Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Human Rights 101: Implications for counselors and the counseling profession

By Michael P. Chaney, Carman Gill and John Super November 19, 2019

On April 30, an on-campus shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte left two people dead and four others injured.

On January 6, Dana Martin, a 31-year-old, transgender woman of color was found in her vehicle—which had crashed into a ditch—with a fatal gunshot wound to the head, in Hope Hull, Alabama.

In 2017, two doctors and a clinic manager in the Detroit area were accused of performing or facilitating female genital mutilation (FGM) on nine girls—at least two of whom were only 7 years old.

Since 2017, the Chinese government has been detaining at least one million and perhaps as many as three million Uighur and other ethnic Muslims in internment camps in the Xinjiang region.  The camps are a part of a years-long effort to wipe out the ethnic and religious traditions of the Uighur and other Muslim ethnic groups. Former prisoners describe torture and constant political indoctrination designed to force detainees to give up their religious beliefs, language and ethnic identity.

At first glance, these incidents seem to have little in common with each other; however, the link that bonds them together is that they are all human rights violations. A next logical question some might ask is what do these issues have to do with counselors and the counseling profession? Many professional counselors do not think human rights issues are related to or comfortably fit within the counseling profession and/or are outside of the traditional job description of counselors. This is partially due to the difficulty of separating human rights issues from political issues, which may create values conflicts for some counselors. Second, many counselors may not have a clear understanding of what human rights are beyond the rights that people know about, particularly if the rights directly impact them. Thus, values conflicts and lack of understanding often lead to professional counselors’ cautious involvement with human rights.

 

We are past and current members of the American Counseling Association’s Human Rights Committee (HRC) whose stated mission is to bring awareness to human rights and social issues that impact the counseling profession and to address barriers that impede human rights. We believe that human rights issues are inextricably linked to both the practice of counseling and the overall profession. We’ve developed this two part series, consisting of two separate articles that explores why human rights issues are important to counselors and counselors-in-training. This first article provides a general background of human rights issues and its relevance to practitioners, whereas the second article is solely focused on human rights issues and counseling students and counselor training.

We start with a question: What are human rights?

The concept of human rights entered the international realm with the founding of the United Nations (UN) in 1945. The term “human rights” was mentioned seven times in the UN’s founding charter, establishing that the promotion and protection of human rights is a key purpose and guiding principle of the organization. In 1948 the UN issued a document drafted by representatives from all regions of the world — The Universal Declaration of Human Rights — which for the first time set out fundamental human rights recognizing the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all humans regardless of race, gender, nationality, religion, language, social status, place of birth or other factors (such as sexual orientation, which is not specifically mentioned in the declaration). Human rights may include civil, political and cultural rights. Simply, human rights are freedoms and liberties that are due to people solely based on their status as human beings. The foundation of human rights is built upon respect for the individual, which aligns with counselors’ primary ethical responsibility to respect the dignity of our clients and students. According to the UN, everyone is entitled to basic human rights.

Although it is impossible to list all human rights issues in this series, there are defined categories. The first category pertains to the right to personal and physical safety, which includes freedom from slavery or unwilling servitude; torture; and inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment or punishment. From a counseling perspective, issues that may fall under this category include but are not limited to mental health consequences associated with interpersonal and domestic violence, gender-based harassment, human trafficking, and community gun violence. The second category includes political rights and civil liberties such as the right to express one’s ideas and beliefs freely and to fair treatment in the judicial system. For counselors, examples of this dimension include addressing mental health consequences associated with racial disparities in incarceration rates and forced treatment of mentally ill offenders. The third category of human rights centers on social and economic rights, which include the right to quality education, gainful employment, housing, health and an adequate standard of living. This dimension has implications for counselors who provide services to clients or students who live in poverty, are unemployed, struggle with health concerns or experience psychological distress as a result of systemic oppression. These examples demonstrate that human rights issues can potentially affect anyone. Therefore, human rights have a seat at the counseling table.

Human rights in the helping professions

Because human rights violations impact mental wellbeing, several of the member organizations affiliated with helping professionals specifically name human rights in their mission or vision statements. For example, one of the five general ethical principles included in the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics is respect for peoples’ rights and dignity. The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues describes itself as an organization that promotes research and education on psychological aspects of critical social issues and brings science and evidence to human problems. The statement of ethical principles created by the International Federation of Social Workers–the global body for the social work profession– states that members and the profession as a whole strive for social justice, human rights, and inclusive, sustainable social development.

