By David Joel Miller
What will your counselor tell the police?
Short answer – Almost nothing!
For counseling to work, you need to talk about what is troubling you. For you to be able to talk like that we professionals need to make it safe for you to do so. Enter the concept of confidentiality. What you tell your therapist is mostly confidential and may also be privileged patient psychotherapist’s communication.
There will always be someone who thinks we therapists need to protect society and tell something or other. Say you tell the therapist you are scared because you are driving without a license. Do we call the police about that?
No way. That does not happen in any place that remotely resembles a democracy or a republic, probably not in a lot of other forms of government either.
So how come the police sometimes show up at your door anyway? What did get told to them and how?
Sometimes a situation is so very dangerous that the police get notified.
Your house is on fire, the neighbor calls the fire department and here come the police to control the crowds and traffic. I suppose some people get caught doing something illegal, like running a meth lab, because the police arrive at the fire and they find it. But the neighbor did not report you to the police, your secret slipped out because of the fire.
A similar thing happens when you tell a therapist about a very dangerous situation and we need to figuratively call the fire department.
There are certain things we just have to report, mostly to try to save lives.
I have talked about exceptions to confidentiality in a few other posts. Still, this topic continues to show up in questions and search terms. So, here is some reiteration specifically about exceptions to confidentiality and the police.
A danger to yourself is an exception to confidentiality.
If you plan to kill yourself we have to report that so you get help. This is not just a wish or thought, we should check if you are just thinking of dying or are you planning to kill yourself and when?
We call someone to get an ambulance and take you to a psychiatric hospital. Usually, the police get called to manage the situation.
Do you get a police record for this? Generally no. Not unless you are breaking some other law, like shooting at the police when they try to take you to the hospital.
Danger to others gets reported.
If you are planning to kill someone we need to prevent that. This is not just doing something reckless. This is planning, intending to hurt others. This can get complicated. If you plan to burn the mall down while it is packed, could people die? So yes that sort of thing, in most places gets reported.
Abuse of a person that can’t protect themselves gets reported.
Child abuse, Elder abuse, disabled person abuse has to get reported. The goal here is to get the abuse to stop. But as in the care of the fire exposing your meth lab, stopping the abuse may leak out the fact that you have been committing a crime.
Sometimes these reports go to child protective service or adult protective services. In some areas, these reports go to the police department to check out.
Therapists only keep your secrets if they are your therapist.
If you see your doctor in the grocery store, don’t rely on his opinion of the produce. He is not being a doctor when you talk to him.
If the judge makes you talk to a therapist or CPS sends you to one, check if this is going to be confidential or if their report, warts, meth lab and all are going to the judge.
Even here consider the therapist is not calling the police on you. But if the judge gets the report on your mental state and you casually mentioned a couple of murders you did, the judge may be required to pass that on to the police.
So most things, even past crimes, we therapists do not report to the police. Honest, that is the last thing most of us want to do. Because once we make that call you stop trusting, stop telling us things, and then we can’t help you.
But occasionally because of something that we are required to report, some of your secrets could slip out. We do not necessarily call the police, but once we tell others to protect you or society that information is no longer strictly confidential.
When in doubt ask the therapist to tell you more about confidentiality. And if you have secrets that need to come out, let the therapist help you with the telling in the right way to the right person.
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