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What Is The ACA Code Of Ethics For Counselors?

December 1, 2023


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The ACA Code of Ethics for counselors is set forth by the American Counseling Association to promote certain professional values that inform its ethical principles. Intended to guide the professional conduct of counselors, these principles are described as the foundation for competent and ethical behavior. Ethical codes aim to help counselors in their decision-making process and to inform clients and counselors of their roles and responsibilities.

Among its intended purposes, the ACA Code of Ethics provides ethical guidelines for professional counselors, establishes expectations of conduct, and provides a basis for resolving ethical issues. It contains nine sections and sub-sections, which include “the counseling relationship,” “confidentiality and privacy,” “professional responsibility,” and “relationships with other professionals,” and more.

Each section has an introduction describing the aspirational ethical behavior and professional responsibility of counselors. These standards “outline professional responsibilities and provide direction for fulfilling those ethical responsibilities.” Continue reading to learn more about how the ACA Code of Ethics can help guide therapists and counselors as approach various ethical dilemmas and deliver care to their patients. 

Ethical Principles

The ACA’s values help guide its ethical principles, which are listed as follows:

  • Autonomy, which involves the promotion of control in establishing the direction of one’s life
  • Nonmaleficence, which means avoidance of actions and behaviors that cause harm
  • Beneficence, which is described as benefiting the welfare of society through the promotion of mental health and well-being
  • Justice, which involves treating individuals equitably and promoting fairness and equality
  • Fidelity, which pertains to honoring commitments and promises
  • Veracity, which involves acting truthfully with individuals with whom counselors have a professional relationship

The Nine Sections 

The ACA code of ethics is divided into nine sections. They are:

Section A: The Counseling Relationship

Among the numerous topics covered in this section include issues concerning client welfare, support network involvement, the issue of obtaining informed consent and the types of information needed, and cases where there’s an inability to give consent. The Code of Ethics stipulates that the counselor is responsible for giving verbal and written information to the client to ensure that they are aware of each of their responsibilities. Counselors are to explain to clients the nature and procedures of services provided, such as benefits, risks, and limitations, as well as make clear to the client their experience and professional qualifications.

In the case of minors or adults who are incapable of giving consent but have a legal guardian, the counselor still has the responsibility to include the client in the decision-making process as much as possible. They are to “balance the ethical rights of clients to make choices, their capacity to give consent or assent to receive services, and parental or familial legal rights and responsibilities to protect these clients and make decisions on their behalf.” 

Other topics that fall under the counseling relationship section include prohibited relationships, such as romantic/sexual relationships with a current client, their partner, and family members, and a prohibition of romantic relationships with previous clients for at least five years. In the case of the latter, the relationship can only be entered into if it can be considered non-exploitative and must show priorly documented “forethought.” 

Screening of participants, termination and referral, and bartering and receiving gifts are among some of the other considerations included in Section A.

A woman wearing yellow long sleeves and two kids engrossed in a book sharing a beautiful moment of reading togetherA woman wearing yellow long sleeves and two kids engrossed in a book sharing a beautiful moment of reading together

Section B: Confidentiality And Privacy

In Section B, the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics states that trust is the primary consideration for professional counselors in promoting their counseling relationship with clients and safeguarding the values of the profession, which includes maintaining confidentiality. “Respecting client rights” covers multicultural considerations, respect for privacy and confidentiality, as well as its limitations in certain circumstances. Exceptions are mentioned, such as confidentiality that must be breached when someone is at risk of being harmed; however, care is to be taken that only “essential information is shared.” 

This section also outlines situations in which clients lack the ability to give informed consent and emphasizes that counselors must still inform clients to the extent that it is possible. It also discusses the need to maintain appropriate records and documentation to provide services and the need to obtain written permission from clients to disclose or transfer records, among other considerations. 

Section C: Professional Responsibility 

This section outlines the role that counseling can play within society. Among its sub-sections, it mentions that counselors are to have qualifications that are appropriate to their services. It also states that counselors must monitor their effectiveness as professional counselors on an ongoing basis by continuing to hone their skills and education. Additionally, they are encouraged to engage in pro bono work for the public good for little or no pay.

