a local mental health facility. She takes such clients under her wing, helping them do more than navigate a real estate transaction. “I ensure that the client has been taking her meds accordingly, and I ask for a staff person [at the mental health facility] to attend all showings,” Bryant says.

Your client’s mental capacity can also be a concern when it comes to his or her ability to enter into legally binding sales contracts. Depending on the diagnosis and severity of the client’s condition, you may find it necessary for a third party to step in on the customer’s behalf. “I had to make sure the power of attorney document was verified and the caretaker could sign on the client’s behalf,” Bryant says. “Even though the client has a job and can function, I don’t take chances on the contracts needed.”

Nicholas A. Solis, ABR, CRS, founder and president of One80 Realty in Brentwood, Calif., says that during the national foreclosure crisis a decade ago, he dealt with many distressed clients who developed a mental illness through drug addiction. “I’m 6’2”, 230 pounds, but I can be vulnerable, too,” he says. “I still need to be alert if, for example, a drug addict jumped out of a closet with a needle. I would need to determine what I would do.”

Solis says he was once confronted by an intruder at a listed property and calmly asked the person how he could help. If a situation got contentious, he says, he would have no problem telling the intruder to leave and that he will call the police.

Sheryl English, SFR, a sales associate with eXp Realty in Dallas, learned that one of her sellers whose behavior alarmed her—one minute he was calm and coherent, and the next he would yell and behave erratically, she says—had some mental health challenges. With that information, she was able to plan a course of action to continue working with the client. “The buyer was a male and offered to step in and deal directly with the seller. [My client] responded better to him. I’m not sure if it was because he was a man. I only dealt with the client when the buyer was present. That’s what worked for me.”

English, who has been working in real estate for 30 years, says if a client confides in you that they have a mental health issue, you can work around it. “At the end of the day, if a client is qualified to purchase, they should not be penalized for something beyond their control,” she says. “They should be able to buy or sell a house. I draw the line only when there may be a life-threatening situation.”

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