Torture and the Counseling Profession: Condone or Condemn?

tortureTorture and the Counseling Profession: Condone or Condemn?

Jon Anderson, Kristina Matney, Tara Null, Kayla Rose
School of Professional Counseling

Lindsey Wilson College

Abstract (Jon Anderson) 

Torture being implemented during a time of war to withdraw information from prisoners of war is an ethical debate dividing people all across the world.  What this paper addresses is the current nature of this ethical dilemma, what do the ethics guiding the field of professional counseling have to say about it, why this dilemma is relevant to the field of mental health, the impact of the moral haziness of this dilemma upon the profession of counseling, what have mental health professionals addressed thus far in regards to torture, and what else can be accomplished to oppose the implementation of torture as mental health professionals via advocacy.  The conclusion drawn is that based upon the foundational principles and guiding ethics that guide mental health professionals it is antithetical to the core values of the field to condone the practice of torture during anytime and upon any person.  Further, the condoning of torture also violates the Geneva Convention and internationally accepted and upheld standards for human rights.

Keywords: torture, war, ethics, advocacy, values, counseling, mental health, Geneva Convention, human rights



What is the nature of the current issue (in detail)? Kayla Rose

In today’s culture it is hard to miss the current unfolding of Isis and the obvious issue at hand with this continuous headline making news events: torture.  According to “The Gray Zone” by Barry Gewen, torture is an issue that morally and ethically seems to divide the human race as a whole.  In the stance as a counselor one is left with the platform of two choices; do you condone it or do you condemn it?  As counselors in the helping profession that abide by the 2014 American Counselor Association Code of Ethics, torture is an imminent issue that should not be practiced and is something, that is by ethical codes, wrong.  Counselors as a whole should unite and stand against torture.

Hitler and Jews, Bush and the War on Terrorism, Isis, detention centers, CIA prison systems; what do all of these major topics have in common?  Torture as the basis.  Torture is mentally, emotionally, or physically harming someone to obtain some type of gain from them.  According to Shunzo Majima’s research torture strips a person of both their humanity and dignity.  In the research done my Majima 6 categories were compiled and defined by which an individual uses a basis of torture.  The common theme among the six reasons is to obtain confession and information, intimidation, punishment and the means to destroy an opponent without killing them.  The value of the information obtained from the tortured individual is deemed as a reason to condone the behavior.

In the fall of 2006 Congress passed the Military Commission Act (MCA). This law condoned torture and made it lawful to practice.  In July 2007 Gulag techniques were brought back into play.  These techniques include: waterboarding, extreme temperatures, stress positions, and sleep deprivation.  “Legalizing torture marks a milestone in the disintegration of American democracy.” (Hunsinger 2008)  As counselors who stand on the ACA Code of Ethics, legalizing torture violates the democracy that is the basis of the ethical codes followed in the counseling profession.  Torture violates the ACA code of Ethics which promotes the safeguarding and welfare of not only clients, but people.  In the preamble of the ACA code of Ethics, counselors define their promotion of mental health and wellness of all individuals.  In Section B of the ACA Code of Ethics, Counselors respect and hold a client’s rights, privileges, and confidentiality to the highest of standards. (Ethics 2014)  According to Yemini torture violates human morality by creating what is seen as ‘dirty hands.’  Torture is compared to the likes of cheating on a test or bullying.   For those that stand in condoning the issue they see what Yemini refers to as a ticking-bomb scenario.  Those who approve of torture see what is a difficult situation, a ticking time bomb full of information, they see torture as a means to detonate the bomb and as a means to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their county.  Torture is seen as a form of protection. For some torture is condoned in the fashion of straight out cruelty.  Nothing is gained, yet torture is at hand and is practiced in the means of wearing down an individual.  According to Ningig and Ramos’ study on torture in the public mind, the dramatic threat of the ticking time bomb scenario is one that is overplayed.  When comparing torture to a ticking time bomb situation in Time Square, the study showed that Americans agreed that torture was the best option to save fellow lives.  In 2009 Ningig and Ramos documented a study in which 43 percent of Americans favored the use of torture, and 48 percent opposed it.  With a split as close as this, it is hard to decide what is right and what is wrong.  In the United States we put almost a legislative or judiciary value on certain things, such as lying; ethical values are placed on acts.  Lying is bad and we have a duty to tell the truth.  When the ticking time bomb scenario comes into play torture is seen as a means of saving innocent lives.  But for what?  Inhumanely humiliating, and belittling another life?  When viewed in that light torture and terrorism share some of the same underlying undertones of human belittlement.  Another issue comes to play in the condemning of torture.  What if the person being tortured is completely innocent?  In many cases, it is found that they in fact are innocent.  These individuals then admit or take ownership for something they did not do in a means to stop the cruel acts which are being performed on them.  (Ningig, Ramos)

