Whether a licensed clinical counselor or merely a pastoral unlicensed counselor, there are expectations and standards expected from a counselor. One could be counseling as a licensed counselor or as certified Christian Counselor and find the same ethical pitfalls that may potential befall oneself with a client. In a previous blog, we discussed the importance of standards found within the ACA, AACC, or NASW, as examples of how to interact and work with a client as a professional within the field of counseling. In this discussion, we will review an important article from the APA that discusses how to best avoid potential ethical issues with clients.
We all wish to serve our clients with their best interest at heart. Christian Counselors take it another level with spiritual emphasis and Christian doctrine. They see their clients as spiritual children. Some pastors serve within a clergy-penitent model where they are not merely counseling, but are spiritual mentors and advisors. In these cases, where the ethical waters muddy, as to whether one is pastor or counselor, one must clearly delineate one’s role with the person and clearly define the lines of what type of counseling is occurring. As well as in other cases, when counselors work with state authorities or firms in relationship to working with individuals within their scope with those authorities or firms. One’s role, transparency, and matter of operation with mandates to report, will all fall into one’s role and status within the counseling relationship.
The article, “10 ways practitioners can avoid frequent ethical pitfalls” by Deborah Smith takes a very close look at 10 particular types of pitfalls a counselor can find oneself in with a client if not careful. Smith not only points out these pitfalls, but also directs counselors how to better avoid and protect oneself from them. She states,
“Talk to the ethics experts, and they’ll tell you the best defense against an ethical problems is a good offense. By looking out for foreseeable conflicts and discussing them frankly with colleagues and clients, practitioners can evade the misunderstandings, hurt feelings and sticky situations that lead to hearings before ethics boards, lawsuits, loss of license or professional membership, or even more dire consequences” (Smith, 2023,p 50).
She continues, “When psychologists do end up in ethical quandaries, it’s often because they unwittingly slid too far down a slippery slope–a result of ignorance about their ethical obligations or thinking they could handle a situation that spiraled out of control (Smith, 2023, p. 50)
To read the entire article, please access here
One problem Smith points out is multiple relationships with the client. Of course, relationships with any client are strictly forbidden, but sometimes other ties can emerge where the counselor and client interact whether at a social scene, or in business, especially in smaller towns. Smith points out that due to the counselor and client relationship, other interactions can be affected due to the counselors perceived sense of power over the client. Hence anything outside the counseling sphere should be in the very least brief and if necessary terminated. This can prevent potential harm or confusing situations that can possibly cause ethical questions or inquiries.
In addition, counselors should not take incoming patients that are family, friends, or associates. This prevents potential bias.
Another problem pointed out by Smith regards confidentiality issues. Since licensed counselors are mandatory reporters of any crime, it is important for counselors to let clients know the limits of confidentiality at the very beginning within the informed consent form, as well as throughout the session. If a client wishes to confess a secret, it may be best to again warn the client of the limitations of confidentiality. Even, pastors, while protected in most states more so than counselors, have an ethical dilemma as to whether report a crime, or reveal possible harm to the client or others. Unlike the Catholic or Orthodox priesthood, pastors are not held to the strict seal of the confessional, but they still have more flexibility to report things than a priest.
In such pastoral settings, this is where the pastor or priest guides the person to the proper conclusion of reporting oneself, or turning oneself in. In the case of a crime, a pastor can encourage oneself to report oneself to the authorities and accept the consequences as a price of their sin, or if the person is a victim of abuse, help the person find the safety from the authorities that is needed. While the issue of fidelity and trust is key, protecting the person and measuring trust versus harm is key. Again, simply by reminding one the limits of confidentiality is key throughout any session. It can show the veracity of oneself to the client but also the intent for the overall good of not only the client but others involved. In the more severe case of the priesthood, where counseling is not occurring but instead the Seal of Confession, the priest has the unique position to incur a penance that forces one to turn oneself in if one wishes to receive absolution and can also in the most indirect ways, without names, warn others of possible harm.