Section D: Relationships With Other Professionals

This section encourages a constructive and positive exchange among various mental health professionals, which could include colleagues, employers, or employees. The Code of Ethics underscores the importance of these relationships, stating that they can enhance the services offered by counselors to their clients.

Section E: Evaluation, Assessment, And Interpretation

Section E covers the need for “educational, mental health, psychological, and career assessments” as relevant to the client’s individual needs. It states that counselors must explain the purpose of each assessment to their clients and obtain consent before moving forward. This section also relays the correct process of diagnosing or refraining from diagnosing mental disorders and the conditions under which assessments are to be made, among other considerations. 

Section F: Supervision, Training, And Teaching

Section F outlines the role of counselor educators, who are professionals responsible for helping students successfully apply the theories and practices of the counseling profession. The ACA Code of Ethics encourages the fostering of “meaningful and respectful professional relationships and to maintain appropriate boundaries with supervisees and students in both face-to-face and electronic formats.” 

Among its sub-topics are the obligations and roles of supervisors in the context of client welfare as well as the general responsibilities of supervisors. Counselor educators, for example, are expected to be skilled teachers while instructing about ethical principles that are to be passed on to students. 

Section G: Research And Publication

This section covers the specifics of counselors who engage in research and publication and the expectations of the professionals who take part in these activities. 

Section H: Distance Counseling, Technology, And Social Media

Section H encourages counselors to “actively attempt to understand the evolving nature of the profession with regard to distance counseling, technology, and social media” in view of better-serving clients. It promotes learning about these technological advances and their concerns, such as issues concerning security and confidentiality. Among its sub-topics, it mentions records and web maintenance, the need to inform clients of the benefits as well as the limitations of using the technology, and professional boundaries in distance counseling. 

Section I: Resolving Ethical Issues

The final section outlines the need to address ethical dilemmas directly among involved parties and consult with colleagues/supervisors as needed. Along with carrying out their role in an ethical manner, counselors are encouraged to partake in ongoing professional development and “become familiar with the ACA Policy and Procedures for Processing Complaints of Ethical Violations” and use it as a reference throughout their careers.

Other Considerations

Along with outlining professional responsibilities, the ACA Code of Ethics aims to provide direction in fulfilling them. By offering a guide for handling ethical dilemmas in the counseling relationship, the ACA helps inform the decision-making process. However, it also states that “a breach of the standards and principles does not necessarily constitute legal liability or violation of the law; such action is established in legal and judicial proceedings.” Counselors are ultimately responsible for familiarizing themselves with the Code of Ethics. 

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The Power Of Online Therapy For Therapists

As a counselor or prospective counselor, you may play a decidedly significant role in the lives of others. Helping individuals gain insight into their lives can also be personally rewarding. However, juggling the demands of the profession can be challenging and emotionally taxing. It may also leave little time to tend to your own well-being, which can take a toll on your mental health. 

Many therapists experience stress-related symptoms throughout their careers and could benefit from speaking to another professional. BetterHelp is one site that can enable you to meet a licensed therapist who fits your personal criteria and with whom you can have sessions online or by phone. Online therapy might be especially useful when you’ve had a particularly challenging day and would like your own therapist to discuss your concerns with. Having a therapist to meet with regularly could improve your own mental well-being while also allowing you to serve your own clients more effectively. 

The Efficacy Of Online Therapy

If you are considering online therapy, it may be helpful to know that research indicates it can be just as effective as in-person therapy. A literature review of 14 studies that led to meta-calculated statistics suggests that it can help improve symptoms of a wide range of mental health conditions, including stress and chronic fatigue. These symptoms can be common among mental health professionals and others with demanding careers, but these study results illustrate the power of online therapy in effecting positive change.


The 2014 ACA Code of Ethics for counselors promotes professional values that inform its ethical principles. It aims to help counselors understand their responsibilities and guide their decision-making process. Additionally, it outlines the roles and responsibilities of both clients and counselors. 

As a counselor or prospective counselor, you may be juggling multiple responsibilities or facing challenging ethical dilemmas. To meet the demands of your profession and safeguard your own mental health, it may be beneficial to consider therapy.