Although the American Counseling Association (ACA) is in a unique position to be a leader at the intersection of counseling and human rights, presently, it does not name human rights in its vision and mission statements. However, ACA’s recently developed strategic plan includes social justice and empowerment as a core value, whose guiding principles can be summarized with the catch phrase: Human rights are right.

Because counselors are often on the front lines treating the mental health consequences of human rights violations in the lives of clients and students, we should have a clear understanding of our professional responsibilities as it pertains to human rights issues. First, we have a responsibility not to violate the human rights of other people including our clients and students. Second, we should work to build a culture where human rights are respected.

Why human rights are relevant to counselors and the counseling profession

As counselors, we must recognize the crucial role human rights play in mental health and wellness. Human rights violations often result in serious emotional consequences for individuals, families and communities. We began this article by giving recent examples of brutal human rights violations. Unfortunately, these incidents are just a snapshot — a mere fraction of the violations that entire groups targeted for their ethnicity, religion or political beliefs and individuals in marginalized populations experience daily. Many clients encounter multiple forms of harassment, bullying, restriction of freedoms, verbal abuse, threats of violence and life-threatening events.

The long-lasting physical and emotional consequences of exposure to these conditions cannot be understated. As a result of these violations, clients may experience a range of detrimental mental health consequences including but are not limited to — increased loss of dignity, ongoing stress, anxiety, sleep disturbances, physical distress, spiritual distress, increased substance use, decreased productivity, emotional dysregulation, severe depressive symptoms and suicidality. In addition to the impact on holistic wellness, individuals often experience post-trauma stress symptoms and are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Whether clients experience a single incident or have been subjected to chronic, ongoing human rights violations, their lives are impacted, as are the lives of loved ones, families, and communities. Collectively, we are all diminished as a result.

As counselors, it is incumbent upon us to identify human rights concerns and their impact, to uphold individual human rights and address the negative consequences associated with violating these rights.

The ACA Code of Ethics can serve as a guide to protecting and upholding human rights. In fact, the ethical principles defined in the code’s preamble to directly relate to human rights advocacy. Consider, for instance, the principle of autonomy, which states that counselors have a responsibility to foster an individual’s right to control their life. Control of one’s life pertains not only to the counseling setting, but extends to every life aspect and to all three of the human rights categories listed earlier in this article. Therefore, counselors should be cognizant not to intentionally or unintentionally violate the human rights of clients. This is consistent with an additional ethical principle, beneficence.

As counselors we have a responsibility to treat our clients with justice, equity and fairness. This responsibility incorporates human rights issues as well, as every human being has the right to basic freedoms, human decency and respect. Justice includes advocating on behalf of marginalized populations and treating clients and students fairly. Honoring others and keeping our commitments to those we serve and to the greater social community embodies the principle of fidelity and is in keeping with human rights principles. In doing so, we build trusting relationships with those around us, allowing for positive interactions and improved wellness, building healthier communities. Veracity, the last ethical principle listed in the preamble, bids counselors to deal truthfully with those they encounter professionally. Speaking the truth by identifying and exposing human rights violations creates awareness that can lead to change. Taken as a whole, these principles form a roadmap not just for the counseling-client relationship, but also for respecting the human rights of people not just in our communities but in society as a whole, which can help foster a healthier world.

Global human rights initiatives and mental health

As stated above, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was originally adopted in 1948 and reinforces the ideals behind bettering our communities through endorsing fundamental human rights, understanding the mental health consequences of violating these rights and advocating. Consistent with ACA’s ethical principles, this declaration includes language such as autonomy, freedom and justice. This document heavily endorses the ideas of personhood, dignity and freedom for every human being, which complements the core values of the counseling profession.

Key to any discussion on human rights is the UN’s Commission on Human Rights (UNHRC) and its relationship to mental health and counseling. Established in 1946 for the purpose of incorporating legal responses into human rights problems globally, the UNHRC included 53 member states, whose delegates met at annual sessions in Geneva. The commission reviewed reports on specific human rights issues, adopted resolutions, issued statements and made decisions regarding human rights issues. It also provided a forum for countries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights advocates to voice their concerns.

The UNHRC established the committee that drafted the UDHR and was tasked with upholding it until 2006 when the Human Rights Council replaced the commission. Currently, the council promotes and protects human rights worldwide. Consisting of 47 members, including the United States, the Human Rights Council meets three times per year in Geneva, but may also hold a special session as needed to address urgent human rights violations. The council focuses much of its work on pervasive issues such as cultural rights, adequate housing, the rights of indigenous people, the rights of people with disabilities, racism, slavery, human trafficking and violence against women.

