The mental health professions have long recognized that with our positions and our expertise comes a great deal of responsibility. In exchange for our professional status and the trust we are given to work with vulnerable people in private, we agree to act not just on behalf of our clients, but also on behalf of the larger communities who grant us that very trust. This means maintaining awareness of the laws and policies that impact our clients and communities, and working to change those policies that are not in the community’s best interest.
While each professional organization phrases this obligation differently, they agree that it is part of being a counselor or therapist. Simply put, you are expected to use your specialized knowledge and training to benefit the larger community. It is part of holding the title of a mental health professional.
Those mental health professionals who seek to influence public policy tend not to do it out of a sense of obligation, though. They tend to do this work out of a desire to have an impact on the community that is real, significant, and larger than the impact they can have by working with even a hundred specific cases.
Though their underlying philosophies differ (see my earlier post on the differences between an LMFT, an LPCC, and an LCSW), each of the mental health professions seeks to understand the rules that govern human behavior and relationships, and ultimately to have an impact on not just individuals but communities and cultures. It is this notion that tends to draw the therapists most passionate about advocacy work.
Ed. note: This post is a slightly-modified excerpt from the chapter on Advocacy in Basics of California Law for LMFTs, LPCCs, and LCSWs.
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Consider, as an example, the statements of various professional organizations several years ago on same-sex marriage. While some therapists were understandably reluctant to wade into such a politically controversial area with their professional hat on, mental health researchers produced a great deal of well-grounded scientific literature on the functioning of families with same-sex couples. We saw in our therapy offices the real impacts of discrimination, in the stresses and symptoms of our clients. Who was better equipped than the mental health community to share with legislators the impact of societal oppression on same-sex couples and families, or to inform legislators of what we could safely say we knew about the long-term impact of growing up with same-sex parents?
If mental health professionals do not fill this kind of information need with good, objective research findings, others will happily fill the information vacuum with pseudoscience or scare tactics. When mental health professionals inform a debate, it makes a real difference: When the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, they cited a brief filed by the American Psychological Association, detailing a number of studies that suggested same-sex couples and their children suffer needlessly from being unable to marry.
This is, of course, simply an example. Your personal politics of course do not need to agree with those of your professional association, and some practitioners opposed same-sex marriage for religious or other reasons. My point here is simply to stress the importance of therapists being involved in policy and advocacy discussions – even when that means therapists will be representing both sides of a debate. Better to have our perspectives on both sides than to have them on neither.
Originally published November 26, 2012. Republished with minor edits and updates August 1, 2018.