The conduct of psychologists practicing in Australia is guided by the Australian Psychological Society Code of Ethics. The code provides and articulates the ethical principles and sets the standards that should be observed by psychologists as well as members of the public under what is considered to be ethical professional conduct. The code is founded on three ethical principles of; respect to the rights of people and peoples, integrity, and propriety (APS, 2007). The principle for respect for the rights of people and peoples carried within itself the principles of integrity and respect as to require respect to the rights of people which includes the right to justice and autonomy. This paper therefore will address the issues of autonomy and privacy based on the guidelines provided by the Australian Psychological Society guidelines. This will be done through application of the guidelines on the provided case study.
Ethical issues that apply
Confidentiality and its importance in psychological practice and not be overemphasized (McMahon & Knowles, 1995). Despite the easy availability of guidance and support for confidentiality, ethical dilemmas concerning confidentiality do often arise in the profession. In the provided case scenario, there are dilemmas that arise concerning confidentiality, either directly or indirectly. First, the professional relationship that exists between the psychologist and the client is clearly structured as well as how information should be shared and the psychologist can’t promise a minor that information will be withheld from a parent or guardian who has legal custody (McMahon, 2006; Standard A.3.3). Therefore a parent with the legal right to access treatment content may choose to exercise the right however how this might be counterproductive to the counseling process.
Secondly, the psychologists has the prerogative to make clinical judgment on to what extent a minor’s privacy should be maintained based on its criticality to the treatment being offered (Carroll & Shaw, 2012). If for example, the minor has conflicting wishes about maintaining the privacy of information, then the psychologist can conclude that the minors wish as not to have information shared is an appropriate separation therefore it should be honored or conclude that sharing the information would be positive for the counseling program. If the psychologist shares the information, then under ethical standards (Standard A.5.2) the psychologist has the permission to.
The third ethical issues that arises from the case scenario is the feeling of betray by the client incase information is shared to the parent without his consent. According to McMahon (2006), there are a few things that have the potential to disrupt the relationship between a psychologists and an adolescent client like sharing of information without the consent of the client. The primary element that is affected by such is client’s trust in the psychologist and even though the psychologists might be legally right to share such information, it is up to the psychologist to accord the client the appropriate privilege.
The fourth ethical issue arises in relation to the requirement for a psychologist to disclose information that posses a serious threat of harm (Standard A.5.2). This pertains to harm of the client for example in the case of abuse or neglect which according to Pope & Vasquez (2007) lies under the mandatory reporting laws. Nevertheless, the extent to which the psychologists explains limitations and foreseeable uses of the treatment content (Standard A.5.3) depends according to McMahon (2006) depends on the age and maturity of the client in the case of minors. For adolescents, the psychologist is required to regularly inform the client that any serious threats to self or others won’t be kept confidential.
Obligations as a psychologist
The primary ethical issue in the case scenario is the request by the client’s mother to know the content of the treatment while on the other hand the client does not wish such information to be revealed to the mother. The client is only 12 years old and therefore considered a minor under the ethical code of conduct. His mother, who is the legal guardian therefore, has the right to access and be informed on the treatment content under Standard A.5.2. However, by providing the client’s mother with the counseling information, the psychologists might lose the client due to disruption of the relationship between the two. This according to McMahon (2006) happens as a result of lose of trust in the psychologists by the client as a result of what is considered as betrayal by the client.
According to the client’s mother, she has a right to know the content of the treatment because she is paying for it. As per the code (Standard A.5.2 (a)), the mother being the client’s guardian has legal authority to consent on behalf of the client (who is considered a minor) for the initialization of the program and enquire at any given time the content of the treatment. The mother’s argument that she has a right to know the content of treatment because she is the one paying for it is baseless and doesn’t qualify her to access the treatment content as per the code. However, by the fact that she has legal authority over the adolescent client, she has a legal right to access the content of treatment and this right stands even if she is not paying for the treatment.
