The APA Code of Ethics Explained with Real-Life Examples - calmerry

The APA Code of Ethics Explained with Real-Life Examples

Key Takeaways:

  • The APA Code of Ethics regulates professional psychology by establishing standards of acceptable conduct.
  • Having a counselor who adheres to the Ethics Code is an assurance that you are receiving the best treatment.
  • Licensed online counselors acknowledge and adhere to the Code of Ethics in all interactions with clients.

When you decide to see a therapist, you might have some concerns. A common worry that most patients have is privacy. They want to know whether they can trust their therapist. They worry about how safe their information is.

Considering that you will be baring your innermost feelings to your therapist, your concerns are justified. The American Psychological Association (APA) sought to reassure patients of their confidentiality by establishing a strict code to be followed. All psychologists are required to provide the best service to their patients.

To ensure the best results, counseling sessions should get extremely personal. You should feel safe enough to tell your counselor things that you wouldn’t tell your closest friend. In the process of counseling, you may uncover traumatic events that happened in your past. Naturally, you would not want anyone to know about it.

Furthermore, you need to be able to trust your therapist. When he or she gives you advice, you should be able to take it wholeheartedly. Feelings of mistrust, suspicion, and resentment between the two of you will hinder your treatment. It is for these reasons that the regulation was established.

Why do you need to understand the Code of Ethics? Because it helps you identify the best fit for your counseling needs. If you realize that your counselor is not adhering to any of the principles, you should consider different treatment options. Below is a breakdown of the Code with real-life examples.

What Is the APA Code of Ethics?

First created in 1953, the Code of Ethics was a lengthy document composed of real-life ethical dilemmas and potential solutions. It has undergone several amendments to date, the last being in 2017. Currently, the Code is a 16-page document that contains the basic ethical principles that therapists should stick to.

The principles were established to guide counselors in their day-to-day work with patients. They apply to mental health, research, and business activities that psychologists may participate in. We look at each of the principles and how they apply to your relationship with your counselor.

Five Ethical Principles of Psychology

Counselors face many ethical dilemmas while working with patients. The solution to each dilemma is not always obvious.
However, the principles listed below help psychologists make sound ethical decisions.

  • Beneficence and non-maleficence
  • Fidelity and responsibility
  • Integrity
  • Justice
  • Respect for people’s rights and dignity

Beneficence and Non-Maleficence

The principle of beneficence dictates that your counselor should weigh the benefits and drawbacks of treatment options. Non-maleficence dictates that he or she should cause you no harm. Simply put, your counselor should always act in your best interests.

For example, your counselor may have to choose a particularly challenging treatment option to prevent your mental health from becoming worse. Although there may be easier treatment options, they may not be effective in the long run. This decision is made out of beneficence.

You should leave your counseling sessions in a state that is not worse than when your sessions began. Spending time with your counselor should not harm you. Your counselor should always strive to improve you in one way or the other.

Fidelity and Responsibility

Psychologists should remain loyal to high ethical standards. The principle of responsibility dictates that they must be held accountable for their professional decisions. For example, if a course of treatment is not effective, your counselor must take responsibility and find a solution.

Counselors are also required to actively help their colleagues enhance their ethical conduct. They must mentor, review, supervise, and criticize ethical concerns. They should refer the patients to other mental health professionals who are more capable of handling specific mental health challenges.

For example, if your counselor specializes in family therapy, he or she should refer you to a different professional for issues with addiction. It is a responsible decision that guarantees you will get the best care.


Counselors must never deceive their patients or misrepresent themselves for their benefit. A counselor who falsifies his educational background and experience goes against the principle of integrity.

The licensure requirement enforces this principal. If you see a licensed counselor, you are assured that he has the required qualifications. It is important to ask for proof of licensure so that you are protected from unqualified counselors who do not adhere to the Code.


