Common Issues that Can Result in Ethical Complaints for Licensed Mental Health Professionals

February 28, 2023
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

Mental health professionals serve a very important role in our society, helping us manage some of the most difficult afflictions that people can face. In addition to taking on years of education and training, they must also agree to be bound by stringent ethical obligations in order to practice. These ethical obligations mean that a single complaint can derail an otherwise successful career that has been devoted to helping others. If you are facing a complaint or simply want to avoid future complaints, a professional license defense lawyer can provide you with the guidance you need. 

Issues Arising in Connection with Competence

Many licensed mental health professionals have an ethical duty to limit treatment to those cases that are within their area of competence. As a result, mental health professionals must candidly assess whether they have the necessary skills, training, experience, and values to provide effective treatment for every patient they see. In addition, counselors and other professionals must constantly reevaluate whether they have the competency to continue treating a patient as they become more familiar with the patient’s unique needs.

Unfortunately, the limitations of a therapist’s competency with respect to the patient are not always apparent. Many complaints alleging incompetence are filed only after the patient has suffered some harm. It can be extremely difficult to determine whether the harm could have been avoided as a result of different treatments or whether the harm was unrelated. As a result, therapists should take complaints concerning their competence very seriously and contact a professional license defense lawyer right away. 

Dual Relationships

While it would be ideal to never have a dual relationship, the reality is that sometimes it is unavoidable. Dual relationships can arise in a number of ways: 

  • You and your patient were friends before you were their therapist
  • You and your patient are business colleagues
  • You and your patient are members of the same small community
  • You and your patient are connected via social media

Some dual relationships are always unethical, such as when a mental health professional has a sexual relationship with one of their patients. In the examples listed above, however, it is possible to have a perfectly ethical relationship so long as the therapist is careful. Unfortunately, allegations can be easily made, especially when there is an arguable lack of objectivity or the boundaries between the two relationships are unclear. 

If you have been accused of unethical conduct arising from a dual relationship, you should contact a professional license defense lawyer as soon as possible. However, they can also provide preventative guidance if you have found yourself in a dual relationship and are unsure as to how to proceed. 

Informed Consent 

Many ethical complaints arise from allegations that the mental health professional failed to provide enough information for the patient to make an informed decision about participating in the proposed treatment. The patient must be able to understand the information provided and be able to give their informed consent voluntarily. 

Despite the therapist’s best efforts, disagreements can arise over what information should have reasonably been provided in order for the patient to be able to make an informed decision. These are often difficult cases because therapists are typically treating people who are in mental or emotional distress. Their inability to fully appreciate the ramifications of their decision may not be apparent at the time. 

A professional license defense attorney can review your informed consent procedures in order to guard against potential complaints. If you have already received a complaint, they can assess the situation and guide you as to how to respond. 


Breaches of patient confidentiality are another common source of ethical complaints for mental health professionals. All therapists understand that they cannot disclose that they are treating a patient or discuss any information regarding their treatment with a third party, but inadvertent or unintentional breaches are still possible. For example: 

  • A therapist greets a patient that they meet while out in public
  • A therapist sends information to their patient to their work email address
  • A therapist leaves information on an answering machine that other people have access to
  • A therapist discloses information to a third party who claims to have authorization but does not provide the necessary documentation

Breaches of confidentiality are taken very seriously. Some patients simply do not want other people to know that they are in therapy, and a breach of confidentiality could cause considerable embarrassment. For other patients, disclosure that they are in treatment could jeopardize their job or cause other significant problems. If you have committed a breach of confidentiality, a professional license defense lawyer can help manage the consequences. 

Contact The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford to Protect Your License

Our firm is dedicated to helping those who help others. Whether you are facing a complaint or simply want to make sure you are following best practices, professional license defense lawyer J.W. Stafford and his team can help. Contact us today at 410-514-6099 to discuss how we can help you protect your license and your reputation as a mental health professional.