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by Charles D. Safford, LCSW

Charles D. Safford, LCSW is President of, Inc. Mr. Safford has over 20 years of post-master’s experience as a clinician, and has over fifteen years of experience as a training developer and trainer in business and clinical settings. Scenarios studied in this course were presented at the 2001 annual conference of NASW GA.

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The objective of this introductory course on ethics is to help the mental health clinician understand the key components of the process of making ethical decisions, using a number of scenarios to highlight some of the common ethical dilemmas that counselors are likely to face. When the trainee completes this course, he or she will know:

-The principles of ethical decision making
-The steps and stages of making an ethical decision
-What principles and interests are being balanced when making an ethical decision
-How these principles and interests work in the complex relationships that are created when a clinician works with clients
- Important leadership principles related to ethical practice

This course is primarily designed for clinicians in the earlier stages of their career, or for more advanced clinicians reviewing basic concepts of ethical decision making.

Course length: 16,500+ words. At 100 words per minute reading speed, 165 minutes.
15 minutes allocated for course review and testing.
Total: 180 minutes or 3 contact hours


- to complete this course in its entirety
- to complete all exercises contained in this course
- to complete the course post-test
- to complete the evaluation form after taking this course

Your decision to continue at this time constitutes acceptance of this agreement.

Easy Navigation Instructions

You may move through this course by simply scrolling down, using the scroll bar on the right side of the page. You may also move quickly to any specific page in the course by clicking on the Pages tab on the left side of the course. This will open thumbnail pages. Using the scroll bar on the left, simply scroll down to the thumbnail of the page you wish to move to, and click on that thumbnail. The page you have chosen will immediately open.

On the first page of each section, you will also find a navigation button that will allow you to move easily to the next section of the course. To move to the next section, simply click on the Next Section button.


Section I: Introduction

Section Two: The Stages of Ethical Decision Making

Section Three: The Competing Principles and Interests of the Ethical Decision Making Process

Section Four: The Decision Making Tree

Section Five: Defining the Clinician/Client Relationship 

Section Six: Leadership Demands in Ethical Decision Making

Section Seven: Scenario Analysis

References and Test


 Section I: Introduction

There are three questions to be answered as an introduction to this course.

What are ethics?

Why do clinicians need them?

Why do clinicians need to study them?

The first question is the easiest to answer. As defined by the American Heritage Dictionary:

"Ethics are the study of the general nature of morals and the specific moral choices to be made by the individual in his relationship with others."

Morals are concerned with what is right and what is wrong. Therefore, generally speaking, ethics are concerned with right and wrong behaviors in your dealings with other people.

In fact, most states have ethical codes that describe various right and wrong behaviors for clinicians to follow when they are dealing with their clients, their peers and other parties with whom they interact.

The second question is a little more complex. Not all professions have formal codes of ethics, and not all professionals face such serious consequences for violations of their code of ethics.

What is different about mental health clinicians, and why is it so important for them to have a clear code of ethics that is understood and followed?

The counseling profession is different from most other professions in several important - and connected - ways:

-The nature of counseling is such that great and lasting harm can be done to clients if the clinician engages in the wrong behaviors.
-Because harm can be done to clients, most states restrict the counseling profession. The only people who can practice are those who meet certain criteria and follow certain guidelines.

-The capacity to do harm exists side by side with the capacity to do good. The counseling profession is defined - and thus sanctioned - as a profession whose primary purpose is to promote the well-being of its clients and the public at large, not to take care of the personal or financial well-being of the clinician.

This is different than most businesses. For most businesses, the primary responsibility is to take care of the financial well-being of the business and its stakeholders.

In most businesses, the well-being of the client does not really come first. Companies may lose customers for not looking out for the interests of the client, but they will not lose their right to engage in that business. Clinicians can.

This speaks to a fundamental conflict that not only affects the study of ethics, but, more importantly, affects the practice of ethics.

In a situation where there is ethical conflict, how much does the clinician need to put aside his or her own interests, including the right to follow one's own values and principles, in order to sufficiently take care of the best interests of the client and the public?

Later in this course, we will present a number of ethical scenarios, in which many clinicians will not only see this conflict, but will also feel its effects on their own ethical decision making processes.

Even clinicians who feel they have a clear understanding of ethics, can find themselves in very confusing territory.

Because states and the various counseling professions work together to oversee the definition of who can practice counseling, they also involve themselves in the clarification process around this important issue.

In fact, the states continue to clarify new understandings about what constitutes ethical behavior, and make demands upon counselors to know these changes and apply them in their practice.

In addition to making these demands, the state and its sanctioning bodies, like state licensing boards, also acknowledge the different nature of the clinician's job by conferring certain special rights and privileges to the counselor.

The first special right has already been discussed. It is the right to practice as a licensed clinician, with the state acting as a kind of guarantor of the clinician's training, skills, experience, and ethical orientation.

In essence, the state says that the licensed clinician can be trusted because he or she has fulfilled a certain set of standards and has agreed to act in certain ways that protect the safety of his or her clients and the public at large.

