In most situations, whatever you say to your doctor, counsellor, youth worker or teacher will be kept confidential.
They have an ethical responsibility not to share your information with anyone else, which means you should feel comfortable talking to them about private stuff.
However, there are some situations where they are legally obliged to report information, like if they have serious concerns about your safety, or the safety of someone else.
How important is confidentiality?
The answer is simple: REALLY important.
It can be pretty difficult to tell people personal things, so it’s important you trust that person and are aware of what they can keep confidential and what they might have to talk to someone else about.
You might like to get the ground rules clear by asking any questions you have about confidentiality, before speaking with a health professional, counsellor, youth worker or teacher. This way you have the power to decide what you want to share with them.
Although linked quite closely, there is a difference between confidentiality and consent. While you may be entitled to confidential care, you may not be entitled to consent to treatment.
Does age make a difference in terms of confidentiality?
Yes…In Ireland, turning 18 years-old means you are legally an adult, so you get to make your own decisions. Young people aged 16 and 17 years-old also have rights to confidential healthcare.
Once you turn 16 years-old, you have a legal right to go to a doctor on your own and for conversations with your doctor to be kept confidential. The doctor should not tell your parents or guardians anything without your permission.
Exceptions to the rule
If you are under 18 years-old, an exception to this rule is if you tell a health professional, a counsellor, a youth work or a teacher something which causes them to be concerned for you or for someone else under 18 years-old.
In this case, they may have to speak with your parent or guardian or with a ‘relevant authority’.
The relevant authority is usually Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, who are responsible for the wellbeing of children and young people.
In very specific situations it could involve the Gardaí.
Things that might cause concern include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and domestic violence.
Another exception to this rule for people of any age (under and over 18 years-old) is if your health professional, youth worker, counsellor or teacher becomes concerned that you may be at risk killing or seriously harming yourself or someone else.
In this situation the person you are talking to might need to break confidentiality in order to keep you or another person safe.
If a health professional, a counsellor, youth worker or teacher does have to report a situation, they should definitely talk to you about it first.
This may be scary but the reason they might have to tell someone else is because they are worried and want to help keep you safe.
It’s really important you are told exactly what will happen and you’re involved in decision-making. Make sure to ask any questions you have and you understand what the next steps are.
For more information about the legal age to confidential health care in Ireland check out the free legal advice centres.
What about being involved in criminal activity?
This depends on the seriousness of the crime. Doctors are not required to report illegal drug use to the Gardaí. Doctors are also not required to report underage sex (under 17 years-old for both boys and girls) to the Gardaí, your parents or to anyone else.
If you are involved in a serious crime (such as drug dealing, committing sexual assault, committing physical assault and so on) and you tell your doctor, they might be required to report this.
Teachers, youth workers and other health professionals such as nurses and counsellors may have to report illegal drug use or underage sex. When you’re speaking to someone ask them what they are obliged to report.
Confidentiality and friends
If your friend has told you they are feeling suicidal, are self-harming or are in an unsafe situation, listen to what they have to say, but don’t promise to keep it a secret.
Tell someone who can help you and to encourage your friend to talk to someone. This may be a counsellor, teacher, youth worker or social worker.
By telling a trusted adult, it might feel like you are betraying your friend, but you’re not. You are looking out for your friend and it will help them in the long-run.