This is the first of what I hope won’t be too many “Creeper Alerts.” I define a Creeper Alert as a situation where your confidentiality and privacy can be violated. I believe people receiving mental health care need to be fully informed about how their privacy might be protected or not protected. And one which I believe every student needs to be aware of is that under certain conditions, schools can use your counseling records against you. These schools include, at the very minimum, public universities and public school systems.
This loophole came to light a year 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. The student’s lawsuit alleged that the university mishandled her rape case. The school even counter-sued the student, seeking to have the student’s lawsuit dismissed as frivolous and recover legal fees from the student or her attorneys.
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 quite good and some of it was very bad. I would strongly recommend that students do as much research as they can on university mental health programs and their alternatives. Many college towns will often have independent therapists wanting to work with students and are willing to offer more affordable fees. Bulletin boards on and off campuses often have ads of counselors looking for new clients. Students should assess the risk of their university using their their counseling records against them, and weigh all the possible risks and benefits of using the university’s services.