Ethical dilemmas in counseling

Counsellors talk to many different people every day, and some have problems that create uncomfortable situations for them. Various factors and issues can cause ethical dilemmas for counsellors.

Code of Ethics

The American Counseling Association has established an overarching Code of Ethics. Counselors must adhere to the code's five main dictates: autonomy, justice, beneficence, nonmaleficence and fidelity. These dictates are equally important for a counsellor to effectively and justly do her job.

Accepting gifts

At the American Psychological Association's Annual Convention in 2004, a committee discussed ethical dilemmas some counsellors had come across. The act of accepting gifts from a client was one of these dilemmas. Counsellors should consider whether accepting a gift would cause harm to the client and whether it breaches relationship lines. The counsellor should also consider cultural factors. The gift should be accepted if the counsellor risks insulting the client by refusing the gift.


This is a problem sometimes reported to state licensing boards. A few times may occur when a decision to breach confidentiality has to be made. Some examples include when a client wants to hurt himself or another person, when the court becomes involved, issues that pertain to minors, and requirements to report abuse. These are issues only the counsellor can decide, as the judgment can change from situation to situation.

Boundary Issues

Both sexual and non-sexual boundaries exist that counsellors should not cross. Once a counsellor has crossed a boundary, it becomes easier to cross it further. Counsellor self-disclosure is one example of boundary crossing. In the book "Culturally Relevant Ethical Decision-Making in Counseling," authors Rick Houser, et al. state that counsellor self-disclosure can sometimes put a burden on the client or take the focus off her and put it on the counsellor.

Personal Values

A counsellor's personal values can sometimes cause a problem. It is important for the counsellor to realise that she may have personal biases due to different factors, such as cultural or religious, that could potential influence the advice she would give, or could even taint how she views her client.


Where a counsellor is geographically located can cause difficult decisions as well. The problem of dual relationships, for example, is more prevalent in rural communities than urban ones, and can often lead to ethical dilemmas. Dual relationships exist when a counsellor begins to work with a client who has a relationship with another of the counsellor's clients. In urban settings, this is less likely to happen because more counsellors are available.

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About the Author

Natalie Saar began writing professionally at the age of 19. She majored in journalism and her writing has appeared in the magazine "Generation WHY" as well as "The Clause" newspaper. Saar graduated from the University of California, Riverside with a Bachelor of Arts in media and cultural studies.

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