As licensed mental health practitioners, counselors are bound by a strict set of professional codes. State laws, along with the ethical guidelines of professional organizations, require professional counselors to act with their clients' best interests in mind. Since mental health counselors work with clients of all ages who are dealing with issues ranging from routine stress to debilitating mood and dissociative disorders, it is imperative that they understand the wide score of their ethical obligations and the professional liability issues that can arise from breaches in protocol.
Professional liability issues can arise from a number of ethical dilemmas. These ethical issues include confidentiality, record-keeping and dual relationships with clients. The American Counseling Association (ACA) also explains that mental health counselors are ethically bound to use only testing and therapeutic instruments in which they are trained and knowledgeable. Likewise, counselors must behave with sensitivity toward all races, cultures, genders and religious backgrounds. Breaching any one of these standards can open up a counselor to ethical or legal complaints.
Professional counselors may find themselves entangled in professional liability issues if a client completes suicide while under his therapist's care. Likewise, if a client physically harms another individual and her mental health counselor may have known about the risk but failed to report it to the appropriate authorities, the therapist may be legally and professionally liable. As such, counselors should learn about reporting resources in their state and have the contact information for law enforcement and child protection agencies on file.
To protect against malpractice suits, professional complaints and other professional liability issues, mental health counselors should read professional codes of ethics regularly and ensure that they understand their responsibilities and role. If counselors face ethical dilemmas or are unsure how to handle a difficult situation, they should seek the advice of their supervisor or the ACA Ethics Committee. Further, counselors should all carry professional liability/malpractice insurance to protect their interests in the event of a lawsuit or professional complaint.
Counselors who breach their professional duties or act negligently may face disciplinary actions ranging from censure to permanent loss of their counseling license. In particularly egregious cases, such as situations in which a mental health counselor physically harms or exploits a client, the therapist may also face legal consequences, including jail time or monetary fines.