Counsellor/client miscommunication leads to distressing consequences

Settled case summary #22

Complaint

The following case is an example of how miscommunication can lead to distressing consequences.  The complainant was employed by an emergency services organization whose employee assistance program (EAP) offered the confidential services of a counselling firm.  The complainant had occasion to enlist the services of a counsellor.

She complained that the counselling firm divulged sensitive information about her to her employer, among others, and that the information contained inaccuracies.  Specifically, she was dismayed that the firm revealed not only that she was using its counselling services, but that it believed she was a danger to herself.

Outcome

The complainant alleged that her counsellor misconstrued and overreacted to what she said during a telephone conversation between the two of them.  The counsellor kept asking her if she “had a plan.”  The complainant confirmed that she did.  However, each of them interpreted the question differently.  As far as the complainant was concerned, she was being asked what her plans were for the evening.  She responded that it was none of the counsellor’s business.  As for the therapist, she was worried that the client was feeling suicidal.  In order to assess the level of risk, the therapist wanted to find out whether the client had a plan of action for committing suicide.   Because the client would not elaborate on her “plan,” the therapist decided that the client might be in imminent danger.

While still on the telephone with the client, the counsellor asked a colleague to notify the emergency services.  Coincidentally, one of the emergency services contacted by the counselling firm was the complainant’s workplace.  As a result, her supervisor and coworkers became aware that she had used the EAP services.

The police subsequently concluded that the complainant posed no danger to herself or anyone else.  Later they conveyed this information by telephone to the counsellor.  At the request of the counsellor, the emergency service representative (her employer) was included in the telephone call.

During the Office’s investigation, the complainant denied that she had been a danger to herself, and stated that she had been angry and depressed over a ruling related to a workplace issue.

In the course of investigating the complaint, the counselling firm and the complainant privately, in conjunction with the Office, agreed to settle the matter.  As a result of the complaint, the firm revised its policies on the disclosure of personal information.  Although the organization affirmed its right to contact emergency services when it believed a client was in danger, it advised its counsellors to take more detailed case notes, to provide only essential information to emergency workers, and to disclose no further information once the risk ceased to be immediate.  The matter was therefore considered to be settled by both the complainant and the Office.

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