In yet another sign of the high stress levels our military forces currently are under, the Army has reported more suicides this year than even last year’s record-breaking level, and this despite a series of new Army suicide-prevention efforts (Pauline Jelinek, Associated Press, Sept. 4, 2008).
While there are often multiple life problems contributing to suicide, including financial and relationship worries, there is no question the many stressors of wartime operations and deployments are having a major impact.
At the same time as the psychological toll on the force continues to rise, members of the American Psychological Association (APA) are voting on a measure that if it passes, will likely reduce the number of psychologists available to provide needed care to U.S. troops and their families.
APA is the world’s largest association of psychologists with more than 148,000 members and sets the licensing codes and ethical standards for the profession. Following a petition by some APA members, a ballot resolution was recently mailed to the entire association for a yes or no vote. If it passes, the resolution will ban psychologists from working in settings where people are detained outside of international law or the U.S. Constitution.
Proponents of this measure claim it is necessary to prevent psychologists from participating in cruel and inhumane treatment in settings where people are detained or held against their will, as for example at the military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. Unfortunately, the resolution is so broad and vague it will very likely do more harm than good if it passes.
It’s puzzling why proponents of this measure feel it is necessary now, when the APA has already spoken out strongly and consistently against torture or inhumane treatment. Most recently, APA resolutions in 2007 and 2008 clearly forbid psychologists from participating indirectly or directly in any type of cruel, degrading or inhumane actions. APA’s Division 19, the Society for Military Psychology, has co-sponsored and fully supported these past resolutions.
Let’s be clear: Military psychologists do not support or condone torture or inhumane treatment of any kind, in any setting or circumstance. Such treatment would run against our most basic principles and values, which we swear to protect when we take the oath of office.
These principles are embodied in the U.S. Constitution, and reiterated in multiple regulations and guidelines. For example, Army Field Manual 34-52 (Intelligence Interrogation) stipulates that all terms of the Geneva Conventions, including Common Article 3, are always to be followed. Anyone, psychologist or otherwise, who violates these basic principles should be held accountable.
The new APA resolution is not only unneeded, but ironically would result in violation of the most basic ethical standard of the profession, to “do no harm.” Thousands of vulnerable people, including soldiers and their families, will be hurt through the denial of badly needed psychological services (all the military services are already struggling to address severe shortages of mental health professionals). The resolution itself does not address the real issue, which concerns personal ethical decisions and behaviors, but instead broadly restricts psychologists from working in any setting where some constitutional or “international law” challenge might arise.
This could apply to many settings beyond the military, including, for example, states that permit the death penalty. The term “setting” itself is ambiguous, and could be extended to entire organizations in which something has occurred that might be interpreted as outside international law. One result of this uncertainty will be to discourage good and ethical psychologists from deploying to many overseas military posts, which would mean that needed care will not be available to many soldiers and families in these locations. The resolution will have a similar damaging impact in other organizational contexts, such as prisons and other law enforcement settings.
Military recruitment efforts are also likely to suffer. Many psychologists will decide not to risk their good ethical standing in the profession by working for the military at all. At a time when thousands of soldiers and their families are in desperate need of psychological care, as well as better prevention programs and policies, we need more military psychologists, not fewer.
The military is already critically short of psychologists, as well as other health-care professionals including social workers, nurses and physicians. This resolution will only add to the problem of not enough qualified psychologists now available to serve our own military members, as well as prisoners or detainees in need of mental health care.
However unintentional these consequences may be, the new resolution will result in the further victimizing of already underserved and vulnerable groups. As ethical professionals sworn to do no harm, psychologists should vote no to this proposal, and instead look for ways to increase psychological support for the military.
Paul T. Bartone,a colonel in the U.S. Army, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and past president of the Society for Military Psychology. He is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University’s, Center for Technology & National Security Policy.