Whenever, crimes such as abuse either inflicted by the client or received by the client can create an uneasy balance between confidentiality and mandated reporting. Again, why it is important to remind individuals of the limitations of confidentiality.
In addition, Smith reminds counselors to store confidential records in the most secure locations, whether they are electronic or written and to fully understand the laws surrounding any possible surrender of these records regarding criminal or civil cases. Smith also encourages counselors to properly document everything. This means keeping good records and fulfilling all paper work regarding. This involves properly covering informed consent, patient history documents, dates of service and fees and any diagnostic impressions, relevant phone calls, or follow up efforts if a patient or client discontinues to attend sessions or accept calls.
Smith also discusses the importance of never taking on a client in a field that a counselor is not comfortable with in regards to practice or expertise. It is unethical to counsel someone in grief if a person does not possess the knowledge in grief to properly help. Hence, competence within the field requires the proper academic and professional training in that area to properly help the client. It is critical that certified non clinical counselors never treat patients with mental pathology or falsely misrepresent themselves as licensed counselors or attempt to counsel beyond their academic and legal abilities.
In addition, many professionals, who possess the proper degrees and licensures, also keep their competency through continuing education or certifications. AIHCP offers a wide variety of mental health certifications in Grief Counseling as well as Christian Counseling.
Another issue of competency would be the situation if a counselor or social worker aided in a case of child custody without enough knowledge about the legal system, court system, or the inner dynamics of the family. It is important for those who are called to counsel, or offer expert opinion to answer questions one is only competent in. The attempt to create a false image of genius when competency in the subject is not there is a huge pitfall.
For those with competency in the subject, avoiding bias is key in anything, especially in court cases. This involves a comprehensive understanding of all dynamics that is not based on third party assessments. Furthermore, any assessment needs to be completely thorough as well as based on scientific based methods. Also, it is important to discuss any limitations one may have when counseling or discussing a case in court. Transparency and honesty in any assessment is key.
Abandonment or Termination?
Finally, Smith points out that counselors need to understand the proper differences between abandonment and termination in practice. Abandonment is completely unethical and involves abruptly ending all treatment without prior notice. If a counselor for ethical purposes, or competency, feels he or she can no longer properly help the individual, this should be discussed in detail with the client. The client should also have input and the two should find common ground in when the last meeting will take place, including any needed follow up, as well as alternative sources for therapy with other more qualified professionals. It can also be beneficial to lay out terms of termination prior to counseling so the client understands whether treatment is short term or long term. This can lay groundwork for any possible issues or false expectations by the client.
Counseling is meant to cause no harm, but ethical situations can come into play that can potentially cause harm. By adhering to standards and following protocol, one can better protect oneself and also protect one’s client from unintended harm. Understanding the counseling system and its ethics and laws, can help the counselor better treat and counsel the client without causing any confusing situations or ethical dilemmas. It is key to know one’s counseling role and how one is operating as well. Is one counseling within a licensed clinical framework or pastoral sense? These are key questions and important issues to identify that play large roles in confidentiality and competency within their legal and academic abilities.
Please also review AIHCP’s Mental Health Certification Programs. The programs include topics such as grief counseling, anger management, crisis intervention, Christian or spiritual counseling, stress management, EFT, and Meditation. The programs are online and independent study and open to qualified professionals seeking a four year certification. Some professionals may be licensed while others may be looking into these fields as a non licensed professional but still possess the necessary academic or professional backgrounds.
Smith, D. (2003). “10 ways practitioners can avoid frequent ethical pitfalls”, Monitor on Psychology 34(1). Access here
“Counseling Ethics Code: 10 Common Ethical Issues & Studies” Smith, W. (2021). Positive Psychology. Access here
“Ethical Dilemmas in Counseling”. Nemko, M. (2019). Psychology Today. Access here
ACA Standards (2014). Access here
“Eye on Ethics”. Reamer, F. (2006). Social Work Today. Access here