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It is our hope and expectation that each mental health clinician has read the code of ethics for their profession and keeps on hand at all times a copy of the code for easy reference. For convenience sake, we have provided below an easy link to the three main codes of ethics for mental health clinicians.

We will be referring to sections of these codes throughout the remainder of this course. For those clinicians who wish to refer to the code in its entirety, it is recommended that you click on the link and print out a copy of the code or codes that are appropriate to your profession.

You do not need to disconnect from this course in order to print out these codes. You should be able to return easily to the course by clicking the return, or back, arrow at the top left of your web browser once you have finished printing the code. You will not need to log back in.

If you prefer not to print the code, but wish to have the code available as you read through this course, you can minimize this screen by clicking on the minimization box at the top right of this page. This will keep the course open while you navigate elsewhere on your computer. Leaving the course minimized, re-open your web browser application, and enter the URL address as shown below to take you to the code of ethics. When both windows are open, you can go back and forth between this course and the code.

History and Purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics

Social workers had their very first code of ethics in the 1920s, when Mary Richmond developed a code of ethics for the American Association of Social Workers. Following the formation of the National Association of Social Workers in 1955, a brief and simple code of ethics was adopted in 1960. A second, more comprehensive code of ethics was adopted in 1979, and revised in 1990 and 1993 to cover some new components of social work practice.

The most recent version of the code of ethics was adopted in 1996 and revised in 1999. This is the code to which we will be referring.

The following excerpt from the NASW Code of Ethics states its purpose:

“Professional ethics are at the core of social work. The profession has an obligation to articulate its basic values, ethical principles, and ethical standards. The NASW Code of Ethics sets forth these values, principles, and standards to guide Social Workers’ conduct. The code of ethics is relevant to all social workers and social work students, regardless of their professional functions, the setting in which they work, or the populations they serve.

This NASW Code of Ethics serves six purposes:

1. The Code identifies core values on which social work's mission is based.
2. The Code summarizes broad ethical principles that reflect the profession's core values and establishes a set of specific ethical standards that should be used to guide social work practice.
3. The Code is designed to help social workers identify relevant considerations when professional obligations conflict or ethical uncertainties arise.
4. The Code provides ethical standards to which the general public can hold the social work profession accountable.
5. The Code socializes practitioners new to the field to social work's mission, values, ethical principles, and ethical standards.
6. The Code articulates standards that the social work profession itself can use to assess whether social workers have engaged in unethical conduct. NASW has formal procedures to adjudicate ethics complaints filed against its members.* In subscribing to this Code, social workers are required to cooperate in its implementation, participate in NASW adjudication proceedings, and abide by any NASW disciplinary rulings or sanctions based on it.

As we noted earlier in quoting the code of ethics: “This code offers a set of values, principles, and standards to guide decision making and conduct when ethical issues arise. It does not provide a set of rules that prescribe how social workers should act in all situations. Specific applications of the code must take into account the context in which it is being considered and the possibility of conflicts among the code’s values, principles, and standards. Ethical responsibilities flow from all human relationships, from the personal and familial to the social and professional.”

The code goes on to state: “Further, the code of ethics does not specify which values, principles, and standards are most important and ought to outweigh others in instances when they conflict. Ethical decision making in a given situation must apply the informed judgment of the individual social worker and should also consider how the issues would be judged in a peer review process where the ethical standards of the professional would be applied.

“Ethical decision making is a process. There are many instances in social work where simple answers are not available to resolve complex ethical issues. Social workers should take into consideration all the values, principles, and standards in this code that are relevant to any situation in which ethical judgment is warranted. Social workers’ decisions and actions should be consistent with the spirit as well as the letter of this code.

"In addition to this code, there are many other sources of information about ethical thinking that may be useful. Social workers should consider ethical theory and principles generally, social work theory and research, laws, regulations, agency policies, and other relevant codes of ethics, recognizing that among codes of ethics social workers should consider the NASW Code of Ethics as their primary source. Social workers also should be aware of the impact on ethical decision making of their clients’ and their own personal values, cultural and religious beliefs, and practices. They should be aware of any conflicts between personal and professional values and deal with them responsibly. For additional guidance social workers should consult relevant literature on professional ethics and ethical decision making, and seek appropriate consultation when faced with ethical dilemmas. This may involve consultation with an agency-based or social work organization’s ethics committee, regulatory body, knowledgeable colleagues, supervisors, or legal counsel.

“Instances may arise where social workers’ ethical obligations conflict with agency policies, relevant laws or regulations. When such conflicts occur, social workers must make a responsible effort to resolve the conflict in a manner that is consistent with the values, principles, and standards expressed in this code. If a reasonable resolution of the conflict does not appear possible, social workers should seek proper consultation before making a decision.

