When Should You File a Complaint Against a Therapist?

Mental health professional taking notes during a counseling session

Mental health professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers, as well as most other types of counselors, need to have a license to practice. Licensing boards are government-regulated agencies that exist for the public’s protection. If there were no licensing boards, then presumably, anyone who wanted to could hold themselves out as a qualified therapist, regardless of experience, training, or a history of misconduct.

Just imagine if you were depressed, or needed help for trauma, or worried about your teenager struggling with social anxiety. You would want to assume any counselor you contacted was, at a minimum, qualified and competent to do their job. Therapist licensing boards exist to give you that basic assurance. You may have to speak to more than one therapist to find one who’s a good “fit” for you, but you should at least be able to assume that your counselor will not harm you.

When a Therapist is Abusive

Of course, we have all heard stories of counselors who did harm their patients by doing things that were not in the patient’s best interests. Sometimes abuse is blatant, like sexual assault of a patient. In other cases, the signs of therapist abuse may not have been obvious even to the patient being abused. There may be nothing in a therapist’s known or discoverable background to keep them from getting a license in the first place.

However, if a licensed therapist engages in abusive behavior, a patient can report that abuse to the state licensing board. If the licensing board finds there is substance to the accusations, it can take action against the therapist. That can include suspending or revoking the therapist’s license. More often, the therapist may have to take additional training, submit to clinical supervision, or pay a fine. Even if there appear to be no consequences for the therapist, the complaint may remain on their record in case a future patient makes a similar complaint.

Be aware that filing a complaint with a licensing board is not a quick and easy exercise, like leaving a bad review of a business online. For the licensing board to do a good job, they must do a thorough investigation. The board does not want to dismiss any violations of licensing law or the codes of ethics that therapists must uphold. At the same time, the board does not want to unjustly punish a therapist and perhaps even deprive them of a career they have spent years building.

Accordingly, if you file a complaint, you should be prepared to be interviewed and to provide any information or documents you have that can support your claims. Reporting the abuse and participating in the investigation can help you feel like you are taking some control back from the abusive therapist. However, it can also stir up some of the bad feelings the abuse caused, so make sure you have a support system in place to help you through it.

Unfortunately, there are patients who file false complaints against their therapists, which can make it harder for patients with legitimate claims to be believed. However, if you do have grounds to file a complaint, you should seriously consider doing so. A therapist who abuses one patient will likely abuse another, or several others. Reporting abuse can prevent it from happening to someone else. That said, it’s important to remember that regardless of what you do, you are not responsible for the therapist’s abusive behavior; the therapist is the one who made a decision to abuse their position of trust.

When You Shouldn’t File a Complaint Against a Therapist

There are some situations in which you shouldn’t file a complaint against your therapist with a licensing board. One is when you are upset with a therapist for a minor or frivolous reason, such as keeping you waiting in the waiting room before your appointment for longer than you would like. Not only are frivolous complaints unfair to the therapist, they are a waste of your time, and the licensing board’s.

Another situation in which you should not file a complaint against your therapist is a little tricker. Therapy often causes people to have to think about things that are painful in order to confront their own mistakes or to find new ways of coping with problems. In other words, therapy that is good for you and helping you grow can feel painful. How can you know if you are simply having “growing pains” in therapy or if the therapist’s behavior is abusive?

A few guidelines: a therapist should NEVER touch you in a sexual way, even under the guise of helping you deal with past sexual trauma. A therapist should never threaten you or encourage you to harm yourself. A therapist should never offer you alcohol or drugs. A therapist should never ask you for money (beyond your usual therapy fees) or ask to see you socially. A therapist should also maintain healthy boundaries and prevent their own personal life from becoming part of their patient’s therapy.

If a therapist has done something else that you are uncomfortable with, you may want to talk to them about it if you feel safe doing so. Pay attention to their response when you say, “I felt uncomfortable when you said (or did) ___.” Are they respectful of your feelings, and able to explain in a reasonable way what they said or did? Or do they lash out and become defensive? If their response to your concern seems unprofessional, you may want to find a new therapist and consider filing a complaint against the old one.

What Filing a Complaint Against a Therapist Will and Won’t Do

Filing a justified complaint with the state licensing board can be empowering. Not only can filing a complaint result in consequences for a therapist’s abuse or misconduct and protect future patients, it will remind you that you have agency. You can take control when bad things happen to you. That, in itself, can be therapeutic.

However, filing a complaint with the licensing board will not compensate you financially for any harm that the therapist did to you. Therapist abuse may be a form of medical malpractice, and you may be able to file a lawsuit against your therapist. Recovering money cannot make up for the abuse you suffered, but it can help compensate you for the damages you suffered due to the distress your therapist caused.

Talking to a medical malpractice attorney can also help you decide to file a licensing board complaint against your therapist. Not all therapist misconduct that warrants a complaint justifies filing a malpractice case. But if an experienced attorney tells you that you have a claim for malpractice, you almost certainly have grounds to file a complaint with your therapist’s licensing board.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about psychiatrist malpractice or other therapist malpractice, please contact Huegli Fraser to schedule a consultation.

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Blog Disclaimer

The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.