Editorial: When psychologists cross the line

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For all of us, in every walk of life, there is always an ethical line.

Trying not to cross it — the consequences be damned — is a life’s work and challenge.

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The American Psychological Association, thecollective voice of American psychology, crossed one such clear bright line, inflicting a serious blow to a profession vital to American mental health. The association now is taking action to repair the field’s reputation and, hopefully, with time and fortification, to re-emerge stronger.

Caught up in the post-9/11 furor that swept this country, the APA and its top officers colluded with the CIA and the Pentagon to sanction the harsh interrogation techniques in use at Guantanamo Bay between 2002 and 2005, a scathing report released this summer found. Featured prominently in the report was the APA’s then president-elect Gerald Koocher, now dean of the College of Science and Health at DePaul University.

Koocher, in a statement on his website, said he and former APA President Ronald Levant insisted that they “never have supported the use of cruel, degrading or inhumane treatment of prisoners or detainees.”

But the report, which was drafted at the APA’s request by former City of Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman and his colleagues at the firm Sidley Austin, saw the APA’s actions differently. The report concluded that the APA tried to curry favor with the U.S. Department of Defense, with which it had strong ties and is one of the largest employers of psychologists, by issuing loose ethical guidelines for psychologists involved in interrogations. These guidelines did not constrain the interrogations beyond the rules the government had already set for itself and allowed psychologists to remain involved.

In the aftermath, the APA has take three significant steps: it issued an apology, saying it had failed to “live up to our core values”; four top officials have resigned; and, last week, it approved a new ban on psychologist involvement in national security interrogations.

These are strong measures needed to rebuild a damaged reputation, to send the message to Americans everywhere who rely on psychologists that ethics matter. In a field where insurance companies often calls the shots on the course and duration of treatment, in a field where the government can hold sway with its purse strings, such strong statements are essential. Precisely defining the ethical faults lines—and loudly and bolding planting a flag on one side — is the best way to avoid future missteps.

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