Therapy records at public schools and universities don’t have the same privacy protections

Your privacy at risk

Source: 23/365: Eye Spy

I believe people receiving mental health care need to be fully informed about how their privacy might be protected or not protected. And one are which I believe every student needs to be aware of is that therapy records at public schools and universities don’t have the same privacy protections as those handled by private therapists and private clinics.  Under certain conditions, schools can legally release your counseling to parties that may not have your best interests in mind.  In the worst possible situation, they may even use these records against students.. Schools permitted to do this include, at the very minimum, public universities and public school systems.

This loophole came to light two years ago when a state university accessed a student’s personal therapy records to use in defense of a lawsuit the student herself filed against the university. They did so over the objections of the student’s therapist and the senior staff therapist.  The student’s lawsuit alleged that the university mishandled her rape case. The school even filed a counter-claim, seeking to have the student’s lawsuit dismissed as frivolous and recover legal fees from the student or her attorneys. Ultimately, the University withdrew the counter-claim.

The scary part is that current law allows universities to access student medical records under certain conditions, and one of them is when a student sues the university.   This is because HIPAA, which prohibits the unauthorized sharing of medical records, does not apply to student medical records at universities. Instead this area is covered by FERPA, a much older law related to education records, which has not been updated since the 1970s.

Often, mental health services at universities are the only affordable option for students. I can say that the quality of mental health services that I accessed through the two universities I attended was mixed–some of it was very good and some of it was shockingly substandard.  This, of course, is not necessarily different from the range of the quality of services to be found in the private sector.

I would strongly recommend that students do as much research as they can on university mental health programs and their alternatives. Many universities have reacted to the negative publicity generated by the University of Oregon case by clarifying their own internal policies and procedures regarding the privacy of student therapy.  Students should ask tough questions as to how records are protected and when they can be accessed.  Students should also try to find out as much about the counseling department within their university as possible.  Does there tend to be a long waiting list? Has there been high staff turnover in the department? What resources are available to a student in an emergency. Weakness in these areas could be warning signs that a student might not receive the best mental health care possible.

Many college towns will often have independent therapists wanting to work with students. Many are often willing to offer more affordable fees than what would normally be available to the general public.  Bulletin boards on and off campuses often have ads of counselors looking for new clients. Such therapists also should be subject to scrutiny as well–which is a topic I will cover in a subsequent post.