A lot of misunderstanding (and misinformation) has trickled into mainstream conversations from not-so-mainstream corners of the internet lately and I hope to dispel some of that here.
As a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Nevada and a National Certified Counselor who has written many pages of laws for his own state, I can tell you with unequivocal certainty that we cannot take guns from people struggling with mental illness. No one can order them to be surrendered except a judge.
Okay, okay, I admit that is a technicality of the so-called Red Flag Law(s) of various states. But truly, no laws presently adopted or even under consideration grant authority for clinicians (or doctors, or social workers, or anyone else) even to put in for the protection order except immediate family members and law enforcement. That’s it. Family members and cops.
Licensed mental health professionals are bound by strict ethical codes that are reflected in state law and those codes prohibit us from breaking confidentiality – that is, the content you share with us in session – except for very specific circumstances. Those are, generically speaking, in four categories:
1) Imminent threat to self or others.
– Language across professional ethical codes and laws varies from “serious and foreseeable” to “imminent” but the spirit is still the same. The clinician must weigh very carefully whether or not breaking confidentiality, which is often referred to as the second-most precious tool in our field, is necessary in order to keep others safe. We do not take this lightly. If you are fall into this category – gun owner or not – we have much bigger issues than your ownership of firearms, such as life or death of you or someone else. But even so, all I am allowed to do as a clinician if something rose to this level is to report the threat of harm. I cannot, unless you threatened the harm with a gun, disclose that you are a gun owner. By ethic and law, I am required to disclose the minimum necessary to get you the next level of care available because my outpatient setting is no longer working in that case. Now, after that someone else (a family member or police officer) may ask that you surrender your firearms temporarily to keep you or others safe until you’re better, but that’s not my doing.
2) Suspected abuse, neglect (or in some states) isolation of vulnerable people.
– This category of breaking confidentiality is reserved to protect vulnerable people (typically defined as children, the elderly, or those with intellectual or physical disabilities) from being mistreated. Again, even if I know that you own guns because you told me and then later you disclose that you are withholding food from your kids as a punishment, if there’s no connection between the two then I am not at liberty to disclose your firearm ownership. I am likely compelled by law to call Child Protective Services but I am not allowed to tell them about your guns. So unless you are abusing your kids (or the elderly or the handicapped) WITH THE GUNS then I have to keep that confidential.
3) You give me permission to share your information.
– This one is self-explanatory. If you sign a release of information that allows me to talk to others like your spouse or doctor, then I am free to do so. However, even this has limits. I am only allowed to disclose things about you with those specific people or agencies that are CLINICALLY RELEVANT AND NECESSARY to your treatment. I cannot gossip and I cannot overshare.
4) A judge orders me to break confidentiality.
– This one often trips people up, especially young clinicians, because they think it becomes an olly olly oxenfree where everything has to be turned over to the court. It is also extraordinarily rare and here is why. Our state laws typically have our ethical codes woven into them and, as such, the protection of your confidentiality. A judge would have to be very precise and possess very well articulated rationale as to why he is ordering me as a clinician to break the very laws he was sworn to enforce. Many steps along the way have to be taken before the courtroom scene and I as the clinician would have spent several hours articulating and documenting in the client file why release of records would case harm to the client (presuming you don’t want them released). Usually along the way all the attorneys agree that they don’t need that much detail anyway and usually this only pertains to custody cases involving children that have nothing to do with firearms.
All that said, if I inappropriately break your confidentiality, I immediately put my career in jeopardy. Most clinicians would rather not sacrifice tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, multiple years of training and education, thousands of hours of clinical experience, and their livelihood just to seize your guns anyway, no matter how liberal they might be. It’s just not worth the risk of getting it wrong and having you sue us and/or file a complaint with the licensing board that would effectively end that person’s professional career.
So please, go forward and seek help if you need it. We love you and we want you to be well. And as a gun owner myself, the last thing I want is a fellow gun owner failing to heal simply because of an irrational fear that the counselor will hear “anxiety” and “Glock” in the same paragraph and immediately pick up the Bat Phone to the judge.
Believe me, we would rather see you happy and healthy than almost anything else in the world because it means the world to us. And we can’t do that if you cannot trust us.
Thanks for reading. Please share with your friends.
For more free information on mental health topics, listen to the Noggin Notes podcast or go to www.zephyrwellness.org