How can you balance ethical and legal responsibilities in mental health counselling?

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Everyone knows how important the law is for keeping us safe and protecting individuals, communities, and society. Although it may be something people interact with personally daily, the law is also something all industries are governed by. This is in terms of general rules within business (such as employment law) and more specific regulations that may apply to certain sectors.

A good example of a sector that is highly regulated is counseling. Within this, the niche of mental health counseling is bound by strict guidelines on what professionals can do and how they deal with information that clients divulge. While this sounds fairly straightforward, mental health counselors also have ethical obligations to clients which are important to fulfill.

Therefore, Counselors in this niche must effectively juggle their legal and ethical responsibilities to succeed. But how can people moving into this sector learn more about this and how to balance these dual obligations?

Education is important for mental health counselors

As with many positions in the healthcare industry, getting the right training is key for those looking to move into mental health counseling. This is because it gives you the right qualifications to apply for jobs in this field and teaches you all you need to know to follow it as a career.

The online master’s in mental health counseling from St. Bonaventure University is ideal for those seeking this healthcare role. Suitable for those new to the field or already working in the sector, it teaches you all you need to know to thrive in your career and comes with all the flexibility that online courses are known for.

Ethical and legal responsibilities are two things courses on mental health counseling usually touch on. This is because learning about ethical behavior as a counselor and the legal obligations you work under is essential.

But what are the ethical and legal responsibilities in this type of job?

What are ethical responsibilities in mental health counseling?

Although you may know a little about them already, digging deeper into what ethics relate to and what they mean is still worthwhile. Ethics are standards that govern our behavior in both a personal and professional sense. They help us treat others fairly, do the right thing, and behave honestly. This makes ethics a key part of life and especially critical in industries such as mental health counseling.

As a result, people who work in this industry must always keep their ethical responsibilities in mind. This can include a wide range of duties, such as:

  • Treating clients with dignity and respect
  • Preserving client confidentiality
  • Striving always to do the right thing
  • Aiming to do what is best for the client
  • Obtaining informed consent from the client before entering a counseling relationship
  • Protecting the client’s right to self-determination
  • Treating colleagues with respect
  • Never discriminating against people based on their background, values, gender, color, or creed.

Although the above is not an exhaustive list of all the various ethical responsibilities a mental health counselor may encounter, they are some of the most common.

What are the legal responsibilities of mental health counseling?

Criminal law in the USA is a key part of the legal system and something mental health counselors should know about their profession. Legal responsibilities often seem the same as ethical ones, but this is not always true. While ethics deal with human rights or wrongs, legal obligations only concern what is written into law.

The most common legal responsibilities a counselor in mental health may face include the following:

As the above shows, there are some instances when a client will tell counselors something that they are legally required to act on.

Legal and ethical responsibilities can often conflict

When you look at legal and moral obligations in mental health counseling, they can look cut and dried. It is not always as simple as that for professionals in this sector. Why is this the case?

It can often come down to the nature of counseling as a job – what it entails and how the law interacts. Providing mental health assistance to a client is a very personal, human endeavor and one which is based on ethical standards of behavior. This is not a surprise when you consider the basis of a client-counselor relationship is built on human qualities such as trust.

However, the law is logical, straightforward, and based on strict rules that must be followed. This means there is no room in legal terms for making judgment calls based on ethics. It is simply a case of doing what the law says and fulfilling your legal responsibilities as a mental health professional.

As you can imagine, these two things can sometimes clash and not lead to the same outcome. A classic example is a minor informing their counselor of abuse at home but asking for it to be kept confidential. Although the ethics of client confidentiality may agree, your legal responsibilities to report it would not.

Why is balancing legal and ethical responsibilities as a mental health counselor important?

Balancing legal and ethical obligations is important for a few very good reasons. Firstly, it means that counselors stay within the law and do not leave themselves open to legal difficulties. In addition, balancing the two out ensures that mental health professionals act in a fair, just way and always feel like they are doing their best in any situation.

B blending ethics with the law is also better for clients with whom counselors in this fieldwork. By keeping one eye on their legal responsibilities, for example, people in these jobs ensure the best outcome for clients who may be dangerous to themselves or others.

Balancing this with ethics means mental health counselors treat clients respectfully, maintain confidentiality, and do not discriminate against people. Ethical behavior is also key for building trust with clients, which can help counselors be more effective.

How do mental health counselors balance their legal and ethical responsibilities?

If you plan to move into this career, knowing why you should balance out your responsibilities in these key areas is only half the battle; finding the best ways to do it is crucial. This makes it easier to achieve and gives you some interesting ideas about becoming more effective on a professional level.

But what are some of the best tips to take on board?

Know state, federal, and local laws.

This is a no-brainer and a very important piece of advice to remember. Although ethical behavior is important, your legal responsibilities should always be adhered to. This will ensure you and your employer avoid any legal difficulties in the future.

This is only possible if you know the law and your legal responsibilities. By knowing what you must do under the law or what you can make a professional judgment on, you can operate from a position of informed knowledge. It also gives you the confidence to decide on the best course of action based on whether this is in your remit or outside of your control in a legal sense.

Always follow the laws governing mental health counseling

Following the law is essential in what you must do and can also be seen as ethical in many cases. Most counselors, for example, would agree that speaking to the police is legal and moral if a client tells them he plans to murder his father the next day.

Although ethics and Legality do not always line up, instances like this show it can happen, making the decision much easier for mental health professionals. Regardless of convenience, however, the law must be followed.

If you struggle to balance what is legally required with your moral code, it can often be useful to remember that laws are there to protect counselors/clients/the public – even if you do not agree with them.

Speak with colleagues for advice.

In balancing ethical responsibilities with legal ones as a mental health worker, you may sometimes find yourself in a real dilemma. You may be helping a child who has run away from home due to constant arguments between parents and does not want to live with them anymore. Your legal responsibility may be to inform the authorities of their whereabouts, but this may mean the family collects the child they do not want to live with.

In this kind of situation, balancing out what is ethical to do (not send the child back to a home they do not way to be in) may be hard to reconcile with your legal obligations (letting the authorities/parents know where they are as there is no actual danger to the child from returning home).

It can often help to speak with more experienced colleagues in instances like this and seek their advice. They will have plenty of experience in juggling these two areas and will be able to give a new perspective on how to proceed.

Advocate for change if a law is not ethical.

As we have noted above, mental health counselors ultimately have to follow the law and adhere to the regulations they work under. This is not easy if what you are legally required to do does not tie in with your ethical views. If a law, for example, stated all sessions had to be recorded and passed to the FBI, counselors would feel unhappy about being made to do this on ethical grounds.

One way to balance this is to advocate for changes in laws that you feel are ethically wrong. Doing this will bring attention to this and hopefully get them amended. This would then bring about a fairer system and avoid your having to follow the law you felt was ethically unsound.

Combine both to benefit clients.

Working in mental health counseling focuses on doing the best for your clients and ensuring you deliver the most effective assistance possible. A good tip on how to do this in practice is to always keep legal and ethical responsibilities in mind.

Both of these things are important to offer the best help to clients and ensure you work to your maximum capabilities. Keeping ethics in mind helps you treat people with respect and do what is right for your client, while legal obligations help protect them, yourself, and the public when required. Combining both in your role will help you use them to their maximum effect and blend them seamlessly.

Ethics and Legality in mental health counseling

As the above shows, mental health counselors must find a way to balance ethical responsibilities with legal ones. This means they provide the best support to clients and build a much better relationship with them. It also means that mental health workers stay within the law and adhere to their legal obligations. By combining all this, they offer the best service to clients and feel satisfied that they always act most appropriately.

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