Staff editorial: Maintain University Counseling Center patient-counselor confidentiality

OUR VIEW: A policy allowing counselors to share information from confidential sessions with University administrators undermines the ability of the counseling center to effectively service students.

The University Counseling Center’s efforts to overcome a tumultuous two years – marked by multiple suicides and a perceived lack of efficacy in addressing student mental health issues – could all be undermined with a report of a proposed plan to erode the confidential nature of counselor-patient interaction.

In a report from the Inside Higher Education Web site, anonymous sources from the UCC said its director, Diane DePalma, has been told to work with a University lawyer to develop a protocol that would protect the liability of administrators in instances where those receiving counseling might harm themselves or others. The plan might include asking counseling center patients to sign a waiver allowing notes and information from counseling sessions to be shared with administrators.

A University spokesman noted in the article that “we periodically review protocols” and that “no changes have been made.” Even so, in the report the director of ethics at the American Psychological Association, Stephen Benke, called the protocols reportedly being considered at GW “immensely troubling.”

Consideration of a policy that would allow counselors to share information from confidential sessions with various University administrators undermines the ability of the counseling center to effectively service students. Benke noted that “When you remove confidentiality, you remove the ability for effective psychotherapy. Anything that threatens (the patient’s) ability in confidence, I would be greatly concerned about.”

The center has made some strides in response to the string of suicides over the past few years. An independent panel reviewed and recommended changes to the center’s operating procedures. More recently, the center obtained a large grant being used to better promote its services.

Though no decisions about a change in confidentiality policy have reportedly been made, a report that administrators are pursuing such a policy seriously undermines positive perceptions about the counseling center, and could potentially undermine all of the steps the center has taken to improve its efficacy and perception.

Most troubling is that if these reports are true, it seems that the University is taking the stance that protection of liability trumps the safety of students. It is understandable that the University’s first priority in most instances is to minimize liability in order to maintain a financially sound institution. In many cases, this stance is perfectly legitimate. In the case of the mental health of students, GW must place effective psychotherapy above a desire to protect itself from lawsuits.

Psychologists already operate under codes that allow them to break confidentiality in cases where a patient might harm themselves or others, but only to individuals who would provide immediate care or security to the patients. This exemption does not and should not include University administrators. Students grappling with psychological issues will not utilize the services of a counseling center that they perceive to be more interested in protecting the University than ensuring the confidentiality of their treatment.

If the University is seriously considering this plan, administrators must clearly articulate the methodology and reasoning behind such a drastic change in the treatment of patients. The onus is on the University to ensure that efforts to improve the University Counseling Center are not diminished by a policy that is inconsistent with the general practices of psychologists around the country.

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