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What is Counselor Confidentiality?

Malcolm Tatum
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Counselor confidentiality is a term used to describe the responsibility of a therapist or counselor to hold any proprietary or personal information supplied by a patient in the strictest of confidence. Breaking counselor confidentiality by revealing that information without the expressed permission of the patient is considered highly unethical. In many situations, there are also legal repercussions for counselors who choose to reveal information told in confidence, as well as the possibility of losing licenses and other credentials required to practice in particular jurisdictions.

Sometimes known as client-counselor privilege, counselor confidentiality is designed to allow patients the freedom to share information about themselves that is private in nature, but is important to the process of helping the individual overcome whatever emotional or other types of obstacles he or she currently faces. As part of the extension of privacy to patients, counselors also strive to remain objective and non-judgmental as they aid patients in sorting through a personal crisis and arriving at answers that are right for that individual. In some cases, the trust that is built by this promise of confidentiality allows the patient an outlet to discuss ideas and issues with the counselor that cannot currently be discussed with family and other loved ones.

Breaching counselor confidentiality can have a devastating effect on the well-being of a patient. Emotions such as anger, shame, remorse and fear may all come together in the reaction to news that the counselor has revealed information that was shared in private. The strong sense of betrayal may effectively derail any good that has come from the counseling or therapy up to that point, leaving the patient feeling isolated and afraid to expose their emotions and inner thoughts with anyone else.

Along with the potential to destroy the emotional well-being of the patient, a breach in counselor confidentiality can have serious consequences for everyone involved. The formerly private information may cause public embarrassment to the patient, leading to alienation from loved ones and possibly even the loss of a job or a place to live. For the counselor who broke the patient’s trust, censure from the counseling community is often common. Other patients who learn of the breach may withdraw from therapy altogether, or at least seek the services of a different therapist. There is also the possibility of legal redress by patients that could lead to the filing of civil suits that leave the counselor financially devastated.

The legal limitations on counselor confidentiality vary from one nation to another. Depending on the nature of laws that are in effect in a given jurisdiction, the counselor may be required to divulge certain types of information to legal authorities. For example, should a patient confess to committing a murder or some other type of highly serious crime, laws within a given jurisdiction may require that the counselor urge the patient to approach the authorities directly. Should the patient choose to not do so, the counselor may be required to supply authorities with all details in his or her possession.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including MyLawQuestions, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon980803 — On Dec 07, 2014

This happened to me this week. I was a custodian at my church. While working there, some things happened (money stolen from areas I had access to, wine bottles found hidden in places I had access to). I was accused of committing the infractions. I should mention now I see a counselor who has an office at our church and does it as a ministry.

I was called into a meeting with the executive minister and lead minister and they told me because of the infractions I was accused of they are letting me go (fired). Both ministers stated to me that they had spoken to the counselor about me and wanted to know from me what I was meeting with him for. They even asked if it concerned criminal activity. I was mortified. They went behind my back to meet with my counselor and try to glean info about me.

Now, two good things came of this. First, my counselor is awesome and shared nothing with them. Second, the person truly to blame for the stolen money and drinking was busted and eventually admitted to it. Whether I was to blame for those thing is neither here nor there. They attempted to gain info from my counselor, and even though he was rock solid, they may have planted some thoughts in his head with their questions and possibly damaged my relationship with the counselor. Is this considered a breach of confidentiality by the ministers? How should I handle something like this?

By RocketLanch8 — On Mar 28, 2014

@AnswerMan- I asked my own counselor about that kind of professional dilemma and he said he had never met a fellow counselor who had ever had to break privilege. He said if the client was suspected of committing a crime, the police usually had enough evidence to arrest him or her without interrogating his or her counselor. Another professional could testify about the suspect's mental condition or treatment regimen in court later.

By AnswerMan — On Mar 27, 2014

A lot of crime dramas on TV show detectives putting pressure on counselors to break counselor-client privilege. Their suspect may have revealed something incriminating during a counseling session and they want to know what it was. The counselors usually end up finding an ethical way to provide the information without actually breaking privilege.

I can only imagine how difficult it would be for real life counselors to maintain client-counselor privilege if the client alluded to committing a crime or having immoral impulses. The temptation would always be there to report these statements to legal authorities. I don't know if I could do it myself. I'd want to see a child rapist put behind bars, even if my job was to help him learn to control or understand his impulses.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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