Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Essential Magic of Confidentiality

It may not be well known to those outside of higher education, but there is a tremendous amount of energy behind the search for information concerning college students.  From vendors to credit card companies to judicial networks to administrators and parents, a great many individuals and entities want the skinny on students.  Sometimes the desire is based in altruistic and other well-intentioned motives; some times it is decidedly not.  Even when the motives are healthy, a very few understand the impact of this search on the campus mental health service and, more importantly, on the student seeking mental health services.

Students are like any consumers in that they want value for their time and dollar.  They are in my experience pretty savvy customers, and fairly merciless when they are not convinced or disappointed with the service they receive.  Outfits that deign to provide those services better darn well have some magic in their goods, or the student is out the door before they know what hit them.  And therein lies the problem for college counseling centers.

One could argue that there is an enormous amount of value in mental health services.  And one would be correct.  The opportunity to learn about the self, to manifest authentic and healthy adulthood, to remedy past trauma, to have a healing relationship, and to live free of terrible symptoms are wondrous gifts provided by skilled hands.  But the average college student does not, probably can not, see this at the outset and sometimes even for awhile after that.  It's difficult for anyone to fathom life in the absence of pain, or the beauty of what it is like to be a genuine self.

Oh but what they can see is the gift of privacy, of having at least one place in their lives where they can say what they want and try out various selves until they find the one that fits.  College students can see this even before they dial the center's number or visit the office itself.  It will be clear to them in advertisement and in the physical orientation of the office.  It will be clear to them within minutes of entering the facility and of talking with a therapist.  And it will be very obvious to them as the service negotiates through requests and demands for information concerning them.  This is the essential magic of mental health services, the magic that breeds all other magic the services can provide.  Without it no other benefits accrue; it is the oxygen of therapy and change.  Even the slightest ill-considered breach of this boundary can be fatal to healing, though students generally understand when good communication is necessary.

All others in the student's life simply must understand this.  Everyone, from a police officer to a dean, must respect this fundamental truth if they have interests in the developmental goals of students.  In the overwhelming majority of situations, the goals of society and institutions are not that different from the goals of students; there is a great deal of overlap.  If you tamper with or deprive this magic, a vacuum is created and positive growth is stunted or terminated.  A very simple but oft-overlooked principle is to ask the student for the information you want.  Allow them the autonomy and self-determination which is embedded in our federal constitution, for all of us in the United States of America, in these words: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.