As counselors in the helping profession who practice by the guiding laws of the ACA code of Ethics with an underlying tone of doing no harm to others, we must stand together on the issue of torture as a means of gain.  “The mission of the American Counseling Association is to enhance the quality of life in society by promoting the quality of life in society by promoting the development of professional counselors, advancing the counseling profession, and using the profession and practice of counseling to promote respect for human dignity and diversity.” (ACA, 2014)  Following this mission promotes and calls for counselors to take a stance on the current issue of torture.  No matter the argument for the principle of condoning, in the end as professionals in the helping field, the issue of torture must be condemned.  It is inhumane to torture another human being.  This poses an ethical issue on which there must be an ethical stance taken by counselors to condemn it (Yemini 2014).


Why is this issue relevant and important to counselors? Tara Null

The issue of torture is extremely important to counselors.  Counselors must constantly be on watch for those who are victims of torture or who are guilty of torturing.  They come from all realms of society and are not limited to one particular set of people.

Counselors must be aware of people who have been victims of torture.  Torture can be from both physical and verbal means.  Counselors may face veterans who have been victims of torture in the cloud of war or even individuals who are victims of abusive relationships.  Counselors can be faced with the recipients of torture or the actual perpetrators of the torture.

In the case of clients who are perpetrators of torture, counselors must first determine if it is an act of the past or if it is something that is continuing today.  If it is continuing today, counselors are required by law to report it to the proper authorities due to being mandated reporters (ACA 2015).  If it is something that has occurred in the past, however, counselors are bound by confidentiality and must determine how best to care for the individual.  The same is for counselors who have a clients who was or who is on the receiving end of torture.

Society as a whole, however, tends to automatically relate torture to the military.  In reality, torture is more prevalent than most people realize.  In relationships, various forms of torture are implements.  Downgrading individuals make some people feel superior and in control.  Physical beatings and various forms of physical torture accomplish the same thing.  Both of these individuals need counseling and any help that those in the profession can provide.

No matter whether counselors have clients who have or who are torturing, have even been tortured or a prisoner of war that has been tortured, the whole profession must take a stance. Condone or condemn?  The American Psychological Association (APA) has taken a strong stance against torture, inhumane, and degrading treatment (Human Rights, 2015).

What impact does this issue have on counseling as an organization and profession?  Kristina Matney

Coming from an ethical stand point there are a lot of things that can go wrong with the fine lines of torture.  Torture not only crosses the guidelines for national security, but also affects confidentiality in the ACA code of ethics in a counseling setting.  The Scandinavian Journal of caring sciences conducted a study between non-torture refugees and torture victims.  In this study they measured levels of education, years of services, medications, and employment.  In the study conducted by the Scandinavian Journal of caring sciences showed that torture victims suffer from dramatic long term mental health issues and are more likely to suffer from traumatic events (Wallace, 2013).  In the same study is was concluded that only 18% of warriors sought out psychiatric treatment after the trauma of being tortured.

