08/06/2014 12:00 am ET

Psychology Students Missing Out On Critical Human Rights Lessons, Report Suggests


Graduate students in psychology learn far too little about military medical ethics and international human rights laws, a report published Wednesday suggests -- a disturbing finding given the role psychologists have played in military interrogations closely linked to torture.

According to a survey conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School and elsewhere, these students don't know what they need to know in order to make good decisions as psychologists. Very few (5.1 percent) had heard about the Health Care Personnel Delivery System, a plan that allows the government to draft civilian health care workers, including psychologists, during a crisis. And 75 percent described themselves as "very familiar" or "somewhat familiar" with the Geneva Conventions on international human rights.

Yet the study found that 50 percent did not know the legal limits on interrogation practices under the Geneva Conventions. Forty-eight percent did not know under what circumstances the conventions require physicians to disobey unethical orders from a superior. And 74 percent said they received less than one hour of military ethics education, while 23 percent put the total at one to five hours.

"Psychologists need to know about these matters to ensure they don't inadvertently become pawns of the U.S. military establishment and also to hold their colleagues who have committed crimes in the name of patriotism accountable for their actions," said lead researcher J. Wesley Boyd in a press release. Boyd is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

As the report points out, investigations have found that psychologists helped to develop interrogation practices used at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison facility and that they sometimes guided interrogators to take advantage of individuals' phobias.

"For instance, an Army psychologist reportedly wrote to interrogators at Guantanamo about an inmate, 'He appears to be rather frightened, and it looks as if he could break easily if he were isolated from his support network and made to rely solely on the interrogator ... Make him as uncomfortable as possible. Work him as hard as possible,'" the new study notes.

Yet Boyd told The Huffington Post that the American Psychological Association has "never taken to task any psychologists who have set up these programs or participated in them." He added, "We hope our report is going to help change that."

The APA's annual convention starts Thursday in Washington, D.C.

The authors of the report also expressed concern that the "extent of military funding of psychological research" could be a disincentive for teaching the full scope of human rights law, as a better understanding could lead to "condemnation of psychologists' participation in interrogations." The report noted that the APA has issued conflicting guidance on the ethics of involvement in interrogations and torture.

These findings are preliminary: The report, published in the International Journal of Health Services, is based on 185 responses received from an Internet survey distributed to graduate students in 20 clinical psychology programs in the U.S.

But the researchers argue their results "warrant more rigorous study," especially since the APA has said it anticipates a need for more psychologists to work with the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs in the coming years. Boyd said the researchers hope the report's publication will encourage others to pursue the topic.

The report sums up the importance of educating psychology students on military medical ethics and human rights law:

Conflicts of interest can arise when a health professional is expected to adhere to good ethical practice, but is also expected to follow the orders of an institution with goals and responsibilities beyond health care. Such is potentially the case for military physicians, nurses, and medics, as well as psychologists. Psychologists and other health professionals who are not properly educated about their duties in military settings might fail to navigate their dual loyalties in as ethical a manner as possible.

"We want more psychologists to be very well educated about these matters to ensure in the future psychologists never engage in unethical behavior, and if they are, society will certainly hold them unaccountable," Boyd told HuffPost.

See the report below:

Psychologists, The U.S. Military Establishment And Human Rights



Inside Guantanamo Bay