Ethics Codes: Monitoring the Major Changes

By Sanders, Randolph K. | Journal of Psychology and Christianity, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Ethics Codes: Monitoring the Major Changes


Sanders, Randolph K., Journal of Psychology and Christianity


Several professional associations have revised their ethics codes in the past decade (American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 2001; American Counseling Association, 2005; American Psychiatric Association, 2006; American Psychological Association, 2002). The Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS) also revised its ethical guidelines statement in 2005.

Associations revise codes for a number of reasons. The most obvious is to codify the association's values with regard to new, emerging, or recently recognized practices and issues within the field. Codes are also modified in attempt to make them more consistent with federal or state laws affecting the mental health professions. While seeking uniformity between codes and legal statutes is a good thing in principle, it is often much harder than it first appears, since laws affecting mental health are not always consistent from one state to another.

Codes are sometimes revised in response to the ways they are used (and misused) in legal actions against therapists (Schoener, n.d.). This may actually lead to a shortening of a code when a revision committee wishes to tighten and sharpen language so that there is less room for misunderstanding. This occurred in the latest revision of the APA code which is actually 20% shorter than its predecessor. Similarly, provisions in codes may be rewritten to make them more intelligible to the professionals who practice under them.

The major codes have undergone substantial revision in recent years. The article which follows will update professionals on some of the more salient changes to the ethics codes, and the rationales behind them. Items thought to be of particular interest to Christian therapists will be given special attention. Special focus will be placed on the American Psychological Association Code (2002), the CAPS Statement of Ethical Guidelines (2005), and the American Counseling Association Code (2005).

Ethics statements are not all equally enforceable. The CAPS Statement, for example, is a guidelines statement, and is not and has never been an enforceable code. The sincere concern on the part of the CAPS leaders who framed it was that members would aspire to the highest standards of professional conduct and perform their duties in ways in keeping with their commitments as followers of Christ. Agreement with the guidelines is a condition of membership, but the association is not an adjudicatory body with the resources to investigate and judge complaints against members.

In its latest revision, the APA identifies its own code as having both an enforceable and a nonenforceable section. The general principles (Principles A-E) are aspirational ideals and are not considered enforceable. However, the ethical standards (Sections 1-10) are.

It should be added that, as important as it is to understand one's own code of ethics, it is also essential that modern professionals be familiar with the laws of their states pertaining to mental health issues, with the rules of practice as set forth by their state boards, and with pertinent federal law. These regulations may supersede or add specificity to professional ethics codes. For example, state laws often set forth therapists' duties to protect or to warn when a patient makes threats against another person. Federal laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) set forth standards for things like the privacy of mental health records and the types of information that should and should not be in those records.

Psychologists also need to stay abreast of the various treatment and practice guidelines published by the APA. The most recent of these is the Record Keeping Guidelines statement of 2007 (APA, 2007).

Multicultural and Diversity Issues

An increasing concern of most ethics codes and for the professions in general has to do with multicultural and diversity issues. An appreciation for these issues is woven throughout most current codes. …

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