Ethics Rounds

Ethics took center stage at this year's APA Annual Convention. Perhaps the most visible sign of our ethics was the context: APA's decision to keep convention in New Orleans. Out of necessity, the Board of Directors had explored various possible venues following the hurricanes of 2005. In making its final decision, the board focused on how APA could best support the city and our many colleagues in the Gulf Region. The decision was clear: APA was going to New Orleans. Those who attended convention received a welcome of thanks and deep appreciation extended by hotel receptionists, cab drivers, waiters and waitresses, and city workers.

Many APA members participated in activities around the city. Some brought school supplies. Others helped with construction. Still others helped in tending to animals left without homes following the storms. The physical impact of the hurricanes was evident throughout the area; the psychological impact was less visible but every bit as powerful and likely far more lasting. Colleagues from Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia spoke at a meeting called by the APA Ethics Office for state, territorial and provincial association ethics committee members, to discuss ethical challenges that arose for psychologists responding in the aftermath of the hurricanes. In preparing for the meeting, I had anticipated a discussion of record-keeping, informed consent, perhaps the issue of mandated reporting for children given media stories I had read about what had gone on in some of the shelters. I was completely off the mark.

The psychologists who spoke at the meeting--Dr. Angela Herzog from Mississippi, Drs. Scott Eckholdt and James Quillin from Louisiana, and Dr. Linda Campbell from Georgia--described in moving, eloquent and powerful ways the impact of the hurricanes on themselves and their colleagues. They used the language of trauma and emphasized an obvious yet easily forgotten fact: Psychologists in the region suffered the same losses as everyone else in the population, yet were nonetheless called to be caretakers. The caretaking began in the storm's immediate aftermath, continues full-force in the present, and will be required for many years to come. In many instances, the psychologists on whose shoulders this role fell have not received adequate caretaking themselves, yet nonetheless feel compelled to press on. Their talks silenced the room of 60 or so psychologists.

As I reflected upon the meeting,I was struck by the multiple levels of ethical responsibilities that Drs. Herzog, Eckholdt, Quillin and Campbell evoked. On the individual level, psychologists have a responsibility for self-care and to refrain from engaging in professional activities when our competence is compromised. On a collective level, we have a responsibility to our colleagues who have endured our country's worst natural disaster, suffered significant personal losses, and nonetheless have the responsibility of meeting the mental health needs of the affected population. This responsibility may entail supporting our colleagues in their hugely challenging work, assisting a colleague to get needed help or, in some cases, insisting that a colleague take a vacation or break. The twin ethical principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence--do good and do no harm--extend not only to our patients and clients, but to our colleagues as well. On the association level, we have a responsibility to create programs that help psychologists fulfill these responsibilities, and that assist psychologists in preparing for future emergencies and disasters that will inevitably come. This preparation includes disaster response training and developing ways to minimize the impact of disasters on psychologists' professional lives, as can happen when clinical and billing records are lost or destroyed. The Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (2002)--APA's Ethics Code--calls for a response on each of these levels.

Other ethics programs at convention--there were a total of 41 listed in the official convention program and the Ethics Office and Committee were involved in 12--provided a sense of developments in the field. Two programs addressed ethics in media psychology, a subject of frequent requests for ethics consultation to the APA Ethics Office. Over the past decade, psychologists have come to interact with the media in a wide variety of ways that involve special ethical challenges, for example conducting therapy sessions on camera and consulting for reality TV programs. APA's Div. 46 (Media), a sponsor for these two programs, has been actively examining how psychologists can fully incorporate ethics into their media activities. One program sponsored by Div. 52 (International) focused on APA ethics in an international context. This program explored ethics codes in the healing professions from a historical perspective and compared APA's code to codes from other national psychological associations. The program was the first of what I hope will be many collaborations between the Ethics Office and Div. 52 to incorporate an international perspective into APA's way of thinking--a perspective that will enliven and enrich our understanding of ethics. The American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) was well-represented inthe ethics programs at convention,as this year's winner of the student ethics writing prize, Rebecca Schwartz, of the University of Missouri-Columbia Department of Psychological Sciences, presented her winning paper, "Challenges of Addressing Graduate Student Impairment in Academic Psychology Programs" to the APA Ethics Committee.

The Ethics Committee, as it does each year, held a two-hour program to discuss areas of ethics that have frequently come to the attention of the APA Ethics Office since the previous convention. One of this year's vignettes involved training programs and the Internet:

The director of a clinical training program, Dr. Net, has been hearing more and more about interns discussing their profiles, pictures and blogs on sites such as"mylocation.com" and "searchingforlove.com." Some of the personal information the students disclose on these sites includes their interests and information about their families, as well as what they look for in a date and descriptions of good (as well as bad) dates. Dr. Net is also aware that the interns are occasionally active in online chat rooms and other participatory Internet sites. Dr. Net believes it is important to get the students to think about the implications of providing personal information about themselves in a public forum, but also doesn't want to intrude on their privacy, especially since these are now such common activities for individuals this age. What are the ethical issues involved? Are the students' postings any of Dr. Net's business?


The vignette gave rise to a lively discussion about how the Internet has shifted lines that demarcate our private and public lives, and the ethical aspects of engaging in private behavior that may affect our professional work.

Throughout convention, I was continually impressed with how deeply felt issues related to ethics often are. Several programs sponsored by Div. 48 (Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence: Peace Psychology) addressed human rights, torture and APA's position on ethics and interrogations, issues that evoke passionate responses among our members. Other programs addressed student-faculty authorship and individual differences of culture, ethnicity, religion and parenting styles in child custody evaluations, topics that likewise evoke strong feelings. The intensity that these discussions bring is not always easy or pleasant to manage, but the overarching message is clear: When it comes to ethics, our members care deeply.

Further Reading

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Previous "Ethics Rounds" columns can be found at APA Ethics, in the "From the Director" section.