Avoiding Professional Liability: Tips for Mental-Health Counselors
When people think of malpractice, they often think of botched surgeries or medication mix-ups, but all health professionals can be sued for malpractice, even those who work as counselors and therapists. If you have a job, even at an entry-level position, where you counsel a patient in a vulnerable state, you could be liable for damages if you overstep your professional bounds. You can reduce the chances of ever becoming involved in a lawsuit if you follow some general professional guidelines.
1. Stay current with local laws.
If you went to school in a different state or spent time as an intern in a different area of the country, take some time to get familiar with the current laws surrounding the professional licensing in your state. Who has to oversee your work? What type of education do you need? How often does your license need to be renewed? All of these are simple precautions that help you avoid sticky legal situations where clients discover you were working without the right credentials or overstepping the limits of your sphere of work. For example, if you work as an entry-level drug- and alcohol-recovery counselor, you probably are not yet able to prescribe any sort of individualized treatment plan without the agreement of a physician or psychiatrist, but the laws on what you can and cannot do within your job are defined by state.
2. Get signatures and agreements on plan outcomes.
When you meet with a new client for the first time, it's important that you establish a care plan right from the beginning. Learn your client's expectations. For instance, if you're working with a couple starting marriage counseling, learn what their end goal is for treatment. Counseling work often deals with emotionally charged individuals, and they can expect miracles you are not able to perform. Be careful not to promise specific treatment outcomes, and be straightforward with your clients that you will do your best to help them but that the ultimate result depends on the individual. Put plans in writing and have new patients sign an agreement showing they understand that specific outcomes may not occur.
3. Keep your life to yourself.
One way that counselors can easily overstep their boundaries is by oversharing experiences from their own lives. If you were sexually assaulted as a child, sharing the details with a patient is not within the realms of professionalism, and if the patient is negatively affected by this information, you can be liable for any damages. Keep a tight lid on experiences that may trigger strong mental reactions in patients. Focus on the needs of the client and only share stories that move the individual in a positive direction. For example, instead of sharing your experience with sexual assault, you could share a lesson that you have learned as you've gone through a hard time, and apply that lesson to the needs of the patient.
4. Stay in a professional space.
Counseling can be a mobile career. All you need is a place to meet and talk. Refrain from seeing clients in your own home, unless you have a home office with a specific entrance that is separate from the rest of the house. Never agree to speak with anyone in their homes. Meetings in personal spaces can be seen as more intimate in a civil court case, and they will not reflect well on your professionalism, especially if you face charges for sexual assault or intentional infliction of emotional distress. Don't agree to visit or meet with clients for experiences that are not work related.
Staying professional can be a challenge in an emotionally charged career like therapy and counseling. Consult a malpractice lawyer, such as one from Spesia & Ayers Attorneys At Law, for more information on how you can keep yourself legally clean to succeed as a therapist.