Therapist-client privilege is a confidentiality agreement between a mental health professional and a client. The specific laws and guidelines regarding the boundaries of the agreement vary from region to region, and at best are somewhat murky. Therapist-client privilege is meant to give the patient some degree of security, so they will feel safe revealing intimate or personal details to their therapist.
Many places have strict rules governing the rights and responsibilities of health workers in terms of their patients’ privacy. These laws ensure that a patient’s personal data will be kept in strictest confidentiality, except in certain circumstances. The backbone of privilege laws is to encourage truthfulness in patients who may feel shamed or embarrassed when giving personal details. Clearly, the purpose of these laws is vital, as lies told to doctors or therapists can impede proper treatment.
There are boundaries to therapist-client privilege, specifically concerning evidence of illegal activity. Although the laws vary from place to place, most therapists are legally bound to report any information regarding certain acts, such as child abuse or suicide. Failure to report such information can lead to the loss of license to practice as well as possible criminal charges, so mental health professionals must be very aware of the particular laws in their area. Often, therapists will outline their legal responsibilities to their clients at their first meeting, so both parties are aware of the privacy strictures before treatment begins.
There are many things that are covered by therapist-client privilege, including some which may seem to be in a morally grey area. For instance, if a therapist has a client who carries on extra-marital affairs, this is information they generally must hold in confidence. If both parties in the marriage are clients of the therapist, an agreement may be reached at the beginning of treatment that allows the therapist to tell one spouse what the other has said, to avoid any conflict of interest.
Therapist-client privilege can be beneficial to both the client and the professional, but it remains a confusing issue in many circumstances. For instance, if a client has made a threat of violence, some counselors are forced to decide if the issue is serious enough to report to authorities. Where laws are murky, these decisions are often made on a case by case basis, and can be a great source of stress to both client and therapist.
For the most part, therapist-client privilege is a way to ensure the safety and privacy of a person seeking help. A great deal of trust is required for a therapist to be able to help clients, and the existence of laws and guidelines regarding privacy is vital to building and maintaining trusting relationships. While some therapist-client privilege laws are desperately in need of clarification, the system is considered helpful by many patients, therapists, and experts.