Value Conflicts in Counseling

A graduate student has reportedly been dismissed from a counseling program at Eastern Michigan University for not agreeing to go through a program to “remediate” her conventionally religious beliefs and values regarding same-sex behavior. Onenewsnow is reporting that Julea Ward had a value conflict with a client’s same-sex behavior, and that she did not believe she should affirm it. Her supervisor had her make a referral to another counselor who did not have the same value conflict, and Ward did so. Ward was then required to participate in a program that would address/remediate her Christian belief system. When she refused, she was dismissed from the counseling program. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) has filed suit.

Several questions arise from this case. One question is, When are referrals appropriate? One of the more common reasons for making a referral is when a counselor does not feel he or she is competent to provide services. Competence is determined by education, training, and supervised clinical experience, and mental health professionals are required to practice within the scope of their competence. So a referral is considered appropriate when a counselor who has no training in working with older adults, for example, refers an elderly client to someone who has that competence. But competence is not the only reason for referrals.

Are value conflicts a legitimate reason to consider a referral? Let’s back up a moment and ask this: How are value conflicts generally handled in counseling? Counseling ethics textbooks recognize that value conflicts are inevitable in mental health practice. A politically liberal counselor will meet with a client with strong conservative views; a gay counselor will meet with an Evangelical Christian client; a Catholic counselor will meet with a woman deciding on abortion; an atheist will meet with a devout Muslim. The question is, At what point does a counselor make a referral when a value conflict arises? The major mental health organization’s ethics codes each tend to stress respect for differences – these are often identified as differences due to age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, and so on. Showing respect for these differences can mean different things in counseling, but it at least means being aware of how these factors impact the client and their presenting concern. It often also mean taking these factors into consideration in assessment, case conceptualization, and treatment planning.

Generally speaking, ethics textbooks tend to look at whether a value conflict between a counselor and a client is significant enough to have a negative impact on their work together. If so, a referral is thought to be appropriate. According to the complaint filed by the ADF, the professor who chaired the hearing on Ward actually taught a course in which a textbook was assigned that indicates the appropriateness of making a referral when value conflicts arise – specifically citing the instance of value conflicts regarding homosexual behavior.

It will be interesting to watch this case, as it has significant implications for how counselors and other mental health professionals are to work with clients when value conflicts arise. As it stands, it certainly runs contrary to how ethics has been discussed in textbooks and practiced in the field.

Note: I do not ususally post at this site material that is also posted at the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity, but this story is one of those exceptions.