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The American Counseling Association (ACA), the main governing board for licensed clinical counselors, has created five ethical standards and principles that should be followed by counselors. Not acting in accordance with these standards can result in loss of one's license and livelihood, as well as criminal charges.
Beneficence and Non-maleficence
The main goal of all helping professions, including counselors, therapists and social workers, is to do no harm, which is the first ethical standard set by the ACA. Psychologists and counselors should strive to ensure that their clients are safe, that no harm is done in therapeutic or research situations and that if a conflict arises in therapy, it should be resolved swiftly and cause the least amount of harm possible. Counselors must report all personal, financial or illegal issues that may cause harm to their patients, as well as physical harm against others.
Counselors build relationships of trust with their patients and therefore must be aware of their professional and therapeutic responsibilities to their patients. Early in the counseling relationship, counselors must establish the guidelines of their relationship, clarify their roles and obligations to the patient, explain the ethical standards under which they practice and discuss conflict resolution techniques.
Counseling involves a strict adherence to accuracy and truthfulness. This means that counselors should not engage in stealing, cheating, fraud, misrepresentation of facts or dishonesty with patients or colleagues. If deception must occur, the counselor should think long and hard about the effects. Deceiving a patient to help uncover a repressed memory could backfire if the memory causes the patient great distress. On the other hand, if the deception allows a breakthrough, this is a beneficial outcome.
Fairness and just treatment to all are at the forefront for counselors. By exercising reasonable judgment, taking precautions to check one's own biases, ensuring solid boundaries and limiting their practice to their area of knowledge, counselors are practicing an ethical and moral standard of justice.
Counselors believe that the dignity and worth of everyone should be respected. Ethically and legally, all individuals deserve the right to privacy, confidentiality and self-determination. Counselors must respect all individuals, no matter their gender, age, creed, race, origin, culture, religion, sexual orientation or economic status. Vulnerable communities, such as low-income seniors, should have an ombudsman or elder abuse representative available to discuss elder abuse, neglect and/or mistreatment.
Ethical Guidelines in Practice
All practicing counselors should be able to demonstrate a knowledge of these ethical standards, as well as communicate them to patients. Understanding why the ethical guidelines are important to both the patient and the practitioner is vital in running a moral and ethical practice. Finally, counselors should be able to demonstrate an ability to use critical thinking to resolve any ethical or moral dilemmas that may occur in practice.