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More psychologists should lend their expertise to international human rights and peace-building efforts-not only to aid war-torn communities and victims of torture but also to help define the ethics of this type of work for themselves and the next generation, argues Fordham University fifth-year counseling psychology graduate student Dhruvi Kakkad, who won the 2004 APA/American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) Graduate Student Ethics Prize for her paper on this topic.

"There are lots of potential ethical pitfalls in getting involved with this type of work," says Kakkad, who won $1,000 and a round-trip ticket and three-night stay at APA's 2004 Annual Convention in Honolulu for her paper. "But through the process of becoming activists, we'll define the ethics of these situations."

In her winning paper, "A new ethical praxis: psychologists' emerging responsibilities in issues of social justice," Kakkad says such ethical pitfalls include:

  • Relying on Western values in trauma therapy with non-Western people.

  • Failing to conduct research that takes into account other cultures' beliefs and values.

  • Having a visibly strong reaction to hearing details of a client's experience of torture or being overly curious to hear the graphic details-which can compromise one's ability to provide competent services.

  • Attending more to the political agenda of the situation rather than the client's psychological needs.

Kakkad, who was born in Bombay, India, also maintains that psychologists shouldn't shy away from such work for fear of the ethical challenges. In fact, she says, they should be proactive in preventing ethnopolitical conflict, sparking dialogue on the ethical dilemmas involved and making social activism a more visible part of psychology graduate training.

The annual Graduate Student Ethics Prize rewards the year's best student paper on psychology and ethics and is a collaboration between APA's Ethics Committee and APAGS. The goal of the prize is to promote the ethical practice of psychology and help students understand the ins and outs of psychology ethics.

Kakkad's topic was inspired in part by her experience working with refugees and torture survivors from countries such as Tibet and Sierra Leone during graduate school at the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture. "The staff provided a great model for how to be both an activist and a practitioner, and the experience sensitized me to the ethical considerations involved in such work," she says.

Once Kakkad defends her doctoral dissertation this fall-on how individuals' belief systems, values and attitudes toward hierarchy predict for nonviolent proclivities-she will pursue a career in academe as well as opportunities to conduct group or individual therapy with war-trauma survivors. She is also interested in increasing awareness of social justice and human rights issues through public education and plans to volunteer with an international nonprofit organization to work with individuals and communities dealing with war trauma.

More information on the 2005 Graduate Student Ethics Prize is at APA Ethics. The application deadline is in March.