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Vanderbilt counseling degree program to ignore new state law

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  The head of Vanderbilt University’s counseling degree program says the school will continue to train therapists using current professional standards in spite of a new state law that voids some of those standards in Tennessee.

In its most recent session, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law (HB1840/SB1556) that shields therapists from discipline by the American Counseling Association if they turn a patient away due to the counselor’s strongly held personal beliefs.

Supporters say the bill is meant to protect the rights of the counselor. Opponents say it’s an attack on the LGBT community; just one of many such bills passed in conservative states following last year’s Supreme Court ruling legalizing same sex marriage.

Dr. Gina Frieden has been training counseling students for 20 years and heads the counseling degree program at Vanderbilt. She says the school will continue to train aspiring counselors to current Counseling Association standards in spite of the new Tennessee law.

In fact, Frieden says she’s holding discussion right now within her department about how to better prepare counseling students to deal with patients from diverse backgrounds.

“What we’re going to do is really look at how to help our students sit with a variety of different client populations, including people that are coming in that are feeling marginalized -- they’re oppressed -- such as LGBTQ clients.”

Frieden says she worries that Tennessee legislators may go still further next year, passing a law that would allow counseling students to refuse to treat patients who make them uncomfortable. She notes that such laws have been discussed in other state assemblies.

Frieden also worries that counselors may not be the only mental health professionals singled out by lawmakers for similar shield laws.

“There are three professions that serve mental health clients, not just counselors. There’s also psychology and there’s social work. Perhaps its only a matter of time before legislators start expanding these rules into those professions and professional codes."

Frieden says if legislators do pass laws that impact her department’s curriculum it could conceivably cost Vanderbilt and other Tennessee schools their national accreditation.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third story in a series WMOT news has prepared on the impact of HB1840. With each new story we have reached out to the sponsors of the measure to get their reaction. As of this writing none have chosen to respond.

ADDITIONAL STORY RESOURCES: