Updated: Sep 23
There’s a rather horrifying news story going around about how Harvard attained a student’s therapy notes and handed them to her alleged abuser. A graduate student filed a formal complaint notifying the university that a professor was sexually harassing her. This launched an investigation that is mandatory by federal law and that’s where the notes were dug up.
The notes were obtained without her consent. Harvard, however, claims that it couldn’t have obtained these records without her consent, but that if they had access to the records, then they would have to share them with both parties.
This case has launched discussions about the legalities and ethics of organizations accessing therapy notes from employees or students. Some people are even suggesting for people to avoid employer or school-sponsored therapy altogether.
This story is deeply disappointing to me. In college, I was involved with mental health organizations. My peers and I advocated for mental health awareness and using all the resources available to us to get help. One of those resources was free therapy on campus. (Free is a loose term, since I’m sure we paid for it with our tuition, but I digress.)
My first therapy session was possible because of these resources. I was 22 years old. My father had just died and I was suicidal. I was having mood swings that I called fits because I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe anxiety and panic attacks. My therapist helped unravel the knots in my head. It’s not a stretch to say that therapy saved my life.
If a story like this had come out when I was in college, it would’ve kept me from getting the help I so desperately needed. This is why therapy is sacred. It’s not about involving spirituality in the session, although that’s fine if it works for you. Therapy is sacred because it can mean the difference between life and death. The promise of confidentiality allows people to feel more at ease and open up about their struggles. But how could you go into detail about your trauma if there was a possibility of those notes being handed to your abuser?
I’m sure Harvard has a legal team ready with a lengthy defense for what they did. And I don’t care. My concern is ethical. Confidentiality should only be broken if someone’s life is in danger. Harvard has shown that its definition of confidentiality is flexible and conditional. And in doing so, it's possible that they’ve discouraged hundreds of students from seeking help.
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