Professor of applied psychology, University of East London, and chartered counselling psychologist
I see social justice as a broad term that embraces addressing social inequalities and encouraging inclusion, and includes a human rights perspective. For me, social justice is about taking a critical perspective, interrogating our theories and constantly reviewing where our profession positions itself on sociopolitical issues. We know that living in a more equal society benefits everyone’s mental health; knowing that, we have to be political. It’s not just about things being fairer for the individual; it’s about a cultural change and looking at structural factors so that things are equitable for everybody. I think counsellors’ skills can also be used in that wider context, around specific issues or with communities of people, and that counsellors should be speaking out about sociopolitical issues, rather than just remaining in the counselling room. It’s about helping to give a voice to people who haven’t had a voice or who feel voiceless. I think we can also address social justice in the counselling room by acknowledging social injustices in our clients’ lives and working with them to help them deal with, for example, their socio-economic problems, rather than individualising them to, say, their lack of assertiveness.
Jude Boyles MBACP
Manager, VPRS therapeutic service with the Refugee Council
I am a feminist and identify as a human rights activist and therapist with a commitment to social justice. That is what drives my work as a therapist and informs where I choose to work. I bring my feminist analysis and human rights framework into the counselling room. With refugees, I am working with people whose psychological health is being directly affected by social justice issues and so I often raise or name issues of social justice and oppression in the conversations I have with them. How can you not think it’s your duty to acknowledge factors that are directly impacting on your clients? But how and when we do this is more complex; the timing is a matter for clinical judgement. It is important to have established a relationship where the client is able to challenge and disagree with you. I know from experience, that you can silence or shut down dialogues if you aren’t thoughtful about the timing. Staying quiet is sometimes the best intervention. If you politicise or collectivise problems too soon, there is a risk you can make the person feel you are not listening to them and their particular experience. I also feel I have a responsibility to act on what I learn from my clients – I can’t just listen; I have to be an activist outside my clinical role.
Dwight Turner UKCP Reg
Accredited integrative counsellor and psychotherapist and senior lecturer, University of Brighton
I think it’s well overdue that we take a long hard look at privilege, difference and power and how they play out in the counselling room. To me, psychotherapy reflects how culture is, not how it could be. Social justice comes up in my practice all the time – issues about race, inequality and difference – whether the client brings it up or I ask them. Having that dialogue is important; we need to have it and not be afraid, because it can be really empowering to have these feelings validated. Intersectionality needs to be interwoven throughout the training, not as an add-on. It is something that students want recognised. We are dealing with it all the time and we need to give it more space, because then we are challenging those traditional power structures. If we are looking for true equality and working towards it, then the system must crack – not fall, but crack and let something else in.
Founder and Clinical Director of Women and Girls Network
Social justice is integral to working with women who have experienced gender-based violence. It’s so embedded, you can’t escape it. Social justice is reflected in every single part of our work here at Women and Girls Network. We were born out of the women’s movement and the call for social action against women’s experience of violence, so we could never ignore the social environment that impacts on women’s lives. The work can never be just about women’s internal processes – that is just ridiculous to us. We believe the personal is political and we can’t separate the two. The real conditions of women’s lives influence their psychological wellbeing and how they recover. We don’t want to create functioning women who just go back into the dysfunctional spaces that caused their problems. We want women to stand out, not fit in. We can’t offer to be neutral. It’s an ethical, moral stance. A woman can work forever on her self-esteem, but it’s not going to change her external environment of violence and poverty.
Clayton Elliott MBACP (Accred)
Managing director and senior counsellor with Counselling for Social Change
For me, social justice in counselling is about everyone having access to therapy for as long as they want and need. Counselling should not be an option only for those with money. I also think the person-centred core conditions should be there in all of society: we should be creating a culture of unconditional positive regard and empathy for everyone. Unfortunately, I think the person-centred approach can sometimes occupy a little bubble of self-actualisation that can easily turn into victim blaming: ‘You are in this situation because you aren’t doing the psychological work to sort yourself out,’ when actually it’s because you have no money and are living in a society with vast inequalities. Sometimes it’s not about the individual; it’s about their circumstances. While I am personally active in social-change movements, I don’t think it’s for me to always bring this agenda into the counselling room. We aren’t here to make people who we want them to be; we are here to help them be the person they want to be.
Professor of Counseling, Seattle University, and keynote speaker at the Let the Voices be Heard! conference
When my colleagues and I were invited to update the competences on multicultural counselling in 2016, we decided we needed them to directly include social justice, not just civil rights. We wanted counsellors to be as comfortable working out in the community as they are in the counselling room and to be skilled in individual therapy and systemic interventions, depending on the client’s needs. We adopted the socio-ecological model, which recognises that what impacts at global level also impacts at individual level. We are not saying everyone should work contextually, but we are saying we should look more holistically at what our clients bring. People are impacted psychologically and physically because of poverty and, if that is the issue, we need to focus on the poverty, not on changing how that person thinks about it. Psychological needs are important – research shows mindfulness helps, but at the end of the day, the person is still struggling with lack of resources. It became more controversial when we added ‘action’ to the requirements for knowledge and skills and asked people to get out and do something about inequalities. Counsellors embrace the idea but they don’t like it in reality, because it asks them to leave the comfort zone of their office. But there are people doing that in the US and it’s growing, because counsellors are understanding that it’s the environment that shapes us and we shape the environment. What we are trying to do is connect the two in practice.
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