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Ethics and Morality

Art Therapy’s Ethical Responsibility

A White House spotlight sparks ethics questions for all psychotherapists.

© 2016 "What's Holding You Back?" from the visual journals of C. Malchiodi, PhD
Source: © 2016 "What's Holding You Back?" from the visual journals of C. Malchiodi, PhD

Art therapy, a field that has struggled for recognition and professional parity, recently gained a spotlight from an unlikely source—a member of the current White House Administration Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence. In brief, Mrs. Pence, a watercolor artist, has served as an honorary chair and board member of various children’s hospital art therapy programs for many years. According to her White House web page, Mrs. Pence hopes to “bring attention to issues facing children and families by shining a spotlight on the mental health profession of art therapy” via her very visible national role.

Response from the art therapy community to Mrs. Pence’s intent to spotlight the field has been mixed at best. The American Art Therapy Association leadership has publicly expressed enthusiasm for her support on social media while others, including long-standing members, have cited their discomfort, many objecting to any collaboration between the national organization and a member of the current White House administration. Others are more neutral, taking what seems to be a watch-and-wait position. A group, Art Therapists for Human Rights, quickly formed on Facebook in response [currently at more than 800 members] to address implications of the national organization’s stance. In brief, many strong opinions have emerged because of the current platform of the Trump/Pence White House, including women's rights, healthcare, LBGTQ issues, immigration and human rights in general.

To me, the most important piece of this unfolding story is the key opportunity for the national art therapy organization to shine a light on what is central to any partnerships or alliances with public figures in general—the ethics codes that all credentialed art therapists use as guidance for practice. In other words, it is time to move beyond the idea that Mrs. Pence is the central source of contention; it is how art therapists and for that matter, all psychotherapists address any situation where human rights and social justice of the individuals they seek to serve are potentially impacted or compromised through association. Here are two examples in the fields of psychology and counseling that continue to inform ethics and human rights discussions among mental health professionals and may be of value to the art therapy community at this particular juncture:

American Counseling Association: A couple of years ago, Tennessee legislators signed into law discriminatory “religious freedom” legislation targeting the counseling profession and LGBTQ community, essentially permitting counselors to deny services and refer clients based on the provider’s “strongly held principles.” This quickly became an issue for the American Counseling Association because the organization had scheduled its 2017 national conference in Nashville TN. In brief, it was determined that the Tennessee law constituted a clear violation of the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics. Ultimately, ACA leadership/governance decided to relocate the conference venue to another site because of the ethical violations involved.

The ACA website summarizes this ethics decision via a statement by CEO Richard Yep: “This was not an easy decision to make. After thoughtful discussion, the ACA Governing Council made the difficult—and courageous—decision on behalf of our membership. Of all the state legislation I have seen passed in my 30 years with ACA, the new Tennessee law based on Senate Bill 1556/House Bill 1840 is by far the worst. This law directly targets the counseling profession, would deny services to those most in need, and constitutes a dilemma for ACA members because it allows for violation of ACA’s Code of Ethics. By relocating from Tennessee, ACA is standing up to this discriminatory law and we remain committed in the battle to ensure that this law does not become the national standard." [Because many art therapists are also licensed as professional or mental health counselors, this case is familiar to them because they provide services as counselors in addition to their roles as art therapists.]

American Psychological Association: Most psychologists are familiar with a high-stakes ethics case in the American Psychological Association [APA] that began in 2007 and involved collaboration with the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] and the Pentagon. In brief, a 542-page 2015 report concluded that prominent psychologists worked closely with the CIA to influence dissent inside the agency over an interrogation program that included torture. The report also concluded that officials at the American Psychological Association [APA], particularly the association’s ethics director, colluded with the Pentagon to make sure that the association’s ethics policies did not hinder the ability of psychologists to be involved in the interrogation program. Large numbers of APA members voiced their concerns over several years, including asking leadership to take a stand on the human rights issues involved [in particular the psychological impact of torture including water boarding]. APA finally acknowledged the members’ public outcry and issued a long-awaited statement that the organization would not condone torture or other violations of human rights.

These are two cases among many that continue to inform discussion of ethics questions when legislation [discriminatory laws in Tennessee and other states] as well as alliances with government impact the practice of psychotherapy especially when they present unpredictable situations, rules and requirements that are in direct conflict with ethics codes and standards of practice. While it is impossible to foresee all possible outcomes when it comes to these types of influences, the examples presented above oblige all practitioners to consider the ramifications of legislation and alliances with those whose political policies support platforms that may be in opposition to ethical mental health practices. In all cases, it is essential to at least examine, discuss and articulate the parameters of a profession’s ethical practice via existing codes and standards. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, via Art Therapists for Human Rights Facebook group, offers the following simple advice: “I urge you to send a focused request for the org[anization] to make a statement to the world…that they do not exclude from art therapy, shelter or help, ANY group, any person, any gender, any person in need, without question about their lifestyle, injuries, religion, race, or any other soul; that they will not join in exclusion nor cooperation in doing harm to nor disenfranchising others.”

We all can agree that the ethics of psychotherapy practice are complicated at best; the context for determining what is ethical and what is not is often fluid and even unpredictable. Art therapists are in a unique position to begin a dialogue about their ethics of practice in response to the unusual and for many, controversial spotlight that has now placed their field in the public eye. More importantly, as helping professionals they are also in a position to clearly articulate how their code of ethics and standards of professional practice reflect human rights and social justice to those in power, underscoring their commitment to those children, adults, families and communities who are becoming increasingly vulnerable in the current political environment.

Be well and may your ethics be with you,

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

© 2017 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

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