E-Counseling: Are There Ethical and Legal Issues?


E-Counseling: Are There Ethical and Legal Issues?

The ethics of Online Counseling has been a matter of great debate for several years now. Many individuals with dissimilar vested political and financial interests regarding the practice of Online Counseling have provided their warnings, endorsements, opinions, as well as research findings.

Akin to many issues where the legal-ethical outcome will have broad implications, emotions run high. Today, online counseling is widely accepted as a valid and ethical practice; however, there is still a dividing line between certain persons who are dogmatic in their positions that Online Counseling is functionally, legally, and ethically problematic; those who are overzealous toward the promotion of Online Counseling; and those who fall somewhere in between, focused on establishing a standard for ethical and effective practices. This chapter will take what I believe to be a balanced look at the ethics of Online Counseling services. To begin, it seems, over the last several years, the ethical issues have fit within several broad questions, the primary being, “Is Online Counseling acceptable practice within the bounds of a counseling license?”

An Important Ethical Question About the Practice of Online Counseling

When first asked, this was a serious question for Online Counseling, for if it was determined that Online Counseling was outside the bounds of licensed practice, the e-counselor would have little or no justification for providing services (and his or her license could be in jeopardy). But if counseling organizations and licensure boards embraced this new modality for practice, Online Counseling would be at least en route to becoming a well-respected method of provision. Debate over this question raged:

“It isn’t real therapy if you can’t see the client!” the opponents said.

“So, you can’t be a counselor if you’re blind?” said the proponents.

“Email is not a therapeutic environment!” the opponents said back.

Martha Ainsworth, founder of Metanoria.com seeks to answer the question “What is e-counseling?” by stating: Online counseling —“e-therapy”—is when a professional counselor or psychotherapist talks with you over the Internet, to give you emotional support, mental health advice or some other professional service. It could be one question, or an ongoing conversation; it could be by e-mail, chat, video or even Internet phone (voice-over-IP)… E-therapy is not psychotherapy. It should not be compared to psychotherapy. It is not a substitute for traditional psychotherapy. Working with a therapist in person is still better. But many people cannot or will not see a therapist in person. E-therapy is a form of counseling which, though it falls short of full-fledged psychotherapy, is still a very effective source of help.” (73)

Similarly, other Online Counseling providers have taken a similar approach by claiming to provide “coaching,” “mentoring,” or “spiritual care” via distance. However, these attempts to resolve the issue ignore that for some states persons may be held liable for providing counseling, even if it is being marketed under a different name.

Can We Deem Online Counseling an Acceptable Practice?

So, is professional Online Counseling acceptable practice? Yes. According to the APA, “The Ethics Code…has no rules prohibiting such services.” Similarly, NBCC states, “The rapid development and use of the Internet to deliver information and foster communication has resulted in the creation of new forms of counseling.” And ACA states in a section of their ethics code titled The Appropriateness of Online Counseling, “Professional counselors ensure that clients are intellectually, emotionally, and physically capable of using the online counseling services, and of understanding the potential risks and/or limitations of such services.” (74)

The sentiment of nearly every professional organization that has addressed the issue is the same; Online Counseling is not necessarily outside the bounds of a professional license. One can do Online Counseling if one can provide it with competence and fulfill general ethical duties.

73 See A.3.a., A.3.b.

74 Manhal-Baugus, (2001).

Schedule Online Counseling Services at Thriveworks

Today, online counseling is more popular and widely used than ever before. As we touched on above, it allows you to meet with your counselor from the safety, comfort, and convenience of home, thanks to the Internet and modern-day technology. If you’re interested in working with a counselor over the phone or by video, you’re in the right place. Click here to book your session online or to find the phone number to the office nearest you.

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