January 10, 2008

Media Psychologists: Educating the Public; Demystifying Psychotherapy and Modeling Professional Ethics

News is often about human behavior, thus there’s a natural role for psychologists and other mental health professionals to work with the news media to help people understand behavior and other mental health issues. Bringing their knowledge to the millions of media consumers can help demystify mental health issues and give valuable mental health advice to people who might not otherwise seek or have access to such care. However, there are also professional and ethical obligations for psychologists doing media work.

Are psychotherapy clients entitled to confidentiality?

Yes, both professional ethics and legal provisions entitle patients to confidentiality. In many respects, confidentiality is the bedrock of the psychologist-patient relationship. The APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (2002) states that psychologists have a “primary obligation” to protect confidentiality.

Did Dr. Phil violate Britney Spears’ privacy?

We don’t know all the facts surrounding this situation and therefore cannot comment on it specifically. An important question is the context of the work done by any media psychologist. Psychologists working with the news media are typically sharing information and not providing psychotherapy. The people they interact with are not clients.

From the media accounts, it’s not clear in what capacity Dr. Phil met with Ms. Spears; nevertheless, patients of licensed psychologists are entitled to privacy and confidentiality.

Why do media work if it’s not therapy?

While it is important for all mental health professionals who work with the news media to state that what they do is information-sharing and not therapy, their work, based on the research literature and/or appropriate clinical experience, has value as a means of educating the public about mental health issues. It also has the potential to persuade people to work with a mental health professional for issues affecting their relationships, health and wellness.

For some people, seeking mental health care is a daunting task. They may not be able to afford it or they might believe it is stigmatizing to seek care for mental health problems. For others, there may be mobility barriers. For these people, information about mental health issues delivered via the media may be their only source of such information – or it may encourage them to find the resources (emotional, financial and physical) to access care.

Are psychologists who work in the news media obligated to adhere to a set of ethical standards?

Yes, all psychologists regardless of their work setting are obligated to practice ethically. Members of the American Psychological Association (APA) must follow the APA’s Ethics Code or be subject to possible censure or expulsion by the Association. The APA code includes the requirement that psychologists protect their patient’s confidentiality