Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Is America a "Socially Just" Nation?

My first answer would be NO - we deny equal rights to one minority group (GLBT) based on archaic religious values, while other minority groups are overtly given equal rights (as though they are ours [white folks] to give) but are covertly discriminated against in jobs, education, and even housing, and 51% of the population (women) earn less than men simply because they are women.

We have some work to do to become a socially just culture/nation.

Here are few definitions of social justice - do you think these are valid, and if so, is America living up to these values? More importantly, does our mental health system manifest these values?
Smith (2003) defines a socially just world as having access to:
Adequate food, sleep, wages, education, safety, opportunity, institutional support, health care, child care, and loving relationships. “Adequate” means enough to allow [participation]in the world . . . without starving, or feeling economically trapped or uncompensated, continually exploited, terrorized, devalued, battered, chonically exhausted, or virtually enslaved (and for some reason, still, actually enslaved). (p. 167).
Bell (1997) states that the goal of social justice is:
Full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure. (p. 3)
Given these broad descriptions, we propose a working definition of social justice counseling/therapy:
Social justice counseling/therapy is an active philosophy and approach aimed at producing conditions that allow for equal access and opportunity; reducing or eliminating disparities in education, health care, employment, and other areas that lower the quality of life for affected populations; encouraging mental health professionals to consider micro, meso, and macro levels in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of client and client systems; and broadening the role of the helping professional to include not only counselor/therapist but advocate, consultant, psychoeducator, change agent, community worker, etc. (Sue & Sue, 2008, 292-293)
I like these definitions. The problem we see in training therapists, as Sue & Sue point out, is that we do not place any real value on reaching out to those groups that do not receive equal and fair treatment in our society.
Becoming culturally competent requires not only changes at an individual practice level, but also changes associated with how we define our helping role. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of mental health practitioners desire to enter direct clinical service, especially counseling and psychotherapy (Shullman, Celeste, & Strickland, 2006). The mental health profession has implicitly or explicitly glamorized and defined the clinician as one who conducts his or her trade—working with individuals—in an office environment. While the development of individual intervention skills has been the main focus in many graduate training programs, little emphasis is given to other roles, activities, or settings (Toporek & McNally, 2006). Thus, not only might therapists be lacking in systemsintervention knowledge and skills, but they may also become unaccustomed to, and uncomfortable about, leaving their offices. Yet work with racial/ethnic minority groups and immigrant populations suggests that out-of-office sites/activities (client homes, churches, volunteer organizations, etc.) and alternative helping roles (ombudsman, advocates, consultants, organizational change agents, facilitators of indigenous healing systems, etc.) may prove more therapeutic and effective (Atkinson et al., 1993; Warren & Constantine, 2007). Social justice counseling with marginalized groups in our society is most enhanced when mental health professionals (1) can understand how individual and systemic worldviews shape clinical practice and (2) when they are equipped with organizational and systemic knowledge, expertise, and skills.
The authors offer a nice model for understanding worldviews, but this is where a more complex model (such as Clare Graves, via Beck & Cowan's Spiral Dynamics, or Jean Gebser) might be very useful. Even more useful might be the newer work in cultural psychology (see The Cultural Psychology of Self: Place, Morality and Art in Human Worlds).

Counseling the Culturally Diverse (2008), by Sue & Sue, is one of the best textbooks we have had so far. Highly recommended.

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