The competence of a counselor and malpractice are ethical and legal issues that occur often in professional counseling. Since actual competence of a counselor is difficult to distinguish, it is important for everyone to know and understand the true definition of competency. Competency is an ethical term which is different from legality. When dealing with the law, there are clear and concise situations that must be followed whereas when dealing with ethics, there are only recommendations and encouragement in how to deal with situations. There are times however, when competence turns legal and this is where many malpractice cases occur. There is a certain level of competency every counselor must have in order to practice ethically and legally.
Every counselor must be prepared through education and experience. Just because a person graduated from a program it does not mean they are immediately competent to practice. Competency is gained through training and professional experience. Every counselor must also be credentialed. In order for a counselor to be credentialed they must have a license, certificate, and registration.
Again, competency is difficult to define but one thing that counselors should always do in order to maintain competence is to continue their education. Research, science, awareness, etc. changes constantly so it is in everyone’s best interest for counselors to be held accountable to ongoing education. Another effective way for counselors to judge their own competence is to ask for the help of their peers. Peer review is effective because it gives the counselor an opportunity to be reviewed by a professional who understands the profession and is able to observe situations from an outside perspective.
Competent counselors should be aware of their own aptitude and be able to make judgment calls that are in the best interest of the client. One way to do this is for the counselor to make referrals when necessary. Instead of being afraid of losing a client or interfering with the relationship, it is important for counselors not to bluff their way through something they are not competent about.
Counselors do become incompetent when they are in distress, burned out, or are impaired. Counseling is a very stressful career and a lot of counselors get discouraged when they don’t see improvements with their clients. A good counselor will bounce back and be able to cope on their own. This can include counseling, meditation, etc. However, some counselors are not able to do so which makes them incompetent.
Malpractice cases often occur when a counselor is deemed as incompetent. An example of this is when a person commits suicide. When a client commits suicide and is under the care of a counselor oftentimes the counselor is looked at closely, legally, to see if there are competent. Incompetent counselors are unable to see the clear signs of suicide or fail to report them to authorities. Legally, if a client confesses to thoughts of suicide or intent to harm someone else it must be reported to authorities or someone who can intervene. There is also an ethical concern as to whether or not HIV positive or AIDS victims should be reported if they are purposely exposing others without their knowledge. This is not clear to counselors now because it does not guarantee immediate harm to others however, counselors are able to inform others as long as they are keeping the confidentiality of the client.
It is important to know that the law provides a minimum at which counselors should practice and ethics raise the bar so to speak. Ethics provides the ultimate level of service in which counselors should practice. Competency starts with education. There is a responsibility in which educators are somewhat obligated to provide competent knowledge. This does not mean that every counselor must not take personal responsibility. They absolutely must understand boundaries, ethics, and competency and know when to ask for help, make referrals, or contact authorities. Counselors are expected to perform at such a high level that it is crucial for everyone who is involved in a counseling career to cross their Ts and dot there I s.