Why School Counselors Should Consider Malpractice Insurance

October 15, 2021 •

The demand for mental health support has increased dramatically in recent years, particularly among young people. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly fueled this trend. The demands being placed on school counselors right now are high. While their job is to help others, they must also protect themselves. Like anyone else providing professional psychotherapy support, counselors working in the education system must have comprehensive malpractice insurance.

Why Counselors Need to be Properly Insured

Whether you are a counselor working in a school or in a private practice, you need the right kind of liability insurance to protect yourself in the event that a formal complaint is ever made against you. We have seen even the most respected and ethical professionals get sued over perceived misconduct, negligence, or other violations – often these allegations can’t even be proven, but they still cause lasting damage to the person who has been accused.

As a counselor in the education system, you are dealing with very vulnerable young people who rely on you for professional expertise. They often have few other resources for getting help. While your goal is of course to help them, they might feel that you have harmed them in some way. It also happens that parents get involved and are upset with the advice or guidance you have provided.

School Counselors Are in a Vulnerable Position

As any professional working in the psychology field knows, their work uniquely positions them to closely interact with troubled individuals on an ongoing basis. While a counselor is trained to deal with any number of difficult outcomes associated with this, there is little that a counselor can do when a patient has misinterpreted advice or failed to follow your guidance as prescribed.

In a school setting, a student with complex mental health issues may completely misconstrue the guidance you provide or even harm themselves in some way and say that it’s your fault. Parents, perhaps not knowing the whole story, quickly get involved and it can be a downward spiral from there. Whether you are being treated fairly or not, you must have safeguards in place to protect yourself should allegations be made.

When An Ethics Complaint is Filed

A complainant can take action against you in two ways: They could file an ethics complaint to the licensing board or file a civil suit. While these are two separate and distinct actions, a licensing board can use evidence that was gathered during the civil suit to make a determination about whether or not an ethical violation has taken place.

In some ways, dealing with the licensing board is even more problematic than facing a lawsuit. It can result in the suspension or even complete revocation of a counselor’s license, making it impossible for them to continue practicing. Once a shadow has been cast on someone’s professional reputation, it can be very difficult to make a comeback.

Anyone Can Sue You

Yes, unfortunately, this is true – it’s not just students and parents you need to worry about. A counselor can be sued by other therapists or even by a person they were having a conversation with who misconstrued the exchange as a psychotherapy session.

These situations are rare but highlight the vulnerable position that people working in the psychotherapy field are in. Having comprehensive malpractice insurance in place is absolutely essential to extricating yourself from any number of liability pitfalls you might find yourself in.

What Exactly is Counselor Liability Insurance?

Counselor liability insurance covers anything associated with your professional work as a licensed therapist. It is designed to protect you financially and professionally if you are sued while practicing.

This specific type of insurance does not typically cover general liability unless you purchase it separately. For example, if a student is injured in your office due to a slip or fall, this is not an incident related to malpractice and requires separate coverage.

Legal Expenses

An insurance policy may include legal representation, meaning you would have no out-of-pocket legal expenses if you need to hire a lawyer. But don’t assume that your plan covers this! It is important to consult with a licensed insurance specialist so you have a clear understanding of exactly what is and is not included in your plan. An insurance expert will also be able to make helpful recommendations based on your needs.

What Specific Type of Malpractice Insurance Do You Need?

If you are a licensed professional delivering psychotherapy, in a school setting or otherwise, you need specific insurance coverage that will protect you in a variety of scenarios. This is true even if you are working at a junior or associate level. Even graduate school counseling programs require internship students to be insured.

At a minimum, you would want Professional Liability coverage, and your limits would be based on the type and number of patients you see. We also recommend having Licensing Board Defense, Defendant’s Reimbursement Benefit, and coverage for assault, medical expenses, and HIPAA penalties. You may need protection for property damage, but this is often covered by the school’s general liability coverage.

Who Needs Malpractice Coverage?

We’ve established that school counselors need full liability coverage, but let’s be clear that absolutely anyone who delivers any form of professional counseling or psychotherapy needs to be covered for malpractice. This includes therapists, psychologists, professional counselors, and social workers. This also includes graduate students who are in the process of pursuing a state license to provide any of the aforementioned psychological services.

