The field of counselling and psychotherapy is driven by ethics which are essential for professionals to follow to create a safe and growth conducive environment. A client enters the therapeutic space, vulnerable and incongruent. This must be met with a trained professional who is authentic and congruent. While the vulnerability is a part of the growth process, it also leaves room for the individual to get manipulated. It is essential as a client that you are aware of the credentials and experience of the professional who you are looking to seek help from. Since India has no regulatory body for counsellors, try to verify the information of the individual you wish to work with. Here it is also good to remember that your counsellor/therapist is there to guide you and help you make decisions for your own self. It should sound as an alarm if they try to direct your decisions and make suggestions for what you ‘should’ be doing. Trust your instincts and gut when you believe a therapist may not have your best interest in their heart.
Here are some ways you can assess if your therapist is right for you and ethical in their practice:
Boundaries are crucial in any relationship, especially in a therapeutic setting. The counsellor must model good boundaries in front of the client. Whether the counsellor should accept gifts, event invitations or allow the client to email in between the sessions is their ethical decision. This may vary with the time, comfort and therapy progress of the client as well. However, it is necessary to have some rules for the therapeutic relationship.
If your therapist is calling themselves your friend or adding you on Facebook, this may develop a dual relationship. A dual or multiple relationships means the therapist and client have another relationship different than a solely therapeutic one. This may be the case when the client is a student, a family member, friend or employee. Dual relationships are a red flag as they reduce the possibility of clear boundaries and increase the biases of the counsellor. This may give birth to a conflict of interest and potential exploitation.
Besides, suppose your therapist is intruding in your personal space and liking your pictures on Instagram or commenting on other social media platforms and approaching you in public places. In that case, this may indicate poor boundaries from the side of the therapist.
It is also vital that the therapist does not have any intimate relationship with the client’s family members. They should also not provide therapy to the members of the family unless the client has given consent for it or it is a family systems therapy.
Under no circumstance should the therapist have a sexual relationship with the client as it is highly unethical. Remember, your therapist is supposed to make you feel safe and cared for not exploited.
This is the foundation of a trusting relationship. If your therapist is breaking confidentiality, this should be a deal-breaker for you. A good therapist will discuss the situations where there will be a breach of confidentiality, which is broadly when the client is in danger of harm. The parameters of confidentiality may differ, but this is the responsibility of the therapist to impart. If the therapist is discussing your profile in an identifiable manner, consider it an act of breaching confidentiality. A therapist leaving their notes or records in an open place where they can be accessed by other people can be seen as a red flag as well. Another essential thing to flag can be discussing clients with family members, friends or even other clients.
Understand if your therapist is lax about other client’s confidentiality, then they might not respect yours too.
Other points to keep in mind:
Suppose the therapist keeps talking about themselves and continues long monologues which are not relevant to the client. In that case, this may not a good sign for you. How much a therapist talks during a session may differ according to their approach. However, if they interrupt you or are not able to sit through long pauses or silences, they may hinder the progress.
During the session, if the therapist shares too many personal details about themselves, you need to remember the session is for you and convey the same to them.
The therapist shouldn’t show, feel or reciprocate any romantic or sexual feelings towards you. If these persist, the therapist may not be a fit for you.
It might be better for you to change therapists if your therapist is discriminating against you or offending you based on your values, desires, gender or religion.
Your therapist may also not be the best choice if they cannot accept constructive criticism, re-evaluate the therapy process or work collaboratively with you to define reasonable goals.
Suppose you see the therapist getting upset or distressed by the information shared by you. In that case, they may need some personal work, and it would be good to find a therapist who has resolved their own issues first.
You should flag it when the therapist ignores you and seems distracted in most of the sessions.
Leave the therapist if they shame, and victim blame you for the trauma you experienced.
It is advised to not touch clients for any purpose. However, this boundary may be explored with the client. In cases where the therapist touches you frequently or inappropriately, they are definitely crossing boundaries. They should also not be interested in your physical appearance and sex or dating life beyond the primary concern.
There are many unethical counselling practices, an example of one such practice is a famous South Korean counselling TV show called ‘Hello Counselor’, It encourages people to come on the show to talk about their problems. Several people narrate stories about their lives which may have been burdensome to them. The audience, as well as the host vote on the most troublesome story and the winner, gets a cash prize. Citizens with issues like alcohol addiction, plastic surgery addiction or even rape have been invited to the TV show. No host on the show is a trained mental health professional who often opens up issues or wounds without any awareness of the consequences. Such a situation may leave the individual more vulnerable, traumatized and re-victimized. Beware of participating in such practices which are likely to cause more harm than good for you. Similarly, find a therapist who works on ethical grounds and proves to be the best match for you. The core values of a therapist like being genuine and empathetic are as important as their competence, so trust your instincts to choose one who feels the safest for you.
Bi, J. (2017). Re-evaluating Mental Health: South Korea’s Famous Counseling Television Show | Students in Mental Health Research. https://www.hcs.harvard.edu/~hcht/blog/mental-health-and-media
Pollock, K. (2017). Therapeutic abuse and red flags. https://counsellinginnorthumberland.com/2017/06/26/theraputic-abuse-and-red-flags/
Psychology Today (n.d.). Boundaries and Red Flags in Therapy. Retrieved December 7, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/therapy/boundaries-and-red-flags-in-therapy