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Psychotherapy in the Philippines Grapples with Critical Social Justice

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The Cebu Institute of Technology-University recently hosted the 5th International Conference on Psychology, Counselling and Education (ICPCE 2023) in Cebu City, Philippines. The event attracted a diverse audience, including practitioners, master’s degree holders, and PhD students.

More than just highlighting the growing interest in psychology and counselling in the Philippines, the conference also served as a reflection of the global discourse on critical social justice (CSJ).

While CSJ, often termed “wokeness”, is commonly associated with the West, its influence reaches beyond borders. In the Philippines, with its rich history of social justice movements, CSJ takes on a unique perspective. Local writer Joanna Ligon adds depth to this view, pointing out that while the term “woke” originated in African-American culture, its contemporary global significance is closely tied to movements like Black Lives Matter, resonating even within the Philippines.

As the influence of social media activism continues to shape conversations in the Philippines, a parallel shift is evident in the professional sphere, particularly in counselling. A 2022 study by Alyzza Louize Malibiran and Aurora Fulgencio, titled Mapagpalayang Pagpapayo (Liberating Advice), delves into this nuanced landscape. Their study suggests that Filipino school counsellors, despite not being explicitly familiar with the term “social justice counselling”, still operate under its guiding principles. The study raises a red flag: a trend among Filipino counsellors to focus not just on individual needs but also on broader social injustices. This approach, while well-intentioned, risks overshadowing the unique needs of each student.

This focus on broader social issues isn’t unique to the Philippines; it’s part of a global conversation that’s also stirring debate in Western psychology circles. The debates on CSJ in Western publications like The Psychologist  – the monthly magazine of the British Psychological Society – serve as cautionary tales. Commentator Nicola Beaumont expressed concerns about the focus on “decolonising psychology”, sparking intense debates that extend beyond the magazine.

From East to West, the impact of CSJ reverberates across professional circles, highlighting the need for a balanced approach in psychotherapy.

This need was vividly illustrated in a keynote address by Dr Val Thomas, editor of Cynical Therapies, which was a highlight of the conference. Her talk went beyond academic theory, serving as a call for introspection within the field. She raised concerns about the potential compromise of therapeutic neutrality due to the influence of CSJ.

The audience, a mix of seasoned professionals and budding scholars, listened intently. The subsequent Q&A session was a clear indicator of the impact of her talk, with questions reflecting genuine curiosity and concerns about the role of CSJ in therapy.

In Dr Thomas’s absence during the Q&A, I had the privilege of stepping in to represent Cynical Therapies, to which I have contributed. My response to a practitioner’s question about the infiltration of CSJ in psychotherapy echoed Dr Thomas’s concerns. It highlighted the need for therapists to be aware of their biases, ensuring they don’t overshadow the individual needs of their clients. This moment served as a microcosm of the conference’s broader dialogue – a dialogue that emphasises the importance of evolving, learning, and adapting in the field of psychotherapy.

The resonance of these discussions at ICPCE 2023 underscores the conference’s success in fostering a space for critical dialogue. It wasn’t just an academic exercise but a real-world application of the issues at hand, setting the stage for the future of psychotherapy.

ICPCE 2023 was more than just a conference; it was a catalyst for important conversations in the field of psychotherapy, not just in the Philippines, but globally.

As CSJ continues to gain traction worldwide, it’s crucial for all psychotherapists, including countries outside the Western world, to critically evaluate its influence on their practice. This conference served as a timely reminder of that imperative, echoing the event’s initial focus on the burgeoning interest in psychology and counselling in the Philippines.

In an era of increasing polarisation, ICPCE 2023 stands as a testament to the power of open dialogue and the quest for knowledge. It reminds us that in the ever-changing landscape of psychology and counselling, spaces where discourse is encouraged and differences are celebrated are not just necessary but vital for the field’s future.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the managing director of Psychreg.


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