If the clinician does not meet these standards, or does not act in ways that protect the safety of clients or the public, the state can take away the clinician's legal right to practice.

The second right that is usually given to the clinician is the right to maintain privileged information, in the same way and with largely the same expectations as are granted to doctors, lawyers and clergy.

This right has an important purpose: it allows clients to trust the clinician in handling important, and sometimes compromising, information.

The state has a stake in creating this trust, because confidentiality allows the goals and tasks of counseling to proceed in a more effective way.

But the state again becomes the guarantor of the client's trust, saying that the clinician will demonstrate the right behaviors in the use of confidential information.

The third right given by the state is the right to join insurance provider networks, in a way that is overseen by the state, and to file third party insurance claims. In this way, the state acts as a guarantor to insurance panels of the clinician's ability to provide competent service.

The state may also act as an advocate for the clinician by instructing third party payers that they must offer payment for these counseling services.

The rights and privileges of counseling, and the demands and responsibilities placed upon the clinician, are intricately intertwined.

One cannot have the rights and privileges without also accepting the demands and responsibilities.

Clinicians frequently struggle with the demands that are created from the responsibilities of the profession, as these demands place burdens and restrictions upon the personal life of the clinician. Some of the most difficult ethical responsibilities – and the most common ethical lapses - are emotional in nature, rather than a failure to understand what is expected according to the ethical code.

For example, clients may sometimes call in crisis in the middle of the night, exhibiting the potential to harm themselves or others. When a clinician chooses to become licensed to perform clinical services, he or she accepts the requirement of handling such crises, instead of simply going back to sleep.

The personal right to privacy (and sleep) can be superseded by the professional obligation to protect the safety of the client. These kinds of obligations exist as a condition of receiving the privileges of professional practice, as they do for doctors, safety personnel and many other service professionals for whom the state has guaranteed to the public the professionalism of the practitioners involved.

The important understanding here is that the position of the mental health clinician is one in which leadership is expected, with acceptance of the full range of demands created by the assumption of a leadership role. For this reason, we will devote a section of this course on leadership issues relevant to ethical practice.

Finally, we come to our last question in this introductory section: why is it necessary to study ethics?

The first reason is because ethics are complicated. Some of the scenarios in this training will demonstrate this fact.

The second reason is that ethics continue to change and evolve over time. As time moves forward, knowledge increases, thus changing our collective understanding of what is right and what is wrong in our actions in the mental health profession. Frequent study is required for each clinician to stay current in changes in "usual and customary'" guidelines for practice.

The third reason is that as we study ethics, we help each other, and the whole profession, to develop and redefine our collective understanding of what ethical behavior is. We do not just respond to changes in our collective and cultural understanding of what is right and wrong; we help shape those changes.

In so doing, we help the whole counseling profession to come to increasingly useful positions on ethics as we study, discuss and practice what we learn. Each clinician can thereby contribute to the pool of collective knowledge and wisdom to improve the profession for all of us.

In the development of this training program, this process has occurred and can continue to occur. Feedback from participants in live versions of this training program helped shape the knowledge and understandings presented here.

Likewise, feedback from you and other trainees who complete this course can help shape the understandings that go into later versions of this training.

The last reason for studying ethics, of course, is a more practical one. Those bodies who guarantee to the public that practitioners will operate in an ethical manner – i. e., state licensing boards – attempt to ensure that licensed clinicians are continuously exposed to information about what responsibilities are expected. The hope is that such exposure will improve compliance and increase the likelihood of widespread ethical practice. It preaches the gospel of putting aside one's self-centered interests to support the collective well-being of the profession.

This course has been developed in accordance with these ideals. It has been designed to further the foundation knowledge for ethical decision making, but also to encourage the necessary process of self-reflection that must accompany ethical practice.

There are aspects to ethical practice that necessarily create discomfort for the practitioner's personal sense of self and self-integrity. In the self-reflection that must be a part of ethical practice, one's values, personal agendas and personal ethos are subject to constant review and scrutiny.

The mental health professions - and the licensing bodies that regulate the professions - may even at times insist that you put aside components of your own personal agenda and personal ethos and follow what the profession says you must do.

There can be tension here. There will usually be little argument about the need to put aside one's personal agenda when that agenda is the sexual exploitation of a client. However, when the profession asks that you set aside deeply held personal values and beliefs in order to provide culturally sensitive services to your client, the tension level can more readily be felt. And the nature of ethics is such that we all are likely to be pressed to go outside our own comfort level at one time or another in our careers.

This, too, is the domain of ethics. This training program will provide some discussion of this component of ethics. This is what we will turn to now. There are three parts to ethical decision making that will be covered in the next three sections of the training. They work together in complicated ways and ideally would be presented simultaneously, not sequentially.

At the end of the course, we will present some detailed discussion of a difficult scenario. It will be based upon feedback received from several live training programs attended by numerous clinicians. The discussion will show the ethical decision making process in action.