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Filing a Complaint Against a Therapist: When, How, and Why to Do It (and When Not to Do It)

Filing a Complaint Against a Therapist: When, How, and Why to Do It (and When Not to Do It)

 In our article on how to check a therapist's license, we explain some of the things that can get a therapist in trouble with a licensing board. But how do licensing boards find out that a therapist has done these things in the first place? Someone has to file a complaint first.



There may actually be a point when you need to file a complaint against a therapist. It's unlikely, but it does happen. Read on to learn more about when and why you should file a complaint and what happens when you do.

 


When Should You File a Complaint Against a Therapist?


You should file a complaint when a therapist does something unethical or incompetent that harms you. In theory, you can report a therapist for anything they do that violates licensure law in the state where they practice.

 

In reality, you're not going to know (or care) about the finer details of licensing law. If you don't want to take the time to look up and read dozens of pages of densely written legal text, we totally get it. Consider the following rule of thumb instead. Ask yourself if what happened:

 

  • Makes you feel like it isn't safe to go back to that therapist;
  • Is something you feel like you need to keep other people safe from;
  • Isn't possible to fix or repair by talking to your therapist about it; and/or
  • Is so obviously wrong you can't imagine what talking about it would accomplish.

 

These are strong signs that something went really wrong and that it's time to look for a new therapist. But is it grounds for a complaint? The following list of licensure violations can give you an idea of what professional law prohibits. Consider filing a complaint against a therapist when:

 

  • The therapist had a sexual relationship with you, had sexual contact with you, or made sexual advances toward you;
  • The therapist put pressure on you to get involved with another personal or professional venture or business of theirs that wasn't related to therapy;
  • The therapist crossed personal and professional boundaries in some other way, resulting in a "dual relationship" with you in which they misused their power or role;
  • The therapist violated your confidentiality by sharing identifying and clinical information about you with someone other than a direct supervisor or members of a clinical team;
  • The therapist abandoned you by suddenly stopping services with you without giving you time and notice (and help) to find a new therapist;
  • The therapist tried to provide a service they weren't qualified or trained to provide (such as trying to provide medical treatment or advice);
  • The therapist provided services that weren't therapy or that were experimental, harmful, or dangerous;
  • The therapist tried to involve you in illegal behavior or engaged in illegal behavior in front of you, such as business, financial, or insurance fraud;
  • The therapist didn't fully explain what they were doing or why, such as not telling you that you were part of an experiment they were conducting; or
  • The therapist said things or took actions toward you that were clearly racist, homophobic, sexist, or otherwise overtly discriminatory.

 

While some of these licensure violations are easy to recognize, some aren't. It's important not to jump to conclusions and assume the worst if a therapist hasn't done something obviously wrong.

 

For example, it's not always clear when therapy is working and when it isn't. Feeling stuck, frustrated, and confused is part of the process. If you're struggling, it doesn't necessarily mean the therapist doesn't know what they're doing. When you feel bad about what's happening in therapy, but aren't sure why, all you might need to do to feel better is learn more about therapy.

 


Before You File a Complaint, Understand that Good Therapy Doesn't Always Feel Good

 

Just because you're upset doesn't mean your therapist has done anything wrong. In fact, before you quit—and definitely before you file a complaint—you should find out if the reason you feel bad is because your therapist is actually doing a good job!

 

Therapy doesn't always feel good. This is especially true at the beginning, when you're in the early stages of the healing process. Some of the reasons that therapy can be frustrating, painful, or confusing include:

 

  • One of the first things you do in therapy is talk about what brought you to therapy. This can prompt sudden and difficult reflection as you discuss many painful topics at once.
  • Therapy takes time to work and therapists don't always take the time to explain the therapy process or the methods they're using (especially if you don't ask).
  • Things that make therapy work can look and feel strange, especially if you haven't been in therapy before (such as when a therapist mostly keeps quiet during a session).
  • Negative transference, projection, and emotional defenses can fuel negative feelings and misunderstandings, especially when you haven't learned how to recognize them.
  • It doesn't feel good at first to integrate negative experiences, face parts of yourself you don't like, or confront painful truths—even though it ultimately helps you heal.

