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What are Your Rights in the Counseling Center?

Last month, the University of Oregon (OSU) counseling center came into the spotlight when the school defended itself in a lawsuit using mental health records of a woman raped at the university. The unidentified student was raped by three basketball players last year. The university found the players accountable and they were kicked off the team and expelled from the school. The student found that it was not enough and is now suing the school for mishandling her case. In preparing to defend itself, the university took all the reports of the student’s counseling sessions at the university center. These records were given to the university’s lawyers and used against the student in court. The players were not found guilty and were not charged criminally for the horrendous crime they committed. It was even later discovered that prior to this assault, one of the players was suspended from a previous college team due to another sexual assault.

Since the student confided in the university’s health clinic, the school had access to her records, and decided to use it against her in court. Her privacy rights were taken away by the university. This case left the students at the school unsure of their clinic. Even two employees of the counseling center believe it was taken too far. The school defended itself by using its FERPA rights in which the college has a legal right to get access to student medical records for any reason; even for a legal defense. Whether it’s legal or not, is it morally and ethically right for a college to do this to its students?

This leaves the question: would other college campuses handle the situation the same way? Here at Suffolk University, students are offered a safe place to come and confided to counselors about any situation.

Suffolk’s Counseling Center (referred to as Counseling, Health, and Wellness or CHW) provided us with background information about services offered, but also with some additional information about confidentiality. We talked to Dr. Jean Joyce-Brady, the Director of CHW for the past year and a half. Appointments between a counselor and a student at Suffolk are very strict. Before beginning a first appointment, a student has to read and sign the Student Consent for Evaluation and Treatment Form, which applies for both counseling and medical appointments. The form includes a detailed explanation of the confidentiality policy, which states:

“Confidentially of counselor/student and medical provider/student relationships and records is maintained in a manner consistent with accepted professional standards and with local, state, and federal laws.”

The policy also details the act of sharing information if self-harm and harm to others is implied by the person in counseling:

“In addition, information shared in your counseling and/or medical visits may be shared with others within CHW and outside of CHW as appropriate when there is concern about imminent self-harm or harm to others; this may include notifying your family and/or other Suffolk University officials.”

Overall, the policy protects the rights of the student using the clinic, but does have to follow the laws based on what is required to be shared.

The confidentiality policy does allow for documents and confidential information to be handed over to the court, as a result of a court case requiring this information as evidence. This is the legal “loophole” OSU found that enabled them to get the student’s therapy information. While it is allowed for students to ask for copies of anything the court receives, it could still be slightly unnerving for students that a court case could require their confidential information to be brought to the open.

However, Dr. Joyce-Brady made a point to tell us that in her time at Suffolk, the instance of a court case needed treatment documents from the CHW has never occurred. She says:

“As a Director with responsibility for counseling services for Suffolk students, including any victims of sexual assault who seek help at CHW Counseling, my goal is always to have CHW Counseling staff provide quality, confidential care that contributes to the journey of healing and recovery for students.”

Dr. Joyce-Brady is very adamant about the fact that the CHW’s goal first and foremost is to help students heal, and their policies allow for the most confidential and supportive care possible while still following medical laws.

We also spoke to a couple of Suffolk students who have made use of the CHW. A male student used the counseling center for half of last semester, but has now moved to a long-term therapist in Boston outside of Suffolk. He had experience with counseling before going to the CHW, and said he was “comfortable meeting with them because they have a very friendly staff.” He said the staff did not go over the confidentiality policy extensively, but he did have to sign the Student Consent for Evaluation and Treatment Form as all students do. He also said he would recommend the center to other students, but he thinks, “The center needs to work more on their sub-departments.”

A female student used the counseling for four weeks, and it was her first time in any type of counseling. She had a good experience, and said her counselor was “down to earth and relatable” and was an excellent outside resource to talk to. She said they explained in detail the confidentiality policy and exactly what it covered. She said she’d absolutely recommend the center to fellow students, and has already.

Overall, the CHW seems to be a very good resource for students on campus. It provides medically secure and accurate care in a confidential matter. However, it is designed for more short-term use, and some students looking for long-term care may need to find an outside therapist after a few sessions with the center. The CHW does help students find outside therapists if their care would need to be longer-term. It is an excellent starting point though for students who do not have much experience in therapy or do not know where to go for help.

With the issue of confidentiality in reference to court cases, it appears that the general law for both university and regular counseling requires information to be given over to the court. This isn’t the best policy in terms of making patients feel safe and reassured. Even if it is legally correct, it may not always be morally correct. There is a huge gap between what is right and what is allowed in the court system, and this gap could end up hurting individuals – the way it did the student at OSU.

It may make students slightly wary, but the most important issue is taking care of themselves. It is more important to reach out for help and counseling than it is to keep everything inside. Court cases like OSU are very rare and occur only in extreme circumstances. Mental and physical health should come first.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Suffolk University CHW Center at (617) 573 – 8226. Walk-ins are also welcome to the center, located on the 5th floor of 73 Tremont St. In the event of an emergency, call Suffolk Police or 911.

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