Psychologists work in a wide variety..." /> Psychologists work in a wide variety..." />

Psychology Students Receive Little Training on Military Medical Ethics

Soldier looks at civilians waiting outside a gatePsychologists work in a wide variety of settings, including military hospitals, war zones, and prisons, and many work with the Department of Defense or Veterans Administration. In each of these settings, mental health professionals must make important decisions that take military medical ethics into account, and a new study has found that psychology students may not be properly prepared to work in these settings. According to the study, graduate psychology students receive little to no training on basic military medical ethics and are frequently unaware of their ethical and legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions.

The Geneva Conventions and Mental Health Professionals

The Geneva Conventions establish strict guidelines governing humanitarian conduct during times of war. These guidelines aren’t mere suggestions, either; they are recognized as international law, and personnel who disregard the Geneva Conventions can be prosecuted as war criminals. Mental health professionals who disregard the Geneva Conventions can also be disciplined by licensing boards, and such discipline may include losing the right to practice psychology. Psychologists who oversee interrogations or who work with prisoners are specifically prohibited from humiliating, injuring, murdering, or threatening prisoners. They may also be obligated to report these abuses when they see them.

The United States has occasionally interpreted the law to mean that the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to certain prisoners whom the government then classifies as “enemy combatants” or “detainees.” In such instances, psychologists who oversee interrogations may see or participate in behaviors that clearly violate international law.

Inadequate Training for Future Psychologists

To investigate students’ awareness of their obligations under ethical norms and the Geneva Conventions, researchers surveyed 185 students at 20 different psychology graduate programs. They found that the majority of students had received less than an hour of training about military and international ethics for psychologists, and 97% had received five hours of training or less.

Given this dearth of training, it’s not surprising that students were unaware of basic military medical ethics. Only 37% of students knew that the Geneva Conventions apply even when war has not been declared. Fifty percent did not know that the Geneva Conventions prohibit prisoner mistreatment such as threatening or demeaning prisoners or depriving them of food or water. Almost half of students did not know they had an obligation to disobey unethical orders from a superior, and 43% were unaware of their obligation under the Geneva Conventions to “treat the sickest first, regardless of nationality.”

The study’s authors point out the importance of becoming acquainted with the Geneva Conventions for mental health professionals, particularly in light of the long history of ties between the American Psychological Association and military organizations and the fact that civilian psychologists can be called to serve in the military, as dictated by the Health Care Personnel Deliver System. The researchers also caution that more research is necessary as the small sample size in this study may not be representative of graduate students as a whole.


  1. Study asks why psychology students receive little instruction on medical ethics, torture. (2014, August 9). Retrieved from
  2. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Their Additional Protocols. (2010, October 29). Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • janice d

    August 14th, 2014 at 5:49 PM

    If they don’t have the training that is needed in this field then how are they getting hired?

    Are they simply that desperate to fill these positions? And is there no hope of hiring someone even without this kind of experience to even give them some on the job training so that they can be better prepared for the differing situations that they could face in jobs like this?

  • Mark

    August 15th, 2014 at 9:53 AM

    I wouldn’t imagine that there would be a ton of training available because this is probably not the career path that most of those in this field would envision themselves going into it. But for those who want to make this a part of their professional development then surely there are classes and information available to them that could help them perform better with the unique situations that this linve of work would entail. I don’t know of anyone who wants to be turned loose in a setting where they won’t feel helpful to those with whom they are working closely and the therapists in these settings need to have all of that kind of training and then some to assist those seeking out their help.

  • Steven

    August 18th, 2014 at 5:33 AM

    I wish that in any degree or training program you would be able to address any real world situation that you will find in the field but that is not the reality in this program nor is it in most other professional programs either.
    It is difficult to know on any given day or at any given job just what you may encounter. There will always be things that will throw you for a loop and you just have to hope that you have been given anough training and background to be able to think on your feet and come up with a treatment plan or solution that will work best in this individual situation.
    There is not always going to be a textbook answer out there and available to you. You may have to devise a new answer, but that is alright because it helps you stretch your limits a little and think outside of the box and we can all benefit from that sometimes.

  • Delores

    August 19th, 2014 at 3:11 PM

    My first reaction was why they need to know this if not in the military but I guess if they can be called on to help then yes, they do need to have more training in this area.

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