 

The good news is that therapy is like anything else—the more you do it, the more you get the hang of it. As you make progress, it gets easier to work through difficult emotions and you start to experience more of the benefits of therapy. Talking to your therapist when you're upset with them can not only help you resolve conflicts, it can lead to major breakthroughs in therapy!

 


When Shouldn't You File a Complaint Against a Therapist?

 

You shouldn't file a complaint against a therapist over something frivolous. Filing a complaint is a long and complicated process and isn't the right way to simply vent frustration. It's not like leaving a bad Yelp review—think of it instead as a way to bring a truly bad therapist "to justice."

 

Basically, you shouldn't file a complaint unless what you're complaining about is actually a violation of licensure law or the code of ethics a therapist is supposed to follow.

 

(Keep in mind that something doesn't have to be a violation of licensing laws to be a valid reason to "fire" or "break up with" a therapist. If a therapist is harsh or condescending, that might be a good reason to quit working with them, even if it isn't a valid reason to file a formal complaint.)

 

If you're not sure if what happened was a licensure violation, and you feel like it's safe, you can try talking to your therapist about it first. You may be able to quickly resolve the issue if your therapist can acknowledge and address a mistake or clarify and explain a legitimate therapeutic technique they were using.

 

You can also learn a lot about them by seeing how they respond. If your therapist is open to discussing what happened, receptive to your criticism, and you feel better after you talk to them, you've learned you can trust and work with them even when things get tough.

 

If instead, your therapist gets defensive and lashes out at you, it's probably time to move on—and possibly also time to file a complaint.


 

What Happens When You File a Complaint Against a Therapist?

 

Filing a complaint against a therapist isn't like dropping a complaint into a complaint box at a local business. It's an in-depth process that requires a lot from you to see it through.

 

First, when you file a complaint, a licensing board has to investigate it. Members of the board will want to talk to you and the therapist about what happened. They'll want to review documents and other evidence from each side.

 

If the board determines that the complaint has no merit, they will dismiss it and take no further action. Complaints are dismissed if they're about something that isn't covered in licensing law. If it doesn't violate licensing law or professional codes of ethics, a licensing board has no jurisdiction over it and no standing to do anything about it.

 

(Most licensing boards include links to licensing laws on their websites so people can review them before filing a complaint. You can find a link to the website for your therapist's licensing board on our licensing board listings page.)

 

If the evidence supports the complaint, the board may enter into a settlement process with the therapist or may proceed to a formal hearing. They are more likely to hold a hearing if the offense is serious and if the therapist's license could be permanently revoked if they are "found guilty."

 

If the investigation and hearing prove the therapist violated licensing law or professional ethics, the board will take disciplinary action against them. The severity of the consequence will reflect the severity of the violation. For less severe offenses, the board may require a therapist to:

 

  • Pay a fine,
  • Take a class, or
  • Get clinical supervision.

 

The board may suspend the therapist's license until these requirements are met or put them on probation and allow them to continue practicing while completing these requirements.

 

If the offense is severe enough, the board can permanently revoke the therapist's license. This is rare, but it can and does happen. Things therapists can lose their licenses for include having sexual relationships with clients, committing fraud, or being convicted of criminal offenses.


 

Before You File A Complaint, Know What You're Getting Into

 

A licensing board is a state government division that enforces professional laws. While licensing is a matter of professional, not criminal law, therapists investigated by a board have many of the same rights as someone charged with a crime. This means:

 

  • They are considered innocent until proven guilty.
  • They have a right to hire a lawyer to defend them.
  • They have a right to know who is complaining about them and why.
  • They have a right to see, evaluate, and respond to the claims you make and the evidence you present.
  • They (and their lawyer) can challenge your claims up to and including "cross-examining" you at the formal complaint hearing.

