The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) recently released guidance about the use and disclosure of mental health information. The guidance, entitled “HIPAA Privacy Rule and Sharing Information Related to Mental Health,” contains thirteen questions and answers that address the following topics:

  • Communicating mental health information to a patient’s family or friends;
  • Restricting the use and disclosure of psychotherapy notes;
  • Determining when a patient’s mental illness makes him or her incapacitated under the Privacy Rule;
  • Discussing the mental health conditions of minors with their parents;
  • Contacting law enforcement if a doctor is concerned about the patient’s safety or that the patient might harm someone else;
  • Disclosing to law enforcement when a patient is released after a temporary psychiatric hold; and
  • Sharing of a student’s mental health information by a school administrator, doctor or nurse and how such information is subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

In releasing the guidance, OCR noted that ensuring strong privacy protections is “critical to maintaining individuals’ trust in their health care providers and willingness to obtain needed health care services, and these protections are especially important” with respect to mental health information.