The fact that the number is so low with war torture victims means that seeking treatment needs to be brought to awareness.  By obtaining this awareness of seeking mental health treatment would have a great impact in the mental health field by working more with this select population.  Coming from a counseling perspective, maintaining the well-being for the client is also the top goal, but coming from a confidential setting can become dangerous territory.  By counseling a torture victim, what are the limitations of confidentiality?  By suffering from this dramatic event these victims will openly talk about their torture and in some cases discuss with the counselor if they in fact had tortured someone.  By counseling a person that has tortured does not fall under the five limitations of confidentiality because the person is not in imminent harm or danger to themselves or to others, but was in the past.

Under President Barack Obama’s term of presidency he has not classified what is considered to be torture.  By not classifying what is torture he runs a very high risk of ineffective interrogation tactics (Wallace, 2013).  Under the Obama administrations some of the interrogation tactics, such as waterboarding and fear of imminent death has been rescinded.  The Convention against Torture (CAT) defines torture as severe mental or physical pain intentionally inflicted on a person, waterboarding, and threats of imminent death (Wallace, 2013).  Torture victims suffer and will continue to suffer from extreme and severe emotional and mental distress.

With laws not being defined then what makes it illegal today?  With these laws not being put into place greatly affects the counseling field.  Clients that have been tortured will always show mental instability.  When laws are unestablished counselors have a difficult time differentiating between what is legal and what is illegal.  The greatest impacts in the professional field of counseling would be torture victims not being treated for their mental illness and the laws not being established on what is defined as torture.

How have counselors responded to this issue so far? Jon Anderson

The ACA Code of Ethics’ Preamble state, “Professional values are an important way of living out an ethical commitment” (ACA Code of Ethics, 2014).  One such core professional value is “promoting social justice” (ACA, 2014).  In the preamble, are the guiding principles for the ethical behavior of counselors as mental health professionals.  As part of the mental health profession, counselors are expected to uphold and follow the principle of non-maleficence, to practice non-violently and non-harmfully (ACA, 2014).  Counselors, upholding the principle of justice, are ethically required to treat all human beings with equality and fairness (ACA, 2014).  Additionally, the ethical principle of fidelity instructs counselors to honor the commitments made as professionals in the mental health field (ACA, 2014).  As previously stated, the counselor’s professional values are the avenues through which ethical commitments are lived out.  In regards to the subject of torture, once the ethical commitment of social justice is upheld and practiced alongside the guiding principles of non-maleficence, justice, and fidelity it is antithetical to the ACA Code of Ethics, mental health profession, and the counseling profession to in any way, shape, or form endorse the practice of torture of any human being, which includes remaining silent as counselors, professionals, and as an association.

In 2005, under heavy pressure from the American Psychological Association’s Board of Directors, the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) (Carter, 2009).  LaTanya Carter wrote that, “The charge to the task force was to examine whether our current ethical principles and code of conduct is sufficient in addressing the involvement of psychologists in national security-related activities and whether our current ethical principles provide sufficient guidance to psychologists. Furthermore, it was asked whether or not policies should be developed by the APA concerning the role of psychologists and psychology in national security issues (Carter, 2009).  The APA created this task force to determine whether a mental health professional acting as a consultant for the military who employed torture in interrogations to gain information is acting ethically and accordingly with the APA’s exemption to do no harm.  The debate around such involvement is a very hazy ethical dilemma.  APA critics raise the concern mental health professional’s involvement in a situation or presence in a detention facility where standard human rights are violated can be seen as an embrace of torture and breech of ethics on behalf of the profession.  (Arrigo and Long, 2008).

