Respect or Neglect – Should I disclose my friend’s problem so that others can help him?

Q. My friend is a recovered alcoholic. As he is now going off to college, he confided in me his fear that the new environment will cause him to suffer a relapse and go back to his old habits. Should I discretely contact a counselor at the university so that someone will be keeping an eye on him? I am afraid of violating his privacy, yet I want to do everything I can to help him stay sober.

A. There’s no question that sometimes violations of privacy may be ethical in order to defend a person’s own best interests. Yet we must never take such violations lightly. When someone takes us into their confidence, we should regard their secret as a sacred trust. One reason is that we should respect his judgment that this information is best regarded as secret. Another reason is that even if we consider his judgment faulty, a cavalier attitude towards revealing confidences will discourage people from frank discussion of their problems with individuals they trust. These are the classic reasons that therapists and clergy have a special responsibility as well as special legal protection in the area of private communications.

Fundamentally, we have to subject your case to the classic “ABC’s” of disclosure, as we have discussed in previous columns: You should make sure the information you intend to provide a counselor is:

that disclosure is critical to achieve some Benefit;
that you are Certain of the information;
that your Desire is constructive;
and that the information will be used for benefit in an Equitable way.

But let’s not be hasty with this test. If we look carefully at these criteria, we see that one of them is dependent on you: the Benefit criterion. Is revealing the information to a counselor necessary? It may not be if you are willing to invest the effort to provide your friend with concern and support from afar.

If you feel that you have the ability to monitor your friend’s adjustment to his new environment, and to help him control his behavior, then you should think twice before you recruit others for this effort, at the moral cost of violating the trust placed in you. Try to be creative in thinking of ways to inquire about his activities in an ongoing and non-intrusive way. Remember also that since he took you into his confidence, you alone have the ability to make an occasional direct inquiry: How are you doing in your battle against your disorder?

If you get the impression that your friend is in need of additional help, then you may want to contemplate other avenues, including contacting other individuals or steering your friend to a support group, which have been shown to have great effectiveness in treating a wide variety of behavioral problems.

Ethical questions cannot be analyzed in a dry, detached fashion. We have to view them in the context of our own personal involvement and commitment. Like inventive genius, ethical genius is often 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!