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The Importance of Confidentiality in Counseling

When a person decides to enter into therapy they are typically experiencing vulnerability in their life. As they are vulnerable, protecting their welfare becomes one of the highest priorities of a counselor. In order to protect the welfare of a client there are several things for a counselor to do or not do. A counselor should ensure the client is familiar with their rights as a client, as well as inform them of the reasonable expectations of therapy. A counselor should not share any personal or identifiable information about the client with anyone other than the client, unless the client has authorized them to do so. A counselor should also explain the legal obligations which they are under in regards to confidentiality, the court system, and people in the community who may be at risk from the client. Confidentiality is more than just keeping private information private, and it is very important to a healthy therapeutic relationship between a client and counselor. This essay will explore these ideas further.

Confidentiality does have limitations. It is important for a counselor to make this clear to their client before and during therapy sessions. The purpose of counseling is to find improvement in the life of a client. This often includes making life safer for them through learning healthy behaviors and thought processes. But the client isn’t the only one at risk, sometimes there are other people involved, either family or community members, who might be at risk by the actions of the client. If the client reveals an intention to harm someone, and the threat is credible and imminent, the counselor has a responsibility to warn those at risk. Explanations of the duty to warn should be clear and well defined and discussed before counseling begins. Without the expectation of confidentiality a client may be less likely to share information which is vital to their recovery. Difficulty arises if a client isn’t made aware that confidentiality must sometimes be broken to protect third party individuals, because if this occurs a client may lose the trust they had in their counselor.

A client is protected with confidentiality unless they authorize release of information or in some cases if a court requests it. This helps the client to be open with the counselor because they can feel secure that whatever they say won’t be made public. A counselor ought to make the client aware of the situations when a court can have access to records without client approval, such as if the counseling session was ordered by a court. The client must also be made aware that confidential privilege is held for conversation between the client and the counselor, not with anyone else who might be present or listening. If a family member or friend is present when the client says something, they cannot expect the counselor to be responsible for the confidentiality of what was said. This applies to issues of group or couples therapy sessions as well. Confidentiality exists between client and counselor, it can be hoped for with co-clients, but it is beyond the counselor’s control. This makes it important that a client is aware of these circumstances and understands how release of confidentiality works, giving the power to authorize a release to the client.

Regarding group or family therapy, confidentiality is limited because not everyone present is bound by the same terms as a counselor. A counselor is obligated to explain this to all who are participating and encourage a strict adherence to confidentiality by everyone present. The counselor still holds individual confidence with each person present and would not discuss one member of the group with another member of the group and reveal any confidential information to the other member. If the therapy session is for a couple and counseling sessions were taking place individually and together, the subjects discussed individually would not be discussed together without a release from each spouse. Counseling children is different. Parents may have a legal right to know what happens with their children in counseling. As a child gets older and becomes more mature there is less of an obligation to tell parents all that is discussed in counseling. When counseling children, confidentiality is very important for older children who are seeking increased autonomy. They need to be able to trust that their counselor won’t be a tattletale; however, they also need to understand the legal obligation a counselor has to discuss certain things with their parent or legal guardian.

Maintaining confidentiality is more than simply not mentioning the names of clients to outside parties. In order to protect a client’s privacy a counselor must monitor anything they say about a client so as not to give any easily identifiable information. This could include physical characteristics or the type of vehicle the client owns. The information doesn’t have to be something that came up in counseling, it could just be an obvious descriptive characteristic, but if it is mentioned in association with the status as a client it becomes relevant to the client’s privacy and needs to be left out of unauthorized conversation. It is easy to make associations between a person, a characteristic, and a location based on seemingly insignificant details.

Confidentiality in counseling is important because it provides a safe environment for a client to share their concerns and stretch themselves without fear of incurring harm. Many clients are in a vulnerable state and do not know what is expected of them in therapy, or what their rights are. It is important for a counselor to make these things known to the client, as well as explaining the legal obligations, rights, and responsibilities of the counselor. Developing a relationship where the client can trust the counselor with their confidences is a major step in recovery. Having clear rules of confidentiality will help to develop this type of relationship.