Chaplains and Confidentiality of Suicide-related Communication: Are There Limits?

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By Jennifer Tucker, Ph.D.
September 5, 2017

As the Department of Defense (DoD) continues to be faced with high rates of suicide across the services, it sometimes depends on chaplains to be on the front lines. However, the responsibilities of chaplains in relation to a suicidal individual may be unclear for both service members and health care professionals alike. This blog will briefly define limits of confidentiality for chaplains who receive information related to suicide.

All service members are routinely encouraged to seek help from behavioral health providers, suicide crisis lines, peers, commands, and chaplains should they experience suicide-related thoughts or behaviors. When speaking with behavioral health and medical providers, including those working at suicide crisis lines, service members cannot be guaranteed confidentiality for the information that they share. Limits to confidentiality exist because providers are legally obligated to try to protect their patients from committing self-harm and harm to others. 

While service members likely have no particular expectations of confidentiality when speaking with peers and members of their command, expectations of confidentiality for conversations with a chaplain could be vague due to the number of hats chaplains wear: officer, counselor, spiritual advisor, peer. 

Rule 503 of the Military Rules of Evidence states that communications made as a “formal act of religion or as a matter of conscience” to either a chaplain or a chaplain assistant while serving in the capacity of spiritual advisor are considered confidential and are not to be shared with third parties. There are no exceptions listed to this rule, which means that any suicide-related information communicated to a chaplain is protected as confidential. This confidentiality also applies to inquiries from the command; chaplains cannot be compelled by the command to share information about service members or others seeking their services.

With that said, if a suicidal service member would like the chaplain to reach out to health care providers on his or her behalf, the service member must first explicitly waive the right to confidentiality. After the right has been waived, the chaplain may reach out to appropriate sources to initiate care for the service member.

For suicidal service members who do not waive their rights to confidentiality, chaplains work within the bounds of their profession to provide as much help as possible for the individuals.

In summary, whether suicidal or not, service members’ communications with chaplains and chaplain assistants are considered confidential and are protected from disclosure when those conversations 1) take place in a spiritual context and 2) are not intended to be shared with third parties.

Resources for Chaplains:

Resources for Suicide Prevention:

Dr. Jennifer Tucker is a suicide prevention subject matter expert at Deployment Health Clinical Center. She has a master’s and doctorate in clinical psychology and has worked with service members hospitalized for suicidality as part of a large randomized controlled trial for cognitive behavioral therapy for suicide prevention.


The views expressed in Clinician's Corner blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Psychological Health Center of Excellence or Department of Defense.


Comments

  • Great blog! Super-important topic. There seem to be many facets to the complex issue of disclosure ethics for helping professionals, maybe especially for chaplains, who of all helping professionals, may have the heaviest disclosure-ethics Cross/Crescent/Star of David to bear. I am happy to report that in my own 30 clinical years as a Navy psychiatrist, I hospitalized more than a few service members for serious suicide risk who had each come to the hospital hand-in-hand with their chaplain -- once the suicidal service member realized the chaplain would be glued to their side until they sought medical help of their own accord. And I know of no deaths that can be traced directly to nondisclosure by a chaplain, though I'd like to hear if anyone else knows of such a case. Thanks for writing the blog!

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