Confidentiality and healthcare

Most of what you say to health workers is confidential, and your confidentiality is a high priority in regards to your health-care rights. However, health workers are bound by law to report certain things. The laws vary between states, and also depend on your age. For example, if you tell a mental health professional that you want to hurt or kill yourself, then they’re bound by law to ‘break’ their confidentiality agreement with you, for your own protection.

What does ‘confidentiality’ mean?

If something's confidential, it means that it's private and the person you talked to about it won’t share it with anyone. Mental health professionals are prohibited by law from sharing your confidential information with anyone else.

Why is confidentiality important?

It can be hard enough deciding to talk to someone about serious or personal issues, without worrying about where that information will go. An important part of seeking help is building trust with the person who is supposed to be supporting you. Confidentiality rules are there to help you, so that you can open up honestly and tell someone exactly what’s going on, without feeling embarrassed or afraid.

Confidentiality and the law

By law, doctors and other health professionals such as nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors have to keep most of what you tell them confidential. Your counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist should talk to you about confidentiality in your first session. If you’re concerned about it, you should ask them to explain to you exactly what is confidential and what’s not.

If you're using an interpreter to talk to doctors or other health workers, the interpreter also has to keep what you say private.

Exceptions to confidentiality

In certain cases – for example, in order to protect you from serious harm – a mental health professional may have to disclose private information about you to someone else, such as your parents or carer, Family and Community Services, or, in very rare situations, a court, the police or an ambulance worker.

No health worker should ever break their confidentiality with you unless the situation is really serious and they feel they have no choice. If a doctor or mental health professional decides it's necessary to report something about you, it doesn't mean they don't care about or don't respect you – it's quite the opposite. They'll have decided to tell a small number of people who have to know, in order to stop things from getting worse. They will normally talk to you about it first.

What if you’re underage?

If you're over 18, what you tell health workers is automatically confidential, unless there's a risk of someone (yourself or others) being seriously harmed or their life is at risk.

If you're under 18, you should see our factsheet on age and confidentiality for important information about how your age affects confidentiality.

What if you’re doing something illegal?

Some health workers have to report crimes, depending on how serious they are.

Doctors don't have to report that you're using illegal drugs or having sex while you're underage, but other health workers might. Make sure you ask a health professional what’s confidential and what’s not, before you reveal information about yourself, so that you don’t tell them something you later regret. Remember that this is to protect you, so even if you were to regret it, it might be in your best interest.

A doctor does have to break confidentiality if they think you're at risk of harm or in danger. If you tell them you're involved in a serious crime (such as murder, drug-dealing, sexual assault or assault), they might have to report it. Again, ask them about confidentiality before deciding what you want to tell them.

What if my friend tells me to keep a secret?

Confidentiality between friends is an important part of building trust. However, there are times when you should break that agreement. For example, if a friend tells you they want to kill or seriously hurt themselves, you should tell an adult you trust who can help them, such as a youth worker, counsellor, teacher, social worker or someone else trustworthy. If the situation is an emergency, call 000. If you’re worried and unsure about what to do, or you’re having difficulty in finding someone, you could try Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) or the Mental Health Telephone Access Line (1800 011 511).

What can I do now?

  • Learn more about your health-care rights.

  • Want to chat with a peer worker who can listen and support you? Book a free, text-based session with ReachOut PeerChat here.