 

Facing a therapist against whom you're pursuing a complaint can be stressful. This doesn't mean you shouldn't file a complaint against an unethical therapist. We think you should and hope you will. However, it's important to choose your battles and decide if going through this process is worth it to you and if it's warranted by what you're complaining about.

 

This is a highly personal decision. We can't make it for you. But it might help to think of it as an act of public service. Could filing a successful complaint against this therapist protect other people from harm? It also helps to consider it in terms of justice. Does what happened inflame your personal sense of right and wrong? Has the therapist abused their power for personal gain?

 

If so, it's more likely to feel worth it to go through this process to see justice done. If the issue is minor, it might not feel so satisfying, meaningful, or worth your time. Again, though, it's up to you—if it's in licensing law, it's something you can successfully pursue a complaint about.

 


So, How Do You File a Complaint Against a Therapist?

 

To file a complaint, you'll need to fill out an official complaint form and submit it to a licensing board. This form is usually a downloadable PDF or an interactive online form. You can usually find it on the licensing board's website or the state professional licensing department's website.

 

In some special cases, you may need to request the form and have it mailed, faxed, or e-mailed to you. Once you have the form, read the instructions (if there are any) and fill it out. When you're done, you can submit the complaint form online or by mail.

 

It's possible to contact licensing boards—or the state licensing division that oversees them—by phone. However, formal complaints must be submitted in writing. Where the phone number can come in handy is if you have questions about something on the form or have trouble finding it.

 

We can help, too. We've tried to make this process easier by navigating the confusing maze of state government websites for you. So, instead of Googling, you can use our handy-dandy link library. If you go to our licensing board listings page, you can find:

 

  • The name of the licensing board you need to contact
  • The licensing board's (or state licensing division's) phone number
  • A link to the licensing board's (or state licensing division's) main website
  • A direct link to the license search page where you can check a therapist's license
  • A direct link to the part of the website where you can find the complaint form

 

The "File a Complaint" link may lead to a PDF, an online form, or a landing page. Some licensing board sites provide helpful information about when and how to file a complaint—when they do, our link will take you to the FAQ or instruction page.

 

Note that you'll need to know what kind of license your therapist has to know which licensing board you need to look up. Our listings indicate which boards are for which kinds of therapists.


 

Conclusion

 

Filing a complaint is a way to protect the public from a bad therapist. When you file a complaint, you hold a therapist accountable for violating the professional laws and ethical codes they are supposed to follow.

 

When you report a therapist to a licensing board, you initiate an investigation that will lead to a dismissal of the complaint, a settlement, or a hearing. If the board finds the complaint valid, they will take disciplinary action against the therapist. Depending on how severe the offense was, a therapist might have to pay a fine or get more training—or permanently lose their license to practice therapy.

 

Filing a complaint is a way to address serious issues. Therapists are human, too, and have bad days. A therapist having a bad day isn't a reason to file a complaint. A therapist having an unpleasant personality isn't a reason to file a complaint. That doesn't mean there's nothing you can do if a therapist hasn't violated professional law or ethics. You can still hold them accountable for doing a bad job by "firing" them and looking for a new therapist.

 

On the other hand, there are times when you definitely should file a complaint. It's always wrong for a therapist to have sex with a client—and always grounds for a complaint. In general, if a therapist does anything that makes you feel creeped out or violated or like you're not safe with them—like pressing you to participate in something that benefits them personally or financially—it's probably a violation of licensing laws and probably grounds for a complaint.

 

The main reason to file a complaint is to protect others. You can't undo what already happened to you, but you can try to prevent it from happening to someone else. By holding bad therapists accountable, you can make it easier for people to find their way to the good ones—and to the amazing benefits that good therapy can provide.



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Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Posted on 09/01/2021 by Stephanie Hairston, MSW

Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a masters-level clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments. She has also worked as a technical writer for a medical software company and as an editor for a company that appeals denials of insurance coverage for behavioral health treatment. As a writer, she is motivated by the same desire to help others that brought her into the field of social work and believes that knowledge is one of the most essential recovery tools. She strongly believes in the mission of OpenCounseling and in making therapy accessible for everyone.