By Kimberly Blaker
At least 100 million people currently living in the United States will, at some time in their lives, experience problems in relationships, become depressed or develop anxiety so serious that they will merit psychiatric diagnosis and would benefit from the services of a mental health care professional, according to Larry E. Beautler, Bruce Bongar, and Joel N. Shurkin in “A Consumer’s Guide to Psychotherapy: A Complete Guide to Choosing the Therapist and Treatment That’s Right for You.”
Unfortunately, countless mental health care professionals lose their licenses each year as a result of patient abuse, sexual misconduct, fraud, substance abuse, unlicensed practice, medication violations and more.
Should you be faced with a crisis, know how to find a reputable mental health care provider with the expertise you need and that you can trust.
Finding a trustworthy, reputable therapist
Most mental health care professionals adhere to ethical guidelines. But as with any field, there are always exceptions. So know how to screen.
Begin your search by asking family or friends for recommendations or obtain a referral from your primary care doctor. You can also contact area clinics for recommendations or consult your yellow pages or online directory. Phone three or four therapists and ask about their credentials, policies and treatment methods. The following are good questions to ask:
• What are your areas of expertise?
• How much experience do you have with my particular issues?
• Are you licensed or certified by the state?
• Has your license ever been suspended or revoked? If so, can you tell me about the situation?
• What are your professional affiliations?
• What forms of treatment and therapy do you provide? What evidence is there to support its effectiveness? Is there controversy among mental health care professionals regarding this treatment?
• What are your fees? Do you accept my insurance or work on a sliding scale?
If you can’t get answers to these basic questions over the phone, look elsewhere.
If you’re satisfied with the therapist’s responses, check with your state-licensing department to verify the license status and to make sure no actions have been taken against the therapist.
Once you begin therapy, complications could still arise. According to Beautler, Bongar, and Shurkin, therapists who base their beliefs on personal experiences often reject scientific findings that don’t coincide with their beliefs.
As a consumer, do your research to assure the validity of your diagnosis or form of therapy or treatment. If you discover contradictions from reputable sources, discuss it with your therapist. It may be a simple misunderstanding or data of which your therapist was unaware. If your therapist rejects the information, ask why and determine if the reason is valid or is based on personal opinion. If it’s preventing you from obtaining a proper diagnosis and/or treatment, find a therapist that recognizes those findings.
Though rare, unethical therapists have been known to misdiagnose for financial gain. More common, those with questionable practices may recommend unnecessary, inappropriate, outdated or unproven treatments. That said, “Your therapist is obligated not to take advantage of you, either intentionally or unintentionally through negligence or ignorance, and to act only in your best interests,” explain Jack Engler, Ph.D. and Daniel Goleman, Ph.D. in “The Consumer’s Guide to Psychotherapy: The Authoritative Guide for Making Informed Choices About All Types of Psychotherapy.”
Mental health care ethics
There are certain rules set by state licensing divisions as well as the American Psychological Association and other mental health associations providers must follow. Be aware that mental health care providers may not:
• disclose information about you without prior written consent or even verify that you are being seen by the therapist except under certain situations, such as when child abuse is reported.
• suggest that you do something that is undeniably harmful, immoral or illegal.
• treat you for or offer services that are outside his or her area of expertise.
• offer experimental or unproven therapies without informing you of such.
• make sexual advances whether you approve of them or not.
• treat you if you have any kind of relationship with the therapist outside of therapy.
• degrade you because of your values or problems or pressure you to change them.
These are only some of the ethics therapists must uphold.
Handling ethics violations and negligence
If you feel your rights have been violated or your therapist has treated you with negligence, there are several options according to Engler and Goleman. If the violations are minor, you might want to discuss the problem with your therapist. You can also seek a second opinion to determine whether it’s a misunderstanding or a valid complaint.
If your complaint seems valid and is serious enough, you can file a formal complaint with the appropriate ethics committee or with the state licensing or certification board. This is an important step if there’s concern that someone else might be harmed by the therapist’s practices.
Finally, if your therapist acted negligently, rather than just unethically, a civil malpractice suit may be in order.
Remember though, most people have positive experiences with their therapist. By being aware of unforeseen problems and taking precautionary steps, you’ll reduce the risk of a negative experience.
Kimberly Blaker is the author of a kid’s STEM book, “Horoscopes: Reality or Trickery?” She also writes a blog, “Modern FamilyStyle” at modernfamilystyle.com.