Applied Psychology

Digital Ethics for Mental Health Practitioners

Oct 12, 2023 | By Jenna van Schoor

Digital ethics are essential to consider when working online with clients or patients. Of course, ethics are equally important in a face-to-face setting. However, working through a digital medium creates additional concerns, for example, possible third party data usage and privacy.

To be able to conduct a digitally ethical practice, it’s vital to think about how engaging online through tools such as WhatsApp, Zoom, and email can affect your relationship with the client. It’s also crucial to consider how sharing information about yourself online can impact your professional life.

In this post, we’ll discuss some things to consider when running virtual consultations and navigating the digital realm as a mental health practitioner.

What are digital ethics?

Ethics are moral principles that guide how we interact and engage with others. Digital ethics are not fundamentally different but vary in complexity and format.

When dealing with mental health, we must always provide a safe and stable environment, especially via digital channels. This is because the patient or client has consented to share confidential information with the practitioner, which needs to be honoured in this more indirect format.

Essentially, digital ethics are concerned with what is right and wrong when interacting and sharing confidential and sensitive material online.

Why are digital ethics important?

How do our interactions change when we conduct a session via Zoom? For example, do we see each other differently when we get an insight into each other’s homes when joining calls remotely? Also, how do we keep all data shared via a call confidential?

We can never be sure what is happening in the background of a digital call or interaction, so it’s ethical to consider how your environment and the digital channels you use affect your relationships and sessions, both in the immediate and long term.

It might feel scary to consider worst-case scenarios, for example, when it comes to data theft or hacking. However, in the world that we live in today, we need to do our best to protect ourselves against data breaches and make sure that we use encryption as much as possible.

To outline some of the most prominent ethical issues as a mental health practitioner, here are some topics to consider:

1. Data storage and privacy

Do you record all of your calls? If so, how do you store them? Many regulations require transparency about the data you store, but communicating this to your client directly is even more critical. 

What happens if data leaks? Do you have sufficient firewalls and antivirus software to prevent this data from being tampered with? In addition, it’s critical to ensure this information is stored securely and that you have set up password protection on your laptop/computer and any cloud storage platforms. 

There are many questions to ask and topics to communicate about ethical conduct. You can do this by drawing up clear terms about storing personal data and if and when you might be required to share them (for example, patient notes and files, which patients can request).

Ultimately it’s imperative to honour privacy and confidentiality and to have stable IT systems to support your practice.

2. Shared online networks

Practically, considering how you collect, store and manage your patient’s data is paramount. But what about your data? With the prevalence of social media, it can sometimes be challenging to keep track of what personal information we have shared online and how much information people can access about us.

Is it ethical to become friends with a patient on Facebook or follow each other on Instagram? It might seem excessive to think about every single ramification. Still, professional boundaries are essential to maintain trust. If a client has access to your personal social media, how might what you share impact them? How could this impact the relationship you are building if you share views that might be very different to theirs? For example, your personal political perspectives would not typically be part of a therapeutic conversation.

It can be helpful to communicate with clients about what is acceptable. For example, using WhatsApp during business hours might be appropriate. However, after-hours messaging and social media interaction might feel invasive and inappropriate. Putting boundaries in place is essential to maintain professionalism via all digital channels. 

We might not think twice about sending and receiving client emails, but this could include sensitive data too. Are we always aware of how this information is protected and stored? Although such a part of daily life, it’s also essential to establish boundaries when communicating via email.

3. Accountability

When engaging with clientsonline, it’s also imperative to consider the ethics around accountability. Accountability means showing up for calls on time and ensuring you have data and stable connectivity to engage, regardless of load shedding or other potentially limiting factors.

Accountability also works both ways, as both practitioners and clients must ensure they have enough data or connectivity to conduct an online session, which may prove difficult in certain situations, especially in rural areas.

Keep your career up to speed with SACAP Global

Overall, interacting online comes with additional responsibility for mental health practitioners in a digital format. When it comes to social work, therapy and counselling, this can also require a more dynamic approach to interacting with clients in a hybrid form.

Digital ethics is just one of many topics to educate yourself on when keeping your skill set current. If you’re interested, SACAP Global occasionally runs live online workshops tailored to social workers and mental health practitioners. These workshops offer various CPD points and promote information sharing in the psychological field. 

To find out more, browse our course list.

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