Privacy and Implications for the Field of Counseling Psychology

Dictionary definition of the word privacy.

In June, it was impossible to read a newspaper or watch the news without hearing about the NSA/Edward Snowden controversy. While this latest challenge to privacy sounds like a repeat of the privacy scandal that surfaced just a few years ago, we can’t ignore some of the ramifications this has for practitioners in the field of Counseling Psychology. In this short piece, we explore the implications of the Snowden incident in relation to personal privacy and the professionals in the human services field.

Privacy and the Self:

We should first examine why someone’s privacy (and its compromise) is much bigger than having a paranoid feeling that the government is gathering information about your private life. According to past and present theories, privacy serves several purposes including our need to create space for ourselves and maintain relationships with others. In his 1967 work Privacy and Freedom, Alan F. Westin expanded the definition of privacy by describing it as “…a two-tier definition… combining personal and social dimensions and consisting of four states (anonymity, reserve, solitude, and intimacy) plus four functions of privacy (personal autonomy, emotional release, self-evaluation, and limited and confidential communication).” (McDougall, 2005, para. 25)

Privacy is a concept that our society has been attempting to define long before this current social landscape. These aspects of privacy also straddle Maslow’s hierarchy of needs between the levels of safety and love/belonging. As human beings, we like some level of privacy to create a sense of safety and form/maintain human relationships and trust.

Privacy, the Social Climate, and the Implications for the Field of Therapy:

When is the breach of individual privacy and confidentiality acceptable? Those who work in the field of human services regularly navigate the ethical nuances of privacy, confidentiality, and legality. Some of these situations involve child abuse, clients seeking treatment for substance abuse, and a whole host of other areas. The American Counseling Association outlines the various professional ethical codes in relation to the client, privacy, and confidentiality. The information that is shared with a counseling professional is confidential except under circumstances in which the keeping of certain information confidential is considered to pose a danger to the client or another party. In situations in which a counselor is summoned by the court, counselors will “…obtain written, informed consent from the client or take steps to prohibit the disclosure or have it limited as narrowly as possible due to potential harm to the client or counseling relationship.” (ACA Code of Ethics, 2005, Section B: Confidentiality, Privileged, Communication, and Privacy) For example, if a counselor receives a subpoena in a criminal case involving one of their clients, this may require the counselor to release all of their client notes to the court. Thus, for those working in human services, maintaining individual client privacy and adhering to professional ethics within the context of legal obligation requires ongoing reflection.

In the situation with Edward Snowden and the government’s access to the personal data of each American citizen, one of the arguments is that the privacy of the individual must be compromised in exchange for the safety of the overall group. In many ways as briefly outlined above, counselors, social workers, and other similar human service employees may be challenged to make decisions between maintaining confidentiality and individual privacy or violating it for the greater good. This raises the question of defining “the greater good.” For instance, consider these scenarios:

  • Employer incentive-based wellness programs. These programs are based upon the goal of a healthier workforce or lower insurance costs if employees are encouraged to make better lifestyle choices through various rewards. However, when does the well-intentioned wellness program infringe upon the individual’s right to personal choice? For example, mandatory gym memberships enforced by the employer override the rights of the individual in exchange for the overall good of contributing to a healthier, physically fit society.
  • An individual who may be under distress or suffering from depression discloses their violent fantasies to their counselor. At what point does venting or therapeutic disclosing become a real threat or danger to the client or other people?

The distinction between what is good or safe for the individual versus a group or society is not always clear. These moral dilemmas are especially present in public health, public office, psychology, criminal justice, or other related professional fields of work.

However, in this current social climate, one does not have to necessarily be in the field of counseling psychology to be affected by issues of privacy. We are all constantly grappling with what individual privacy means now versus what it meant when it was theorized in the American Bill of Rights. With the progression of technology in regard to social media—Skype, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace—the distinction between public and private has become indistinguishable in some instances. We will most likely revisit this issue given the increased use of electronic medical records. While it offers convenience and the ability to provide timely treatment to the patient, what is being compromised in regard to individual privacy or HIPAA? In addition to healthcare providers, many individuals working in other capacities within human services will have to re-evaluate what it means to be of service while navigating these ethical considerations.  As the concept of privacy continues to expand and change, those of us engaged in the field of psychology will continue to contribute to this important dialogue while navigating its impact on our work.

Dr. Gerald Fishman is the associate dean of Union’s Master of Arts with a Concentration in Counseling Psychology program. He is an NYS Licensed Psychologist and Certified School Psychologist with additional post-doctoral training in public health, chemical dependency, and specific therapy areas. Dr. Fishman has worked with clients across the developmental spectrum in mental health, chemical dependency, school, and private practice settings for over 25 years, and has taught at both graduate and undergraduate levels. Dr. Fishman has developed and directed adolescent chemical dependency and adult outpatient co-occurring disorder programs in both upstate and metropolitan New York areas, and is the co-founder of the Human Services Consultation and Training Institute, offering statewide and national professional training in specific clinical, chemical dependency, behavioral health, school psychology, and education areas.

Shanta Crowley is a multi-faceted professional with experience in management, consulting, event planning, visioning, strategy, and workshop creation and implementation. She has managed social-marketing campaigns, press conferences, city-wide health initiatives, and academic mentoring programs. Shanta is passionate about the arts. Her artistic endeavors include photography, writing, dancing, and performing.  She holds an MBA and an undergraduate degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Her favorite hobbies include traveling and collecting fairytales, stories, and mythology from various cultures. Most recently, Shanta exhibited her photography in “Surrender” (Brattleboro, VT), based on her five-month travels throughout India. Currently, Shanta is a contributor to the Brattleboro Reformer newspaper and writes regularly on her blog.