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Published On: May 15, 2017|Categories: Clinician’s Corner|

Reviewed by Jodi Jaspan, MS, LPC

In order to provide the best client care, mental health professionals must know when to consider a referral. According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, a leading organization designed to support mental health professionals, first and foremost counselors must not abandon or neglect their clients.1 That doesn’t mean the counselor must stay in the counseling relationship. When a mental health professional determines that they can’t benefit the client and the client still needs assistance, a referral is the best option.

Best Referral Practices

When a mental health professional uses a holistic approach to considering referrals, the opportunity exists to fulfill a client’s unmet needs. That’s because the counselor takes into account the whole person to determine the most appropriate referrals to other providers.

There is the potential of losing the client during the referral process. In order to prevent the client from slipping through the cracks, collaboration is needed between all the providers involved. Effective collaboration also helps serve the client better by supplying a broader range of services.

How Mental Health Professionals Determine Referrals

A client referral should be part of an ethical decision-making process where the client’s needs are the top priority.

  1. Referrals should be considered appropriate when mental health professionals cannot provide the special services their clients need. Examples of special services include employment readiness, job skills training, medical care and cultural or ethnicity expertise.2
  2. When mental health professionals determine a different provider would give their clients opportunities for growth and development, a referral should be considered. This means going beyond giving their clients a list of names and phone numbers. It means following up with clients to make sure they took the next step and contacted the suggested provider.
  3. When the goals of clients differ from the goals of mental health professionals providing counseling, a referral is in order. First, an attempt by the counselor should be made to put aside any personal views. If they fail to do so, it’s imperative a referral is made. An example is a counselor who is an avid atheist treating a client who wants faith-based counseling.
  4. The referral of a prospective or current client should be based on the competency and skills a counselor possesses. If a mental health professional is not experienced or competent enough to handle a particular issue, a referral is in order.
  5. In practical terms, a mental health professional should give a client a referral if the client requires continued counseling while the counselor is away for an extended period of time. Examples are when a counselor is traveling, on vacation or ill.

Resources to Consult

If you’re a mental health professional needing advice on whether a referral for one of your clients is appropriate, consult with another counselor whose opinion you trust and respect. Many states have ethics codes for mental health providers, so also check if your state has any resources available. In addition, if you’re a member of any local or national mental health associations, they may have referrals and ethics codes you can consult.


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