A quick review of recent informed consent research leads me to think that informed consent should be a perfect blend of evidence-based information about the benefits, risks, and process of psychotherapy. Like all good hypnotic inductions, informed consent, has the potential to stir positive expectations or activate fear. But when I look at all that we’re supposed to include in informed consents I wonder, does anyone really read them? Informed consent could have significant effects on treatment process and outcome. But only if clients actually read the written document.
The alternative or a complementary strategy is a good oral description of informed consent. Again, as someone trained in hypnosis and sensitive to positive placebo effects, I’m inclined to use informed consent to set positive expectations. I think that’s appropriate, but it’s also easy for us, as practitioners, to become too enthusiastic and unrealistic about what we have to offer. The truth is that no matter how much passion I may have for a particular intervention, if there’s absolutely no scientific evidence to support my niche passion, and there is evidence to support other approaches, then I could come across like someone promoting ivermectin for treating COVID-19. If you think about the people who promote ivermectin, it’s likely they’re either (a) uninformed/misinformed and/or (b) profit-driven. To the extent that all professional helpers or healers aim to be honest and ethical in our informed consent processes, we should strive to NOT be uninformed/misinformed and to NOT be too profit-driven. I say “too profit-driven” because obviously, most clinical practitioners would like to make a profit. All this information about being balanced in our informed consent highlights how much we need to read and understand scientific research related to our practice and how much we need to check our enthusiasm for particular approaches, while remaining realistic, despite potential financial incentives.
Informed Consent: Who Reads Them? Who Listens?
If informed consents are difficult to read and comprehend, they may be completely irrelevant. On the other hand, in their obtuseness, they may function like the confusion technique in hypnosis and psychotherapy. Although the confusion technique is pretty amazing and I’ll probably write more about it at some point, it’s inappropriate and unethical to use the confusion technique in the context of informed consent.
In medical and some therapy settings, informed consent often feels sterile. If you’re like me, you quickly sign the HIPAA and informed consent forms, without taking much time to read and digest their contents. The process becomes perfunctory.
I recall a particularly memorable pre-surgery informed consent experience. After hearing a couple of low probability frightening outcomes and experiencing the sense of nausea welling up in my stomach, I stopped listening. I even recall saying to myself, “I can choose to not listen to this.” It was an act of intentional dissociation. I knew I needed the surgery; hearing the gory details of possible bad outcomes only increased my anxiety. Here’s a journal article quote supporting my decision to stop listening, “Risk warnings might cause negative expectations and subsequent nocebo effects (i.e., negative expectations cause negative outcomes) in participants” (Stirling et al., 2022, no page number)
Informed consent flies under the radar when clients or patients stop listening. Informed consent also flies under the radar because many people don’t bother reading them. In our theories textbook we have nice examples of how therapists can write a welcoming and fantastic informed consent that cordially invites clients to counseling. Do these informed consents get read? Maybe. Sometimes.
Informed consent has the potential to be powerful. To fulfill this potential, we need to contemplate on big (and long) question: “How can we best and most efficiently inform prospective clients about psychotherapy and maintain a balanced, conversational style that will maximize client absorption of what we’re saying, while appropriately speaking to the positive potential of our treatment and articulate possible risks without activating client fears or negative expectations?”
Here’s an abbreviated guide: Provide essential information. Use common language. Be balanced.
“Most people who come to counseling have positive responses and after counseling, they’re glad came. A small number of people who come to counseling have negative experiences. If you begin to have negative experiences, we should talk directly about those. Sometimes in life, confronting old patterns and talking about emotionally painful memories will make you feel bad, sad, or worse, but these negative feelings should be temporary. Getting through negative or difficult emotions can open us up to positive emotions. My main message to you is this: No matter what you’re experiencing in counseling, it’s good and important for you to share your thoughts, feelings, and reactions with me so we can make the adjustments needed to maximize your benefits and minimize your pain.”
I could go on and on about informed consent, but that might reveal too much of my nerdiness. These are my reflections for today. Tomorrow may be different. I just thought I should inform you in advance that consistency may not be my forte.
3 thoughts on “Informed Consent in Counseling and Psychotherapy: Problems and Potential”
My M.A. major in a Progressive Xian Seminary very long ago was in “Religion, Society, Ethics”, which especially ethics content resonates in me as I read your essay.. Most all as I read you involves regarding what is ethical in counselor patient expectations and promises. No easier answers now than back when, nonetheless, like so much in life, not lessening need for continual exploration. Retirement may be the only escape, yet you are still a mere youth by compare. Good luck!
Great comment. Yes . . . there are no easier answers now, and maybe social media and other forces make the ethics issues even more challenging!
Yes on Social Media complicating in ways never expected.
AND Jean & I still recommend retirement, though it may just be the easy way out…