How does my therapist know that? Isn’t counseling confidential?


A medical record folder being pulled from the ...

A medical record folder being pulled from the records (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By David Joel Miller.

Did my last therapist tell?

This comes up a lot when people move from provider to provider. It especially happens when you see multiple people in the same agency. No not everything you told your old therapist will be kept secret from your new one. WHY?

Laws about confidentiality make a distinction between “Use” and “Disclosure” of information. If you are in the hospital anyone who is treating you needs to be able to look at your record and see what medications you are on, what procedures you have had and what allergies you may have. Anyone who treats you in the future at that agency probably has the right to look at your old record and see what was done to you. The same applies to psychotherapy.

Everyone at the hospital does not get to look at anyone’s medical record just because they want to see it. The only reason to access a medical record should be for the purpose of treatment. People have gotten fired for looking up someone’s medical record just because they were curious. Even looking in medical records to see if a famous or infamous person was treated at your hospital can get you fired. But if you are treating a client you may need to know what is in their record.

Psychotherapists do and can share records and that is considered “use” not “disclosure.” Laws about confidentiality primarily relate to disclosure. Some of this has to do with law, for that see a lawyer. As a therapist though, I find this is an important issue to many of my clients and they need to understand how our system works.

It is considered good practice to separate psychotherapy notes from your general medical file. Everyone who treats you in the emergency room for an accident does not need to know about your marital problems.

We also don’t need a list of the names you or your spouse call each other. What the counselor wants to know is that you two are having conflicts and that you resort to name calling with each other rather than problem-solving. One or two examples will suffice here. Long transcripts of the argument might be interesting in a movie script but they don’t need to be in psychotherapy notes.

Clients sometimes move from therapist to therapist. Sometimes clients want a new counselor, some therapists are known to “fire” clients for a variety of reasons. Ethically we should suggest a change of provider if we feel that we are not able to help a client. If your counselor retires, you may be assigned a new one.

When the client changes therapist, we do not, as a rule, start a new file. Would you want to go through all those tests and lab work every time you saw a different doctor? Same with taking a life history. It should be in your chart. The new provider should review your chart so they should have some knowledge of what your last therapist was treating you for and why.

Charts are needed to provide continuity of care as well as other reasons. Clients have told me they resent that the new therapist knows things they had not told them. They probably read this in the chart though they may have been briefed on the case by the last provider also. If the file moved to a new agency there probably was a release of information but at the same agency, the old paperwork still applies.

Personally, I like to meet the client first and form my own opinion about them, then review the chart. The risk is that the client will have to tell me something they just told the other counselor last week. The benefit is that in telling me again they may say something they did not say last time or I may ask a different question. A fresh set of eyes can sometimes see something new.

More than once after doing a new assessment I looked at the file and can see why the last counselor came up with the diagnosis they did, but having new facts I don’t necessarily agree with that opinion.

So yes, the new therapist may know something you did not tell them. That they were filled in by your previous provider is not a violation of confidentiality. Did you really want to have to retell your whole life history to a new person before getting down to the work of solving life’s problems?

The bigger question is why you would want to hide things from the therapist you are seeing now?  They will have trouble helping you if you don’t tell them what the situation really is.

The most important person for you to trust and get honest with is you. Some clients hide things from their counselor because they don’t want to face the fact that they have a particular problem.

The results of counseling are mostly about the relationship. We try to spend time up front getting to know clients and building trust. Some clients have more trust issues than others. If you are not sure you trust your therapist, ask them questions. The names of their kids and their spouse are not important but their views on how to raise a child or have a good relationship might matter to you.

You should be able to rely on your provider to maintaining your confidentiality and not disclosing your information to someone who has no reason to know. Don’t expect one doctor or therapist to try to hide your symptoms from another professional who is treating you.

The bottom line? If you want help in recovering from your issues, whatever they are, you need to get honest with yourself and your counselor or find a provider you feel you can trust.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

For these and my upcoming books; please visit my Amazon Author Page – David Joel Miller

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.

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5 thoughts on “How does my therapist know that? Isn’t counseling confidential?

  1. Pingback: Will the Counselor, therapist, psychologist keep your secret or tell? | counselorssoapbox

  2. Pingback: Why the therapist doesn’t care about your problems- unit of treatment | counselorssoapbox

  3. Pingback: Must psychologist report patient planning a crime | counselorssoapbox

  4. Hi David! *waving* Great post! I have a great relationship with my psychiatrist and wouldn’t swap to another. However, if for some reason I could no longer see him? I would only hope my previous records would be passed to the next doctor! Like you said? you shouldn’t have anything to hide! The aim is to get better and the more knowledge someone has on you, the quicker they can start helping you with your recovery! …….Paula x

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