“This code of ethics is to be used by NASW and by other individuals, agencies, organizations, and bodies (such as licensing and regulatory boards, professional liability insurance providers, courts of law, agency boards of directors, government agencies, and other professional groups) that choose to adopt it or use it as a frame of reference. Violation of standards in this code does not automatically imply legal liability or violation of the law. Such determination can only be made in the context of legal and judicial proceedings. Alleged violations of the code would be subject to a peer review process. Such processes are generally separate from legal or administrative procedures and insulated from legal review or proceedings in order to allow the profession to counsel and/or discipline its own members.

“A code of ethics cannot guarantee ethical behavior. Moreover, a code of ethics cannot resolve all ethical issues or disputes, or capture the richness and complexity involved in striving to make responsible choices within a moral community. Rather a code of ethics sets forth values, ethical principles and ethical standards to which professionals aspire and by which their actions can be judged. Social workers’ ethical behavior should result from their personal commitment to engage in ethical practice. This code reflects the commitment of all social workers to uphold the profession’s values and to act ethically. Principles and standards must be applied by individuals of good character who discern moral questions and, in good faith, seek to make reliable ethical judgments.”

History and Purpose of the American Counseling Association Code

History and Mission

According to the website of the American Counseling Association, (, the history of the Association goes back to 1952 when four independent associations convened a joint convention in Los Angeles, CA: The National Vocational Guidance Association (NVGA), the National Association of Guidance and Counselor Trainers (NAGCT), the Student Personnel Association for Teacher Education (SPATE), and the American College Personnel Association. The goal of this joint convention was to provide a larger professional voice. They established the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA), later changing names in 1983 to the American Association of Counseling and Development. On July 1, 1992, the association changed its name to the American Counseling Association (ACA) to reflect the common bond among association members and to reinforce their unity of purpose.

Headquartered in Alexandria, VA, just outside Washington, DC, the American Counseling Association promotes public confidence and trust in the counseling profession so that professionals can further assist their clients and students in dealing with the challenges life presents. The American Counseling Association services professional counselors in the U.S. and in 50 other countries including Europe, Latin America, the Philippines and the Virgin Islands.

In addition, the American Counseling Association is associated with a comprehensive network of 19 divisions and 56 branches. Of the 52 jurisdictions setting rules for licensing, 19 have adopted the ACA Code of Ethics into their rules and regulations. The ACA code itself states that counselors have a responsibility to understand and follow the ACA Code of Ethics and adhere to applicable laws and regulations.

The mission of the American Counseling Association is to: enhance the quality of life in society by promoting the development of professional counselors, advancing the counseling profession, and using the profession and practice of counseling to promote respect for human dignity and diversity.

The ACA Code of Ethics states as its purpose:

1. The Code sets forth the ethical obligations of ACA members and provides guidance intended to inform the ethical practice of professional counselors.
2. The Code identifies ethical considerations relevant to professional counselors and counselors-in-training.
3. The Code enables the association to clarify for current and prospective members, and for those served by members, the nature of the ethical responsibilities held in common by its members.
4. The Code serves as an ethical guide designed to assist members in constructing a course of action that best serves those utilizing counseling services and establishing expectations of conduct with a primary emphasis on the role of the professional counselor.
5. The Code helps to support the mission of ACA.
6. The standards contained in this Code serve as the basis for processing of ethical complaints and inquiries initiated against ACA.

History and Purpose of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Code

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) ( is the professional association for the field of marriage and family therapy. Since its founding in 1942, the AAMFT has been involved with the problems, needs and changing patterns of couples and family relationships. AAMFT members meet rigorous standards for education and training and are held to the highest ethical standards of the profession. Among other things, AAMFT develops standards for professional ethics and the clinical practice of marriage and family therapy.

The AAMFT Code of Ethics was first instituted in 1962. It has had several revisions, including in 1982, 1991, 1998, and 2001. The most recent revision of their code of ethics took place in 2015.

While the AAMFT Code of Ethics is not considered exhaustive, it is binding on AAMFT members. AAMFT members may also need to comply with the codes of ethics that have been incorporated into state rules or regulations that govern their practice. If the AAMFT code sets a higher standard than the state law or regulation, AAMFT members are expected to meet the standard set by their professional association.

Where the codes are silent, AAMFT members are encouraged to seek counsel from other colleagues, supervisors, lawyers and others who may be able to provide direction. Where the AAMFT code conflicts with a state law or regulation, AAMFT members must comply with state law, but are expected to make known their commitment to the AAMFT Code of Ethics and find ways to responsibly resolve the conflict.

