The ethical dilemmas of counsellors

The ethical dilemmas of counsellors

You won’t be surprised that counsellors are expected to have high ethical standards. They see you on the worst day of your life or know secrets you wouldn’t tell anyone else. The professional standards of a counsellor are strict and set out how they are expected to behave.

Who needs protecting?

It’s not commonly known that many counsellors have to undergo their own personal therapy as part of their qualifications. Therapy is a great way for students to learn from professionals, build empathy for future clients and avoid personal issues spilling over into their work.

It’s not just clients that have to be protected. Counsellors also need to protect their safety and wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, things sometimes go wrong. It is the job of counsellors to navigate these ethical dilemmas with sensitivity and unimpeachable moral standards.

Issues in a counselling session

Each professional body representing counsellors sets out its ethical guidelines for practitioners. For example, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) adopts an ‘Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions’.

This requires counsellors to put clients first, show respect and maintain integrity. Two important principles are beneficence – ‘a commitment to promoting the client’s wellbeing’ and non-maleficence – ‘a commitment to avoiding harm to the client’.


So what different issues can arise in a counselling session? Because counselling is an unusual relationship, it is possible for people to exploit or abuse the situation. Both sides have to respect appropriate boundaries.

Does the client have reasonable expectations for how often and how long their sessions will be? They may be paying for the sessions, with value for money at the front of their minds, so there may be difficult situations where the client is unhappy with their outcomes.

When there are breaks and endings in sessions, these have to be sensitively handled so that they don’t damage the progress made. If alternative or unusual methods are used, these must be carefully handled and still uphold the high ethical and moral standards of the profession.

Relationships between counsellor and client

The emotional weight of a counselling session can trigger some powerful feelings. It is a counsellor’s responsibility to ensure that this doesn’t transgress the appropriate boundaries. For example, they might not be able to visit the client at home, initiate physical contact or give them a quick call on their mobile phone, because they have a therapeutic relationship they aren’t friends.

Transference is an interesting phenomenon because it can be a real ethical problem for counsellors. It can happen when a client redirects unconscious feelings about someone else to another person, such as the therapist. This can be anything from anger to sexual attraction.

The blank slate offered by a counsellor in carefully controlled conditions can be a ripe place for these feelings to develop. The therapist has to ensure these feelings don’t distract from the goal of the therapy. Clients can be prompted to examine them so that they can be resolved. It goes without saying that romantic or sexual feelings can’t be acted on.


The importance of trust

Trust is the heart of this relationship. Confidentiality and privacy, particularly for sensitive data, is paramount. Records have to be secured and codes can be used to disassociate notes from the client. Of course, sometimes confidentiality has to be broken for legal reasons, or when clients present a danger to themselves or others.

Counsellors have to be impartial when they speak with their clients. They can’t let any personal beliefs about gender, sexual orientation, race etc affect their practice.

They have to ensure that people are consenting to the counselling contract. This must be informed consent, where clients are able to make a rational decision and fully understand the implications of their relationship. For example, children, people in group therapy or people with conditions that affect their mental capacity all present ethical issues around consent.

What do you think are the most important ethical issues faced by counsellors? Exploitation, inappropriate relationships, broken trust, or something else?