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The Importance of Professional Ethics in Mental Health Counseling

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Professional ethics are essential in any industry. No matter what your role or responsibilities are in a workplace, ethics help ensure the integrity of any operation and provide a roadmap for how to navigate difficult situations. However, all industries are different, and ethical challenges vary as well.

In the case of mental health counseling, a solid ethical baseline is critical. Patients trust counselors with a great deal of vulnerability, and the patient-counselor relationships requires a strong foundation of trust. Mental health counselors will face unpredictable situations with patients. Guiding principles help counselors better understand and navigate difficulties.

Ethics and its application are instrumental to the Master of Science in Education – Counseling, Clinical Mental Health Track online program at the University of Wisconsin-Superior (UW-Superior). The program emphasizes three major areas of counseling: helping clients work through and prevent personal and interpersonal issues, fostering optimal human development and remediating social-emotional-developmental concerns.

The online degree program features an Ethics in Professional Counseling course that emphasizes the application of the fundamentals of the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics. The ACA guidelines offer direction for mental health professionals in the United States. As the ACA document demonstrates, professional ethics for mental health counselors is not strictly about right and wrong but about honoring the mission of counseling and applying equitable principles to all patients in any situation.

Here are some different ways in which ethics come into play for mental health counselors.

Foundational Principles

The ACA Code of Ethics outlines six guiding principles that form the basis of its ethical approach. They are:

  1. fostering the right to control the direction of one’s life
  2. avoiding actions that cause harm
  3. working for the good of the individual and society by promoting mental health and well-being
  4. treating individuals equitably and fostering fairness and equality
  5. honoring commitments and keeping promises, including fulfilling one’s responsibilities of trust in professional relationships
  6. dealing truthfully with individuals with whom counselors come into professional contact

These principles prioritize the well-being and best interests of clients, no matter the context. This directive is easier to understand in practice than in theory — although there is not always an easy or “correct” answer.

A 2022 blog post from Positive Psychology outlines a few case studies that highlight the ethical quandaries faced by therapists and how they relate to these principles. For instance, for autonomy, the post notes, “A counselor has been seeing their client for several months to work through substance use issues. A good rapport has been formed, but the client has not complied with meeting goals set during therapy and has not reduced their substance use.”

The counselor contacts a colleague who specializes in clients that are not engaging with their therapy, but when they tell their client, the client “is upset and does not wish to be seen by the colleague.” The counselor insists that it’s a necessary part of the client’s therapy. How should client autonomy apply to this situation?

As the ACA suggests: ​​”You can simply ask yourself, ‘Is this decision supported by these principles without contradiction?’ If so, the decision is ethically sound. If not, there may be a potential ethical issue that warrants closer examination.”

Cultural Competence

Counselors will encounter clients from cultures different from their own, and respecting those differences is critical. Just as clients bring their own influences and approaches to the table, so do counselors, and they should be careful to recognize any potential biases. The ability to listen, adapt and understand what clients of all identities experience is critical.

Patient Boundaries

Keeping the counselor-patient relationship strictly professional is necessary to maintaining an effective and fair therapy dynamic. However, situations can arise that challenge those boundaries. It could be something as simple as finding out that a therapist and counselor have overlapping social circles, or something as serious as a mutual romantic connection. The code of ethics gives counselors a standard by which to judge all professional relationships, as well as a roadmap for how to navigate them.

Group Therapy

With more than a single patient in the room, counselors must be vigilant not only about the privacy of different patients but also about how one participant’s behavior could potentially be detrimental for another. As a result, counselors must be more active moderators and continuously weigh the needs of the individuals against the benefits for the group.

Learn more about the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s online Master of Science in Education – Counseling, Clinical Mental Health Track program.

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