Tag Archives: Privacy in Mental Illness

Privacy Laws Should Not Exclude Families

By Dr David Laing Dawson

“Frustration over mental health disclosure doesn’t trump privacy protection: experts” (CBC News, Halifax)

This story makes specific reference to a 21 year old who committed suicide after 3 trips to the University Health Services, only one of which her mother knew about.

Years ago, as a young psychiatrist with but one and then two very young children of my own, I am sure I “respected” the privacy of many of the teens I saw and treated. Usually our clinic staff saw them alone, and then invited the parent(s) in, and didn’t disclose anything the teen adamantly refused to share. I can’t remember the official age of consent at the time, but some years later it became 12. I remember this because a social agency asked me to see a 12 year old caught stealing. I said I would like to see his mother with him. They said, “We will have to ask his permission.” My mouth fell open. “What? You need to get permission from a 12 year old before you talk with his parents? That is nuts.”

Before that moment my thinking had evolved. Not least because I realized how outraged I would be if a doctor, counselor, psychiatrist did not tell me about important, serious things my daughter might disclose to her.

Working in a clinic that saw many teens, and consulting to local High Schools, I decided I could treat an 18 year old as an adult, and a 14 year old as a child. The child would always be seen with his or her parents. In between 14 and 18 the child had to prove he or she was “adult”, in order to be seen alone. And by adult I mean have at least a rudimentary sense of personal responsibility, at least a rudimentary sense of the consequences of certain behaviors, at least a rudimentary sense of not being the center of the universe, at least a lessening of that knee jerk oppositional response to parents and any other authority, and at least a small decay in that adolescent sense of omnipotence.

Of course, within the first half hour of any interview most teens demonstrate that they are not adult in the above sense and then I would say, “I will have to talk with your parents.”

They never fought me very hard on that because, really, they need and want their parents to know about their troubles. They want their parents to parent them. And that includes setting boundaries (protecting them) as well as loving and supporting them.

There was a time when I would ask a teenager something privately, working on the assumption that a.) In the presence of his parents he would not reveal the truth, and b.) His parents may not be ready to hear the answer. Sexual activity and orientation for example.

But my thinking evolved again. I concluded that, instead, a.) There is nothing I as counselor, physician, psychiatrist should know about a teen that his or her parents should not know and b.) Most family secrets are known or suspected by other family members already, and c.) If the parents have a bad, primitive, nasty reaction to the news, it would be better to have it in my presence.

So now I always see a child or teenager with his or her parent(s) and I ask whatever questions I need to ask. And I watch and I listen.

Occasionally I am talked into seeing a teen alone by a parent who insists I do so, and occasionally because the parent did not show up. It is always a futile exercise. It is not far off the metaphor of the blind man describing an elephant. There is one exception to this of course. Once in a while we run into a teenager who is more mature than either of her parents. In social work jargon, this is the ‘parentified’ teenager looking after the welfare and feelings of her parent(s).

I am talking about teenagers here, but it is not age that defines them. It is social, psychological, financial, emotional dependence on others. Their welfare depends on others.

But none of us is an island. Our health, our mental health, our welfare depends on others. So my policy of seeing teens with parent(s) has expanded to anyone who is financially, emotionally dependent on another. That includes college students, young “adults”.

I am seeing them because they are in trouble. If the trouble has to do with drugs, alcohol, relationships, money, failing – parents are in a better position to help than I am, or, at least, their support is necessary. If the young person suffers from a mental illness, then I may be able to treat that illness with or without the parents, but I want them informed and helping and supporting.

Health professionals put themselves in a bind when they see a young troubled person alone and he or she specifically says, “I don’t want my parents to know.”

To prevent that bind, privacy trumping parental concern and good care, we need merely see them together. The patient and his or her family. Together. In the same room at the same time.

So include them right from the beginning. Even bad parents, those who do all the wrong things (well-intentioned or not) should be included. For the child spends far more time with, is more dependent on, is more influenced by or reacting to, his parents than myself. Include them. Teach them if you can. Even if the teen objects before entering the interview room, persist, because he will change his mind very quickly once he understands he will be heard as well.

Don’t give up on parents, family, until you see with your own eyes that they are hopeless, unhelpful, or destructive. When that is the case, unfortunately, we must counsel, treat, care for, look after someone who is not yet an adult as if he or she is a responsible, self-sufficient adult.