Like many (and probably most) of my fellow counselors, I have taken graduate courses in professional ethics where we’re taught some of the foundational ethical values and practices for our work. Don’t sleep with clients. Don’t counsel friends or family members. Don’t break confidentiality and HIPAA. Maintain appropriate boundaries with clients. These and others are fairly concrete, but my mind always begins to churn while I often find myself playing the devil’s advocate when we come towards other more complex values such as the promotion of social justice. I often become frustrated as I juxtapose this professional value with potentially antagonistic ethical codes which call us to refrain from imposing values while respecting the values and culture of our clients.
During my ethics course, I was eager to explore how holding these values simultaneously could lead to ethical dilemmas, perhaps because I was genuinely curious or perhaps because I enjoy being difficult at times. In my zeal, I created vignettes which I felt illustrated the discord nicely, but to my disappointment found little engagements from my classmates. In the first, I wanted to consider how to ethically work with a teenage Islamic girl whose family was very conservative and required her to wear a hijab. The teenager, however, did not wish to do so and insisted that she had made an Islamic friend at school who was not made to do so. The second, which seemed much more realistic having grown up in the South, considered how to provide counseling to a Caucasian mother who was distraught at having discovered their teenage daughter’s boyfriend was Black/African American.
I still mull over how to address these dilemmas from time to time, even two years out of school. In the first, I suppose I would work with the daughter to increase her awareness of her culture of origin and its value to the family while also working with the family to increase their empathy with the daughter. Perhaps they could reach a compromise that made both parties happy. It seems much less ‘line in the sand’ than the second example. Surely glossing over the mother’s explicit racism would be ignoring a duty to social justice, wouldn’t it? Yet encouraging the mother to confront her racism could be viewed as imposing personal values – or would it be exempt from that realm because it is also a professional value?
I don’t have the answers for these questions but I do have a sense that the answers are important. We are experiencing greater division in this country than we have in recent memory and the likelihood of these vignettes becoming reality seems to me to be increasing. Implementation of social justice principles such as the legalization of gay marriage or allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice are met with outcries and feelings oppression by others who in retaliation propose and often pass measures such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or bathroom bills. The division of power among groups of people exists in a balance - as the oppressed are lifted up to equality, the oppressors are brought down to it.
Ben Hearn is a new professional who is currently working as a school-based counselor. He is passionate about working with trauma and enjoys applying the fields of neuroscience, philosophy, ethics, and psychopharmacology to counseling practice.