Risks Associated with Lack of Insurance

Even an unsubstantiated licensing board complaint can have severe and long-term consequences on a counselor’s ability to practice in the future. The reputational damage is bad enough, but if found guilty, a counselor’s license could be suspended or permanently revoked. There are specific forms of insurance that can help you with licensing issues, but don’t assume that this is automatically included in your policy.

While a malpractice suit does not necessarily have a direct outcome on a counselor’s license, it can sometimes have indirect consequences that will be felt for years to come. This is why we recommend having very specific insurance in place to safeguard professionals in this field. Psychiatric professionals are every bit as prone to liability as medical doctors and need to have the proper defenses in place should an issue ever escalate.

Top Reasons for Counselor Malpractice Lawsuits

Malpractice complaints, whether from students, parents, or others, often tend to look very much alike. They typically center around some degree of sexual misconduct, or other boundary-crossing occurrences where the patient perceives that they have been victimized. Other common reasons for the initiation of a lawsuit are when a breach of confidentiality has taken place, or when a patient harms themself or attempts to commit suicide.

Counseling Beyond Your Scope of Practice

While a malpractice suit can arise from any of the situations noted earlier, it is also common for counselors to get in trouble for providing guidance that is outside their area of expertise. It is essential that counselors practice in areas where they are specifically trained to provide expert advice. Practicing beyond scope is one of the most common types of malpractice claims.

For example, if a student seeks help for an eating disorder, there are specific considerations at play that would only be known to a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. Going outside your lane on this topic can be detrimental to the student, especially when it is known that suicide rates among youths with eating disorders is particularly high.

The Current Workplace Climate for Counselors

If it seems like mental health is very much in the news these days, you’re correct. With 4 out of 10 American adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression, there is a higher demand for psychological support than ever before. These numbers are even higher among youths, whose lives and education have been disrupted to an unprecedented extend over the past 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as social unrest and cultural clashes which have in some areas reached a boiling over point.

School counselors play a critical role during these challenging times, sometimes simply acting as a sounding board, other times dealing with the complex mental health crises of students who have few other resources for support.

Counselor Burn-Out

Counselors, both in the school system and otherwise, are seeing unprecedented numbers of people seeking psychological help. It is not surprising that professionals in this field are also reporting high levels of anxiety and depressive disorder themselves. The demands being placed on school counselors right now are high, and they are feeling the pressure.

Pandemic Times

There is no doubt that the COVID pandemic and resulting economic recession have had a major impact on the mental health of young people and the population at large. Those individuals who already had mental health or substance abuse issues before the pandemic have since faced additional barriers to getting their lives back on track.

Counselors are getting frequent reports from students about difficulty sleeping, lack of appetite, increased use of alcohol and other substances, and a worsening of generalized anxiety – all related either directly or indirectly to the pandemic. In worst-case scenarios, students who already had prior mental health issues are reporting an increase in suicidal thoughts.

Protecting Yourself

While counselors make every effort to approach these challenging situations with a professional attitude, it can be challenging to not get emotionally involved in the stories of the people they are trying to help. This is especially true when dealing with minors, who are among the most vulnerable people in our society.

It is essential that counselors and all psychological professionals take the time to handle the practical considerations that come with this type of emotionally charged work environment. Of course, you want to give the students who come to you the very best care possible but remember that you yourself are in a vulnerable position as a professional in this field. Investing in the best risk management tools to protect yourself and your practice is critical

Dealing With a Reputable Insurance Professional

It’s important to recognize that not all insurance policies are created equal. It’s critical to ask questions of your insurance company and ensure they have your best interests in mind, while also taking the time to understand your insurance policy. Ideally, your policy should include protection against losses, defense coverage, licensing safeguards, and should take into consideration any state laws that are relevant to you as a practicing counselor.

A licensed insurance expert who specializes in professional liability coverage should be able to explain the nuances of malpractice protection and tailor a plan that best suits your specific professional needs.

NOW Insurance specializes in malpractice (professional liability) insurance for healthcare professionals. We have access to top notch legal expertise that will represent you in the case of a lawsuit. We are committed to providing insurance that is simple, fast and affordable.

Learn more about our insurance for counselors and therapists. We also provide insurance for medical facilities and schools.

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