A colleague in your building stumbles as he walks down the hall, and you smell alcohol on his breath.
You’ve heard that an older colleague has become forgetful, sometimes seems confused and has even fallen asleep during a session.
How do you ethically handle such scenarios?
APA’s Code of Ethics requires psychologists to recognize when their own personal problems might interfere with their effectiveness and take action. But when it’s someone else who has the problem, knowing what to do can be difficult.
“On the one hand, people want to do something; on the other, they don’t want to get someone in trouble where they might lose their license,” says Michael O. Ranney, executive director of the Ohio Psychological Association. “For many people, it’s a difficult ethical dilemma — what to do and how to do it.”
The approach Ranney and other experts recommend? Step in early and take advantage of a colleague assistance program or other forms of help offered by your state, provincial or territorial psychological association (SPTA). Reporting someone to the state licensing board should be a last resort, they emphasize.
Getting other psychologists the help they need is an ethical duty just like getting help for yourself, says Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD, director of APA’s Ethics Office.
“All of our training, all of our experience is to promote health and well-being, and that should begin in our own community of psychologists,” he says. “It absolutely should be an ethical responsibility that we take on as psychologists to be that supportive community to our colleagues in distress.”
Stopping problems before they escalate is key, Behnke and others agree.
One way to do that is to develop and maintain a network of social relations with other psychologists, says Sam Knapp, EdD, director of professional affairs at the Pennsylvania Psychological Association. Work on meeting your colleagues and reach out to them in good times and bad.
“If you find out that a colleague has just had a death in the family or a divorce or some kind of event like that, send them a card or call them up and express condolences,” says Knapp. “Ninety-nine percent of the time they’re not going to slip into impairment, but they’re going to appreciate it and feel that they can confide in you about other things.”
It’s not just personal issues that can cause problems, he adds. A patient’s suicide, for example, could plunge a psychologist into depression.
Once other psychologists become comfortable with you, says Knapp, they might ask for a referral for therapy or substance abuse treatment. They might seek consultation on a case they’re having trouble with. Or they might just want someone to talk to.