To accommodate both the mother and the client for the sake of continuing the counseling program to a successful termination, the psychologist has the obligation to provide the mother with the counseling content, but as advised by McMahon (2006), she has to do so in the presence of the client. In addition, before the sharing with the client’s mother, the psychologists can share with the client on sharing the treatment content with the mother, and during the sharing session, as the client to lead. Sharing with the client the information to be shared is purely a privilege the psychologist gives the adolescent client as it is not provided for in the code.
Give the client is experimenting with illegal substances that may pose a risk to self, and then the psychology has an obligation to share such information with the mother as well as other professional for example, rehabilitation professionals. However, as if the drug abuse problem doesn’t require rehabilitation professionals for the client to stop, the it is not necessary to tell this part of the treatment to the mother as the psychologist has the right to disclose on what is relevant to the person they are sharing with (Standard A.5.4). If the drug abuse issue has to be shared with the client’s mother, then the psychologists can ask the client to do it personally in the presence of the psychologists or follow up with a call.
Given the code requires that the client or the person who has legal authority to make informed consent to the treatment, which is with full knowledge of the privacy and confidentiality clause (Standard A.3) and the provision that are attached on sharing information with third parties, then it is expected that, the adolescent client should not be adamant to agree to it. To bring an adolescent client to accept the sharing of information at any given time in the counseling program, Pope & Vasquez (2007) recommend that it is logical to regularly tell the adolescent in time if possible, when and what information is to be shared.
According to Davidson (1995) many of the activities that adolescent person engage in do not rise to the level of reportable behavior many because they do not pose any harm to self or any other person. Nevertheless, some of these are on the edge and therefore they require the psychologists to make a judgment call. In the provided case, the issue that can be considered to be on the edge is the client’s hatred for his mother’s boyfriend. Given the program is meant to enhance the client manage his anger, then such would be a cause for anger and therefore, the psychologist has to make a judgment on its relevancy to effective treatment. Given this issue is critical for the client’s anger management and it affects the mother too, then the psychologists has an obligation to share this with the mother. However, the best method would be to ask the client to share such information with the mother and the psychologists follow up with a call. The intent of sharing is to work out a suitable solution for both the mother and the son.
Recommended action for the psychologist
The psychologist is obligated by the code to share the content of the treatment with the client’s mother. Being the legal authority and guardian for the client, she has a right to access the treatment content whenever regardless of whether such action threatens the relation between the psychologist and the client or the success of the treatment program. Nevertheless, the psychologist has a legal right to choose on what to share or not. This is based on the psychologists judgment call on the relevancy of the content to the third party with whom the information is being shared. To ensure that sharing this information doesn’t jeopardize the relationship between the client and the psychologist; first, it is the duty of the psychologists to inform the client on the privacy and confidentiality standard of the code and repeat this often and second, the psychologists should inform the client beforehand, if possible, and even have the client present in the sharing session or have the client share the information in the sharing meeting. Finally, the psychologist has the right to withhold sharing the information to a legal authority, the mother, if she feels that sharing would harm the client or jeopardize the treatment. However, if such is the case, the psychologist should seek legal counsel as this may be supported legally as well as consult with colleagues.
- Australian Psychological Society (APS). (2007). Code of ethics. Melbourne, Vic: Author.
- Carroll, M. & Shaw, E. (2012). Ethical maturity in the helping professions: Making difficult life and work decisions. Melbourne: Psychoz.
- Davidson, G. R. (1995). The ethics of confidentiality: Introduction. Australian Psychologist, 30, 153-157.
- McMahon, M. (2006). Confidentiality, privacy and privilege: Protecting and disclosing information about clients.
- McMahon, M., & Knowles, A. D. (1995). Confidentiality in psychological practice: A decrepit concept? Australian Psychologist, 30, 164-168.
- Pope, K.S. & Vasquez, M.J.T. (2007). Ethics in counselling and psychotherapy (3rd Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.