Social justice refers to the promotion of full and equal participation of all individuals and groups, allowing their needs to be met equally. Most societies around the world have fallen short of creating conditions of social justice. This is evidenced by the existence of marginalization in many societies, as evidenced by the fact that many groups do not have full participation or share equal power in society because of race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, religion, disability, or sexual orientation. Because inequities exist based on these cultural differences, societies that strive for social justice often have attempted to identify and rectify the existence of oppressive structural barriers embedded in the social, economic, and political systems. Historical examples within the United States are the women’s suffrage movement that led to the federal right for women to vote in 1920 and the civil rights movement in the 1960s, which was aimed at abolishing racial discrimination against African Americans.
The negative psychological effects of social injustice are numerous and include the development of symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Within the field of psychology, it has been argued that the reality of oppression and social injustices must be incorporated into the treatment plans of individuals who are members of marginalized groups (e.g., women, people of color). A failure to acknowledge the adverse effects of social injustice on individuals’ mental health and functioning can be problematic for many reasons. For example, a recent immigrant who is having difficulty finding a job may benefit from having a counselor with whom to process his or her frustrations, but therapeutic processing alone may not be sufficient in helping the client understand the full range of reasons he or she has had difficulty finding work. A counselor who is not aware of the potential of societal oppression might even attribute the client’s difficulty in finding work solely to individual factors (e.g., an underlying personality issue), rather than the possibility that the client is also facing workplace discrimination. As a result, the client may end up feeling as misunderstood in therapy as he or she does in other facets of life.
Because the genesis of some mental health problems can include experiences of social injustice, it has been argued that mental health professionals should expand their roles beyond that of traditional counseling.
Although the counselor can provide a place to process emotions related to oppression, of equal importance is the counselor’s role as an agent of social change. Rather than changing people only through individual empowerment, a social justice framework within the mental health field encourages counselors to change the contextual variables that contribute to social inequity and oppression. Numerous scholars have suggested that client advocacy and public policy work can be infused into the skills of counselors.
Advocating for social justice requires that mental health counselors become more knowledgeable about oppression and societal inequities and how they are experienced by individuals and groups. For example, a counselor may benefit from visiting the neighborhood in which a client resides so as to learn more about the client’s everyday experience. When counselors learn more about their clients’ communities, they are better able to assist clients in accessing their indigenous support networks, such as religious leaders, community leaders, friendship networks, and family. Counselors must also personally reflect on issues of oppression and privilege in their own lives. An important part of being a social justice-oriented counselor is to critically examine one’s experience as an oppressor, the oppressed, or both. To think critically about these experiences may influence the ways one conceptualizes and interacts with clients.
In addition to increasing knowledge of oppressive forces and gaining self-awareness regarding power and privilege, it is important that counselors strive to actively engage in the work of social justice on behalf of their clients. For example, counselors can implement and evaluate both remedial and preventive mental health intervention programs to assist marginalized populations. Preventive mental health interventions can serve as a unique way to effect change within a community. Rather than waiting until a problem occurs, prevention programs provide the possibility of protecting their stakeholders from the negative outcomes of social inequity. Counselors can become more involved in community organizations that confront social injustice as a way to not only assist the community but also extend the scope of their reach beyond individual client. Thus, a commitment to social justice requires more than becoming aware of inequity; it requires a commitment to working to end inequity.
Professionals in the field of counseling have unique insight into the detrimental effects of oppression and social injustice on individual health and well-being.
It is incumbent upon such professionals to advocate for marginalized groups to help alleviate oppression. In addition to implementing outreach and prevention programs that are aimed to alleviate the detrimental effects of oppression, counselors can also play an important role as advocates for political policies that seek to end the injustices that plague marginalized communities. This has implications for training mental health professionals to become competent with members of historically marginalized groups.
Educators must not only train counseling students to develop multicultural competence (i.e., the ability to work effectively with diverse and marginalized populations) but also encourage students to act individually and in groups to become agents of social change. In addition to teaching these important skills and encouraging discussions of political and social issues, counselor educators should encourage trainees to get involved in out-of-class activities on campus and in the surrounding community. This could include the addition of real-world experiences as a component of courses that focus on topics of oppression, prevention, outreach, and/or advocacy. Such real-world experiences might include facilitating students’ creation of an action research project that examines social issues within the campus, or organizing and participating in a service project that benefits local underserved populations. Through such outreach and service activities, counseling students will develop a greater understanding of the diverse experience of others and be exposed to broader social issues.
In addition to infusing social justice teachings into counselor training programs, counselor educators must enact a combination of advocacy research and social action designed to support the oppressed rather than the powerful. Research aimed at social justice should focus, in particular, on how institutions serve to promote or sometimes prevent social changes and on how individuals and groups can overcome the consequences of an oppressive system. In addition, action-oriented research would assess the need for, or impact of, social policies within marginalized groups and communities (i.e., needs assessments or outcome studies). The delivery of research findings to policy makers through direct presentations to community members and leaders who can get involved at the policy level is imperative. A link between social justice research and its intended beneficiaries must be maintained for the field of counseling to continue to serve as an active agent of social justice.
- Constantine, M. G., Hage, S. M., Kindaichi, M. M., & Bryant, R. M. (2007). Social justice and multicultural issues: Implications for the practice and training of counselors and counseling psychologists. Journal of Counseling & Development, 85, 24-29.
- Prilleltensky, I., & Nelson, G. (1997). Community psychology: Reclaiming social justice. In D. R. Fox & I. Prilleltensky (Eds.), Critical psychology: An introduction (pp. 166-184). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Vera, E. M., & Speight, S. L. (2003). Multicultural competence, social justice, and counseling psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 31, 253-272.