Risks Associated with
Counseling Center Web Sites
 

Original version written by John W. Hall, and since modified by David L. Gilles-Thomas


Giving your Counseling Center a presence on the Web is not without risks. Hopefully this page will offer some lessons learned by others so that at least you will enter this new frontier with your eyes open for hazards.

As with most of what we do in Counseling Centers, services online need to be offered to students after they have given informed consent. If there are limits to what technology will allow, we need to let our clients know of these. What follow are some specific instances of limitations we currently face.

  1. One issue to consider is how crises will be handled on your web site. People are just as likely to have crises while sitting at their computers as they are to have them next to their phone.
    • If someone comes to your site while considering suicide, will you have information to help them contact the services they need quickly?
    • How much of what appears on your site would be useful to a student in distress at 3:00 a.m.?
    • How many links will they have to follow before finding the telephone number for the local Crisis Hotline?

    If you don't offer crisis coverage, that's fine. State what services are available for both students and community members.
     

    Suggestion #1: List crisis information prominently and early in your web site, preferably on your homepage.

     

  2. Another issue to consider is how you are willing to use e-mail. As students become more comfortable with technology, they may be more likely to send all manner of questions via e-mail.
    • What if they want to schedule an appointment through e-mail?
    • What if they have a question about services?
    • What if they tell you they are thinking of killing themselves in an e-mail?
    • Can you guarantee that e-mail is secure or does your university, like most, reserve the right to monitor your usage?

    You might want to be explicit about what you will and won't do via e-mail. Like any issue of informed consent, students need to know what the risks are of communicating with you through e-mail. The APA's Ethics Committee has posted this statement about services by telephone, teleconferencing, and the Internet. It doesn't actually answer any questions, but at least it helps point us in the direction of the right questions to consider.
     

    Suggestion #2: Post a warning page about the limitations of e-mail as an intermediate page prior to the user being able to e-mail your staff.

    A sample e-mail warning page is at the University at Buffalo's Counseling Services webpage.   The user may choose not to read it, but at least we took reasonable precautions to let them know of the limitations and they did have to scroll through it to get to the "mailto" commands. 
     

  3. If you've decided to link your pages to external sources of information, that's great. It also raises an issue about how much responsibility are you willing to take for the content of the external source.
    • Are you willing to stake your reputation on the page to which you are linking?
    • How about to all the links on that page?
    • How about all the links on all of those pages?

    As you can see, it becomes a little overwhelming and following this logic you eventually end up vouching for every page on the web. While we know that is not what we're doing, I'm not certain that a court would agree. Which brings me to:
     

    Suggestion #3: Put some kind of disclaimer before links that lead out of your site that lets people know that while you think the link is useful, you don't own it and can't be held responsible if it changes for the worse.

     

  4. Finally, be aware that anything you put on the web is available to pretty much everyone who happens to stumble across it. This isn't usually a huge problem, but recognize that your policy manuals or other resources for staff are just as accessible to a behavioral HMO who doesn't have your center's best interests at heart. So:
     
    Suggestion #4: If you don't want the whole world to see something, don't put it up on the web.

    Of course, if you know a lot about setting complex passwords and server permissions, feel free to post anything you like (as long as it's not confidential, since that opens a whole new can of worms). Then your only concern is hackers, and most wouldn't be interested in your policies.

This document is a work in progress.  As counseling center professionals encounter new problems, we hope they will contact us with new suggestions, so that we can all learn from our misfortunes. 

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