Every student ( above the age of 18) who either voluntarily opts for counseling or has been referred to meet a counselor, has a complete right to privacy and confidentiality, as counseling often involves sharing of personal and sensitive information with the counselor.
Confidentiality is the hallmark of counseling and all counselors should strictly follow that. Most counseling units make use of an informed consent form, which will, apart from other details, make a mention of the need for disclosure of information in special cases such as self-harm, harm to others, ideas of suicide, or in cases where there is a court order to divulge the counseling information in order to prevent clear and imminent danger to the student and others. The percentage of such cases are not very high and can be said to be rare. So it can be assumed that a student’s confidential information remains confidential in most campus counseling set-ups.
As the counseling process progresses, if the counselor feels that a student may progress better with the collaboration of the parents, then parental involvement can be considered. Or, if a student approaches the counselor saying that she is not able to focus on academics due to continuous altercations between her parents, the counselor may consider involving the parents in finding a better learning environment for the child. The degree and threshold level for involvement of parents in adolescent counseling has always been a topic of debate. Confidentiality being the prime aspect of counseling, the counselee, in a campus set-up—a student—may not want parental involvement. Campus counselors often find themselves in a dilemma as to whether they should disclose select information to parents and involve them in the step-by-step improvement of the student, or to refrain from involving the parents on the issues dealt with due to ethical considerations.
Even when the counselor decides to garner parental attention to the challenge faced by students, it is often noticed that parents get defensive. They refuse to even give a patient hearing to the counselor, while denying that their child can do any wrong. To cite an instance from my experience, when a counselor once indicated to the mother of a student that she needed to observe her son’s behavior just to ensure that he is not under the influence of any addictive substances, the mother threw a fit saying that the counselor is falsely accusing her son and that her son has clean habits—only to meet the same counselor a month later, to accept with great distress, that she had found an addictive substance in her son’s room! It falls on the counselor to be sensitive while broaching such topics with parents and also to counsel them into not being alarmed.
Parental resistance to involvement in their children’s counseling could also arise from the fear of ‘family secrets’ being brought out into the open. While this poses a great challenge to a counselor, research evidence supports the fact that family-based therapies are definitely an effective method to tackle the issues of adolescence such as substance abuse and delinquency. Counselors should however use their discretion to choose cases that need parental intervention.
A counselor or a teacher who has an aptitude to help the student, may initiate the collaboration of parents. Before involving the parent in the situation, the counselor should come to a common understanding with the student on what information should be disclosed and how much can be shared. But in special cases as mentioned before, this stage may be omitted. For instance, a student’s parents were immediately notified by the college authorities when they received a complaint from another student’s father that a male student was stalking his daughter on the college campus, and that the girl was too terrified to come to college. Such a case needs both counseling and disciplinary action.
The campus counselor should be able to forge a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the parents for guiding them to make a decision in the best interest of the student. Whenever there is an opportunity to interact with the student’s parents, like in a parent-teacher meeting (though it is not a common practice at colleges), the teacher or counselor should put it to best use. It is a great reassurance for the parent that their children are taken care of at college too.
Dr Uma Warrier is the chief counselor of Jain University, Bangalore