Everyone is entitled to mental health services. Counselors cannot turn away patients because of discriminatory reasons. For example, your age, sex, or race is not a reason to be denied counseling. However, your counselor may refer you to a colleague whom he thinks is more capable of handling your case. You have the right to consult a therapist who was trained to treat your specific issues. 
For example, if you are struggling to recover from trauma, you should be matched with a psychologist or therapist who has expertise in that area. Note that instead of refusing to see you, the counselor skilled in other specific areas ensures that you get help by referring you to someone else.

The principle of justice also applies to the interaction between a therapist and patient. During your session, your counselor must be fair and impartial. They should not impose unfair opinions or pass judgment based on your confessions.

Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity

Your counselor should treat you humanely. He or she must respect your privacy and confidentiality. Without your permission, they cannot divulge any of the details of your session. Your counselor must also overcome personal biases to offer you the best service.

For example, if you confide in your counselor about your night terrors caused by PTSD, they cannot give your family or employer this information. They should protect your dignity and keep the information private because it might affect how others perceive you.

Scenarios in Which the Code of Ethics Is Relevant

There are many ethical dilemmas in the field of psychology. By applying the principles in the Code of Ethics, counselors find a solution that is in their patient’s best interests. Below are four real-life examples and how the Code of Ethics can help find a solution.

Relationships Between Therapists and Patients

You invite your counselor to your graduation ceremony because you want her to see how much progress you have made in your life. Because she has helped you improve yourself and perform better in school, she appreciates the invitation. But, she respectfully declines to attend. It makes you feel bad, and you might not understand why.

The Code dictates that a counselor should refrain from entering relationships with their clients, especially if it will affect their judgment. If they meet your friends and family, they might develop opinions that change their image of you. For your sake, your counselor chooses to support you and maintain a strict counselor-patient relationship.


Your therapist receives a subpoena from a lawyer, ordering that she sends all your records for use in a legal matter. Without your consent, your counselor cannot divulge any information. The Code of Ethics protects your privacy.

There are a few instances when your counselor may be forced to breach the Code and share some details with the authorities. If there is reason to believe that your life or that of someone else’s is in danger, she should contact the relevant authorities. She may also provide your records if she receives a court order.


What should you do if your counselor discontinues your sessions? It is an emotional decision for both of you. You will probably be more affected because you feel rejected and abandoned. The Code dictates that your counselor must make the necessary arrangements to ensure that you continue to get counseling.

Any interruptions in your sessions must be explained beforehand. If your counselor cannot continue seeing you, he or she must refer you to someone who can. All decisions must be made in your best interests.

Billing and Fees

What if you cannot afford to pay for counseling? The justice principle dictates that everyone deserves counseling. You should not be discriminated against because of your financial status.
When you approach a counselor, she will send you a document with the fee and payment arrangements. If you cannot afford her price, she should inform you of other affordable options. In many states, there are free counseling services that you can take advantage of.

Online Counseling by Ethical Professionals

You should look for counselors who uphold the profession’s code of ethics. You deserve to get help knowing that your privacy is guaranteed. Confiding in someone you trust will have the best results.

We have a confidential counseling service that is offered online. Our support agents are available 24/7 to answer any questions you may have about seeking therapy online. Because we adhere to the Code of Ethics, you can get help from us without worrying about your privacy.

Our counselors are well versed in many psychological problems. They offer support to navigate most of life’s challenges. When you sign up for our service, we match you with a counselor who is well suited for your specific issues.

Not satisfied with the counselor we have assigned you? Ask for a replacement at no extra cost. We do our best to make sure your needs are met by matching you to a professional you can work with.

Looking for a counselor that you can trust, and who has your best interests in mind? Look no further than our online counseling service. Improve yourself by signing up today!

Kate Skurat

Kate Skurat

Licensed Mental Health Counselor | Washington, United States

Kate has a B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University and has worked in healthcare since 2017. She primarily treated depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, and grief, as well as identity, relationship and adjustment issues. Her clinical experience has focused on individual and group counseling, emergency counseling and outreach. Read more