Counselors should support social justice, study says
Two SOE counselor education students explore the relationship between social factors and mental health challenges in society.
Mental health counselors should support movements to eradicate inequality and improve the lives of their clients and of society as a whole, according to a new study by two researchers in the VCU School of Education counselor education program.
The study, The Political Economy and Inequality’s Impact on Mental Health, explores the relationship between a variety of social factors – including a changing political economy and the advent of neoliberalism – that have contributed to mental health challenges in society.
The authors describe political economy as different factions, influenced by power or politics, fighting over the distribution of scarce resources and wealth in a society. Related to that, they describe neoliberalism as the belief that money should have as little restriction as possible from the government or any regulating force that tries to redistribute it.
The authors propose that defining neoliberalism and its impact on inequality, mental health and racial justice is key to understanding where mental health counselors can intervene.
Waleed Y. Sami, a second-year student in the school’s Ph.D. in Education, Concentration in Counselor Education and Supervision program, and lead author of the study, said that issues of class and income should be a large focus in the counseling profession, but the field has historically struggled with articulating ways to understand it.
“The distribution of income and class structures are discussions of political economy, which isn't found in our coursework,” he said. “Our field's push to integrate these systemic factors into our coursework necessitates increasing the theoretical rigor with how we understand the formation of class, and the distribution of income in a society.”
“Our field’s push to integrate these systemic factors into our coursework necessitates increasing the theoretical rigor with how we understand the formation of class, and the distribution of income in a society.”
- Waleed Y. Sami, lead author
In their study, Sami and co-author Christopher L. Jeter found that even with income inequality in America reaching monumental proportions in the past few years, the causes of inequality and poverty are seldom mentioned in the literature either. Jeter, an alum of the M.Ed. in Counselor Education program, said that he hopes this study elevates the importance of mental health counselors in society.
“I hope this article provides the counseling profession with a clear message as to why it is important for counselors to not only support clients with a therapeutic relationship, but also with their advocacy efforts,” Jeter said. “When thinking about our current political economy and the inequalities that persist under it, such as poverty and racism, it's important that we not only address the mental health concerns of our clients but also address the systemic issues that bring these concerns to bear.”
The study included several key action steps for mental health counselors and practitioners that are intended to bring immediate benefits to members of marginalized communities:
- Advocate for higher wages, especially higher minimum wages, as a way to improve the lives of their clients.
- Utilize the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status to understand how the hierarchy around social gradients impacts their clients, no matter their race or culture.
- Develop a critical analysis of the political economy, which prevents people in marginalized communities from accessing services, segregates them generationally to lower social gradients, and lowers their social mobility.
- Help clients identify and map potential social capital resources such as unions and religious organizations, and treat them as a part of traditional professional services.
- Partner with debt relief organizations that work with secular and religious organizations to pay off various forms of outstanding debt.
- Take concrete steps to support unionization in their fields and other labor fields, since the reduction of labor unions has been implicated in growing income inequality.
- Advocate for raising the minimum wage to a living wage.
- Strongly oppose cuts to early childhood education, school, and family support services during times of economic downturns and austerity.
Sami, W.Y., & Jeter, C. (2021.) The political economy and inequality’s impact on mental health. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 43(3), 212–227.