Addressing human rights violations in counseling

Understanding the professional and clinical importance of human rights issues is valuable to the counseling profession in general and in clinicians specifically. Knowing how to assess and treat the negative effects of human rights violations is paramount to treating [client] symptoms in sessions. A counselor’s primary role is to help clients address the issues that brought them to counseling and to advocate on their behalf. In fact, the ACA Code of Ethics encourages us to advocate at individual, group, institutional and societal levels to address potential barriers and obstacles that inhibit access necessary to the growth and development of clients. For clinicians to effectively advocate on behalf of clients’ human rights, understanding how and why the issue affects clients, society, and the counseling relationship is a must.

For many counselors, human rights violations assessment was not likely taught in their respective counseling programs. Therefore, it is crucial that counselors hone their assessment skills by understanding how violations of human rights may manifest in clients. Identifying the words and behaviors hinting at trauma that may stem from human rights violations can help the counselor to further assess the client. Just as counselors should assess for histories of abuse, substance use and suicidal or homicidal ideation, gathering information about experiences of human rights violations is essential.

At the onset of clinical work with clients who have experienced trauma associated with human rights violations, we recommend four guiding principles with which to frame the therapeutic relationship. First, create a safe environment in which trauma symptoms can be stabilized and explored. Second, counselors would serve their clients well by asking direct, open-ended questions about potential human rights violations and exploring issues that help uncover related trauma. Third, do not discriminate, remain nonjudgmental and avoid victim-blaming as clients share their violation experiences. Fourth—and last—assist clients in empowering themselves. Once these fundamental principles are in place, the following counseling strategies may be effective in treating trauma symptoms associated with human rights violations.

  • Manage the level of emotional stimulation and expression in sessions. While avoiding overstimulation is beneficial, clients who limit their emotional expression may be resisting stepping outside of their comfort zone, which could prevent adequate processing and growth. In contrast, clients who are highly expressive emotionally may become overstimulated, which could cause trauma symptoms to get worse.
  • Mindfulness of emotions helps clients develop a level of awareness of their feelings and teaches clients how to examine the emotions they experience without judging whether or not they are “good” or “bad.”
  • Teach clients coping strategies for intense human rights violations, trauma symptoms and feelings. Techniques such as relaxation training, cognitive disputation and stress reduction can be helpful.
  • Educate clients on normal reactions to trauma. This includes validating and normalizing clients’ affective reactions to human rights violations.
  • Grounding techniques that make use of all the senses help clients to stay focused and in the present when processing distressful human rights violations. Three effective techniques include having the client listen to the counselor’s voice, have the client feel bare feet on the ground, and allow client to name 5 things they see, 4 things they feel, 3 things they hear, 2 things they smell, 1 thing they taste (5-4-3-2-1).
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) has been shown to be effective for many clients to alleviate symptoms of trauma and distress such as those connected to human rights violations.
  • Group therapy for trauma survivors may be an effective complement to individual therapy.

The strategies mentioned above are by no means an exhaustive list of all potentially effective interventions at a counselor’s disposal for treating the mental health consequences of human rights violations. We encourage readers to consult professional literature for additional interventions.

ACA has done a phenomenal job of addressing the intersection of mental health and human rights — yet more can be done. As the counseling profession evolves and ACA continues to grow, we offer three recommendations that we believe would place it at the forefront of counseling and human rights issues. These recommendations stem from the World Health Organization, and we adapted them for the counseling profession.

ACA and the counseling profession should:

  1. Continue to raise awareness and advocate for change by educating clients and advocating for targets of human rights violations.
  2. Develop and support mental health policies and laws that promote human rights.
  3. Train stakeholders on the human rights of people with mental health issues. Stakeholders include anyone who has an impact on people with mental health issues, including but not limited to counselors, law enforcement, schools and the judicial system.

 

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Michael P. Chaney is a licensed professional counselor, an approved clinical supervisor and an associate professor in the Department of Counseling at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. He is the immediate past co-chair of ACA’s Human Rights Committee and currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling. Contact him at chaney@oakland.edu.

Carman S. Gill is a licensed professional counselor, a national certified counselor and an approved clinical supervisor. She is also a professor and the doctoral program coordinator at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. She is the immediate past co-chair of ACA’s Human Rights Committee and a past president of the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC). Contact her at carmangill@gmail.com

John T. Super is a faculty member in the University of Central Florida’s counselor education program. After receiving his master’s degree in marriage, couples and family counseling, he worked in and developed a clinical private practice with a focus on helping LGBTQ+ couples with relational issues. He is a national certified counselor and is also a licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Florida. Contact him at jsuper@ucf.edu

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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