Ethics in Psychotherapy

Every relationship, whether it is personal or professional, has some norms and values that need to be maintained. All sorts of relationships work on trust, and trust is backed up by ethics. The moment an ethical breach occurs in any relationship, the relationship breakdowns.

What is the meaning of Ethics in Psychotherapy?

Ethics is an important aspect of any discipline and provides a backdrop for decision-making, especially when there is a dilemma. Professional organizations provide ethical codes to issue broad guidelines to the practitioners, and organizations may somewhat differ in their guidelines. A discipline, however, has major guidelines expected to be followed to maintain some amount of uniformity in the decision-making process.

Ethics in psychology can be divided into two topics. There are ethical guidelines in psychological research, and then there is ethics in psychotherapy and counseling practices. In both cases, the code of ethics helps an individual whenever they are stuck, and it helps them make a conscious decisions backed by well-researched and thoughtful guidelines.

General Ethics

In psychology, ethics is the most important and debated topic. To what extent is an action unethical is a dilemma most therapists experience. For example, the amount of disclosure or the contents of disclosure is a matter of ethical dilemma for many practitioners.

In order to address various ethical issues, the two major organizations, namely The British Psychological Society (BPS) and The American Psychological Association (APA) have attempted to provide an ethical framework to provide practitioners with a guideline for psychotherapy.

Ethics in a Psychological Practice

Ethics in psychotherapy and counseling depend upon organizational principles apart from the universal general guidelines. However, the basic framework of most of these principles is more or less similar.

The guidelines in psychological practice are often subjective and depend on practitioners' interpretation, but they help in effective decision-making in a therapy room. The subjectivity arises from the fact that the contexts of practice and practioner vary in various aspects. There are differences in the community, histories of community, region, and knowledge system of the practitioner, and therefore these differences are present. For instance, the standards of contact between a client and the therapist can differ in urban and rural areas.

Professional ethics in psychology can be better understood better by differentiating between mandatory and aspirational ethics. Mandatory ethics refers to a level of ethical conduct where the practitioners adhere to the minimum guidelines keeping in mind the basic 'must' and 'should not' in their practice—for example, adhering to the principle of not harming the participant at any cost (Do no harm). On the other hand, aspirational ethics refers to the highest standards of moral reasoning, thinking, and professional conduct they seek, and it calls for practitioners to go above and beyond 'just' abiding by the code of ethics.

Here are the important ethical guidelines that need to be kept in mind while conducting therapy.

  • Beneficence and nonmaleficence: This refers to the principle of making sure that the practitioners thrive on helping their clients while ensuring that no or least harm is caused to them in case of unavoidable obligations. This harm refers to both physical and psychological. Psychological harm is subjective. Therefore, a therapist must be very careful in a session and avoid any undue stress that can cause psychological harm to the participants.
  • Right of confidentiality: This ethical principle provides anonymity to the clients, and this helps them to fight the stigma they have been fearing. Therefore, it is the therapist's responsibility to take utmost care in hiding the client's identity and the results of any tests if conducted. No one outside the therapy room, without the client's permission, must know about the client's details.
  • Right to withdraw from therapy: The participants must have the right to take a step back from the therapy, testing, or its result. It helps to lift the pressure from the clients. There are several reasons that this right is given to the clients. One of them is that they may feel uncomfortable during the sessions or ashamed about their test results. Even in group therapy, a participant may feel uncomfortable or triggered, which is why this right enables them to put their safety first and withdraw.
  • Right to informed consent: This is one of the most important ethical considerations. Informed consent refers to the procedure where the client is made aware of the therapeutic process and their willful permission is taken after understanding the procedure. Informed consent helps the client realize what they are signing up for.
  • Deception in therapy: Hiding information or misleading clients is a violation of ethical principles. However, deception is a necessary evil in some cases. Deception is a tricky guideline in psychology, which has to be used only when necessary. The utmost care and peer review are advisable while using deception in a therapy room.

Ethical Behavior in Therapy

All psychologists must make an effort to behave themselves with beneficence and nonmaleficence, fidelity and accountability, integrity, justice, and respect for people's rights and dignity, according to the five general principles of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Code of Conduct.

  • Responsibility: This involves acknowledging that practitioners' actions have consequences, and thus they are to act most respectfully and responsibly.
  • Integrity: The practitioner must not commit any professional misconduct or fraud. In case of necessary deception used during special circumstances, it has to be used with utmost care.
  • Justice: The practitioner must observe social equality and treat the clients in a just and fair manner.
  • Respect: The practitioner must respect the client's autonomy, privacy, and confidentiality.


Ethics in psychology is a much more nuanced and deep topic. It is nearly impossible to observe all of them at all times. However, the practitioners must make an honest attempt to observe them, especially the mandatory ethics. Following the code of ethics requires a lot of awareness, introspection, and commitment to the discipline. Ethics also help to maintain some amount of universality in the practice of psychotherapy and research. Therefore, a thorough understanding and implementation of these principles enable practitioners and researchers to establish good judgment and decorum in the discipline.


  • Bhola, Poornima, and Ahalya Raguram, eds. Ethical issues in counselling and psychotherapy practice: Walking the line. Springer, 2016.
  • Cottone, R. R., & Tarvydas, V. M. (2007). Counseling ethics and decision making. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.

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