Professional Secrecy in Psychology

Professional secrecy is a contract that's established in many professions to protect certain information that clients don't want to share. In this article, we'll talk about professional secrecy in the field of psychology.
Professional Secrecy in Psychology

Last update: 16 July, 2022

At certain points in their career, psychologists may face the dilemma of whether or not to share certain information that, due to the position they hold and the functions they perform, they come to know. However, in most cases they must leave this temptation aside because their professional secrecy obliges them to do so.

Every client has the right that everything they say or that happens in the context of the professional relationship with a psychologist is confidential. That said, there are situations when the psychologist has to break with professional secrecy because there’s a compelling cause that justifies it.

Professional secrecy in psychology

Professional secrecy refers to a way of protecting and not disclosing information obtained through the relationship of trust that’s established with a client who comes to a psychological consultation of any kind. Indeed, it’s the obligation of the psychologist to safeguard the privacy and intimacy of the client in the context in which the interaction has taken place.

All psychologists believe that for clients to feel comfortable and calm talking about their private lives, they need a safe place and a reliable relationship. One that allows them to talk about sensitive issues without fear of being unjustly exposed.

psychologist pointing notes
Professional secrecy is a central part of confidentiality.

Characteristics of professional secrecy in psychology

Some notable features of professional secrecy are as follows:

  • Maintenance of confidentiality. Psychologists have a duty to protect the confidential information they obtain through any means in relation to their professional work.
  • Discussion of boundaries. The psychologist discusses with the client the relevant boundaries of professional secrecy. Also, the foreseeable uses of any information generated through their psychological activities.
  • Recordings. Before making any type of recording, psychologists must obtain the permission of the client or their legal representative.
  • Minimize intrusions into privacy. It’s a psychologist’s duty to include in their written and oral reports only information related to the purpose for which the communication is made.
  • Disclosures. A psychologist may only disclose confidential information if they have the consent of their client. However, there are exceptions where they may disclose it if required by law.
  • Consultations. When consulting with colleagues, psychologists may not reveal confidential information that could lead to client identification. Furthermore, they must only share information to the extent necessary to achieve the objectives of the consultation.

Professional secrecy limits

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychologists can only break their professional secrecy in certain prescribed situations. They’re as follows:

1. To care for the client or others

Psychologists may release private information without consent to protect the patient or the public from serious harm. A common case is that of patients with major depression who have suicidal thoughts. In these cases, psychologists must break their professional secrecy to notify close relatives of the risk.

They can also break the secrecy code when a person, for any reason, has plans to endanger the lives of other people. For example, if a psychotic patient claims that they plan to murder a neighbor because the voices in their head order them to do so, the psychologist must break with professional secrecy to protect the neighbor.

2. In cases of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse

In situations of continuous domestic violence, abuse, or neglect of children, the elderly, or those with disabilities, or in a situation of dependency. However, if an adult discloses that they were abused as a child, the psychologist is generally not required to report it. That’s unless they suspect that the situation is continuing to be repeated with other children.

When the psychologist notices that a minor is suffering from abuse, it’s their duty to notify the parents. But what if the parents are the abusers? In this case, the psychologist must break professional secrecy beyond the family nucleus. Furthermore, they must inform the relevant authorities, in accordance with the law.

Woman doing therapy
In situations of abuse or violence, psychologists may break with professional secrecy.

If a court order is issued. This might happen if a person’s mental health is in question during legal proceedings. For example, occasionally, a psychologist may receive, in their office, a person referred by a court or justice institution for evaluation purposes. In this process, if the psychologist is called to testify, they must break their professional secrecy.

Professional secrecy in psychology is one of the basic rules of the entire code of ethics in the profession. It assures clients that they can talk about their personal lives safely without the fear of suffering any kind of repercussion, defamation, or exposure.

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