There is a considerable overlap between the three professions in terms of how the codes are organized and written. Some of the sentences even use very similar language in describing important concepts. This is because there has often been good cross-communication and coordination between the professions in ways that strengthen and advance all three professions.

Each of the codes is broken down into different sections that cover important areas of professional practice. It is very easy to see the overlap – and the areas of difference - just by examining the subject areas covered in the codes of ethics, as shown on the next pages.


1. Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities to Clients
2. Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities to Colleagues
3. Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities in Practice Settings
4. Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities as Professionals
5. Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities to the Social Work Profession
6. Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities to the Broader Society


Section A: The counseling relationship
Section B: Confidentiality and Privacy
Section C: Professional responsibility
Section D: Relationships with other professionals
Section E: Evaluation, assessment and interpretation
Section F: Supervision, Teaching, and training
Section G: Research and publication
Section H: Distance Counseling, Technology, and Social Media
Section I: Resolving ethical issues


1. Responsibility to Clients
2. Confidentiality
3. Professional competence and integrity
4. Responsibility to students and supervisees
5. Research and Publication
6. Technology-Assisted Professional Services
7. Professional Evaluations
8. Financial arrangements
9. Advertising

There are also a few differences in how the codes are written. Both counselors and marriage and family therapists will typically tend have a somewhat narrower range of professional tasks, involving direct counseling, or the teaching, training, leading, or supervision of other professionals who provide direct counseling services. The codes of ethics reflect this narrower focus.

The social work profession has a number of other areas of public service for which its practitioners are trained, including community organizing, public policy advocacy, and other less clinically driven areas of practice. This is a reflection of the history and tradition of the social work profession as an agent of social change, which predates the development of social work as a profession in which its members provide private practice and agency based psychotherapy services.

Accordingly, the NASW Code of Ethics covers elements of social work practice that are more oriented towards social justice and advocacy for oppressed or vulnerable populations. This is reflected in the presentation of a number of values and ethical principles that are prominently featured early in the code of ethics. These are shown on the next page.

Value: Service
Ethical Principle: Social workers' primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems.

Value: Social Justice
Ethical Principle: Social workers challenge social injustice.

Value: Dignity and Worth of the Person
Ethical Principle: Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.

Value: Importance of Human Relationships
Ethical Principle: Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.

Value: Integrity
Ethical Principle: Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.

Value: Competence
Ethical Principle: Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise.

The existence of these other components of ethical practice under the guidelines issued in the NASW Code of Ethics can create some additional ethical conflicts for social workers providing counseling services in private practice or agency settings. Not to over-dramatize this issue, but there is a school of thought in the social work profession that does not consider a social worker providing counseling in a private practice setting to be practicing social work at all! We will, however, leave this argument for others to settle.

Important Code Updates

It is important to note that the most recent updates to the Codes of Ethics have addressed a new and disruptive area of social change that has far reaching implications for practice in the field of mental health. Over the past couple of decades, the emergence of new technologies - the internet, social media, new technological devices - has offered both new opportunities and new challenges for people who engage in mental health practice. 

These changes - and the ethical considerations related to them - have been addressed in's course, Ethical Considerations of Practice in the Age of Social Media and Electronic Communications. The changes include legal considerations of technology, including two updates to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in 2010 and 2013 that redefine guidelines for protecting the privacy of Protected Health Information (PHI) in the era of electronic modes of storing, sending and receiving health information.

However, the changes also include ethical considerations of privacy, safety, and the maintenance of professional authority and the professional relationship when personal information about clients and clinicians is so much more easily available on online search engines and social media, and when counseling can be performed over distant modes of communication: Telemental Health.

There can be separate sets of challenges for mental health clinicians in addressing some of these changes from the technology revolution. Clinicians who came of age prior to the emergence of these technologies may not fully understand how to maximize the opportunities presented by increased communication connection.

Younger clinicians, whose formative experiences were in a more technologically connected world - with an enhanced degree of self-disclosure - may have internalized a different sense of what represents an appropriate level of privacy. This may affect their sense of where to draw boundaries for themselves and their clients in ways that clash with values in the Code of Ethics for their profession. They may underestimate the risks of operating in a technologically robust environment while working as a professional in this field.  

For this reason, it is important for each professional to keep their ethical knowledge base up to date, and spend some time exploring the implications of these changes for the work that they do. 

Review Questions

List several of the identified purposes of the NASW Code of Ethics.

Where do ACA members turn to resolve ethical complaints?

What does an AAMFT member do if in their practice they encounter a state law that conflicts with the AAMFT Code of Ethics?