Category Archives: code of ethics

E is for Ethics (and also, a bit, for Exam)

So, I wrote in yesterday’s blog that I had taken and passed my licensure exam. The state licensing exam is also the exam used for those counselors who want to be recognized as Nationally Certified Counselors. It measures competence in several areas: Research, Theories, Assessment, Ethics, and a few other categories. Overall, I did okay on the exam. I didn’t ace it, but I  did far better than the minimum requirements for licensure. Also, I totally rocked the Ethics section.

I love Ethics. Ethics, like counselor self-care, permeate every aspect of counseling. Ethics play such a critical role in counseling that the ACA (American Counseling Association) has its own handbook on ethics. Every branch of health practitioner has a code of ethics by which its members choose to abide. Nurses have a code of ethics, as do doctors and nursing assistants and pharmacists. All health care professionals in Washington state have an ethical code, including chemical dependency professionals, massage therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, and so on. Strong ethics provide safeguards and protect clients at their most vulnerable: when they are sick and/or seeking help.

The ACA Code of Ethics covers everything from whether or not to accept a gift from a client (if it cost less than $20 and to not accept the gift would cause the client more harm)  to how and when to refer a client to a different therapist (when the therapist has to leave her practice or if a client is just not making progress after many sessions).

Abiding by an ethical code isn’t just good for our clients. Counselors risk losing their licenses and livelihoods if they don’t adhere to robust ethical standards. Holding firm boundaries keeps us out of trouble. I subscribe to a Dept. of Health newsletter that lists the practitioners who have run afoul of the ethics board. This list is a good reminder of the possible costs of boundary crossing, no matter how well-intentioned.

We have ethical codes governing the use of electronic devices such as smart phones, laptops, tablets (must have passcodes if client information is stored there) and software:  videoconferencing, electronic health records, email, text and voice messages, social media, and the like (ethics dictate don’t engage with clients as “friends” on social media, and we must only use text and email messages for scheduling. Personally, I’ve mostly gotten offline since becoming a counselor).

Last spring, I attended a day long workshop on the ethics of marijuana in counseling. The surprisingly diverse range of topics included whether or not a counselor or therapist could ethically accept weed as a form of payment from a client who might be strapped for cash but has a job at a pot farm and is thus awash in weed (in states where marijuana is legal, of course, and NO, NOT OKAY for many reasons, primarily because legally, in Washington at least, one can only possess a certain amount of weed at a time, and a therapist would cost more weed than she could legally possess). Also, whether or not a group of therapists and counselors could sit around a campfire, pass around a bong while discussing cases (a resounding NO, but not for obvious reasons. Turns out, sharing weed is illegal in Washington State. Even sharing a joint or giving a friend an edible is illegal). Violating these laws means losing ones license. This was one of the liveliest and most well-attended workshops I’ve been to since I got into this field. Everyone had so many questions.

We have ethics around multicultural counseling (ethical counselors have multicultural awareness training), staying within our scope of practice (only provide services you are trained in), and self-disclosure (does sharing personal information with the client, help the client? What is the point of sharing the personal stuff? Personal gain or therapeutic?)

Most importantly, ethical counselors and therapists do not engage in personal relationships, sexual or otherwise with clients. The ACA Code of Ethics states a counselor must wait five years after a client has discontinued treatment before becoming personally involved with that client. Washington State law says two years. A counselor must be able to relate to a client without the client having any worries whatsoever about the counselor’s motives. The counselor is there strictly for the client, not for themselves (except as related to salary or fees). Personal and intimate relationships with a mental health provider become problematic as boundaries get blurry. Counselors should always avoid dual relationships, i.e. providing counseling to your neighbor’s husband or to your child’s teacher.

The counseling office is a sacred space and a strong code of ethics maintains the integrity of that space. We are not there to befriend our clients, but to assist them in becoming better friends to themselves. We are there to hold up a mirror and to simply reflect.