However, there needs to be advocacy from mental health professionals, in accordance to their appropriate ethical commitments and guiding principles, vocally and officially challenging and condemning the use of torture in any situations both domestic and abroad.  As advocates for the well-being and dignity of all people, mental health professionals need to stand united together to publically oppose and denounce the practice of torture, violation of human rights, and dehumanization of persons tortured in accordance to the ethics to which they are bound and with international laws concerning human rights and the practice of war.  Arrigo and Long wrote, “Under heavy pressure from critics inside and outside the organization, the APA in August 2007 passed a Resolution by the Council of Representatives denouncing specific, physically aversive, interrogation techniques, such as water-boarding. Psychologically aversive techniques, such as sleep deprivation and prolonged isolation, were forbidden only in certain circumstances. Additional pressure on the APA leadership resulted in a February 2008 Modification denouncing all techniques rejected under international human rights law (APA, 2008) (Arrigo and Long, 2008).  With the APA so clearly condemning any and all torture, the challenge for the American Counselors Association is to speak ethically and publically about where its stance in regards to torture and through advocacy pressure the American government and people to abolish torture.



Identify an ethical dilemma associated with the current issue (dilemma must be pre-approved by the instructor).  Jon Anderson, Krissy Matney, Tara Null, Kayla Rose

A counselor has a new client in the office presenting with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms.  During the assessment the counselor finds that the client is veteran of one of the U.S. Armed Forces.  The client has disclosed that they were a prisoner of war and was tortured while serving overseas.  The client as also disclosed that once they were back seaside and home that they had used some torture techniques and realized that they were in the wrong and has since stopped.

As a counselor some ethical codes that may be involved include: A.2.a Informed Consent which gives the client information of the services that they will be receiving and B.1.c which states that a client has a right to confidentiality with an exception of the five limits.

Article 13 of the Geneva Convention states that prisoners of war must be humanely treated at all times.  If the Detaining Power causes death or seriously endangered the health of a prisoner of war they would be found to be in breach of the present Convention and would be punished.  Although this information is stated in the Convention, a counselor is not held liable to report the unlawful torture that their client endured due to a breach of confidentiality.

As previously stated, those who work in the mental health profession need to take a stance against torture.  In this case with the counselor and client who has been tortured, if the counselor feels that what this client needs is outside the realms of their competence the counselor will need to refer the client to someone else in the profession that is competent to give the services the client is needing (ACA, 2015).

If the client had reported that they were currently using torture techniques and harming others the counselor would be responsible for reporting this issue due to the ACA having adopted the duty to warn from Tarasoff vs Regents.  The counselor would need to staff this situation with their supervisor to let them know of the avenues they were taking with this particular situation.

In conclusion we as Professional Counselors in training feel that anyone working in the mental profession should take a stance on the issues of torture.  We feel as a profession an ethical code needs to be established regarding the laws of torture within the ACA.  There are other identities that have taken a stance which include the Geneva Convention and the American Psychological Association.  We are hoping that the ACA will establish a stance against this current issue.


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Carter, L. (2009). Ethics, Prisoner Interrogation, National Security, and the Media. Psychological Services, 11-21. Retrieved February 12, 2015, from


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Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 75 U.N.T.S. 135, entered into force Oct. 21, 1950. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2015, from


Gewen, B. (2010). The Gray Zone. World Affairs, 173(1), 49-61.


Hermansson, A., Timpka, T., & Thyberg, M. (2003). The long-term impact of torture on the mental health of war-wounded refugees: findings and implications for nursing programmers. Scandinavian Journal Of Caring Sciences17(4), 317-324.

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Hunsinger, G. (2008). Torture Is the Ticking Time-Bomb: Why the Necessity Defense Fails. Dialog: A Journal Of Theology, 47(3), 228-239. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6385.2008.00397.x


Majima, S. (2012). JUST TORTURE? Journal Of Military Ethics, 11(2), 136-148. doi:10.1080/15027570.2012.708180


Nincic, M., & Ramos, J. (2011). Torture InThe Public Mind. International Studies Perspectives, 231-249.


Wallace, G. P. (2013). International Law and Public Attitudes Toward Torture: An Experimental Study. International Organization67(41), 105-140. doi:10.1017/S0020818312000343


Yemini, M. (2014). Conflictual Moralities, Ethical Torture: Revisiting the Problem of ‘Dirty Hands’. Ethical Theory & Moral Practice17(1), 163-180. doi:10.1007/s10677-013-9429-0


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