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.