And if you gaze for long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
I got to thinking about political dispositions in the mental health professions when I read a recent post by D. G. Myers in A Commonplace Blog. He tries to account for the great preponderance of political liberals in academia, particularly in humanities and social science departments, which is well-documented and has apparently been the case for a long time. I'm not sure I quite agree with his claims, but they are worth reading here (plus a couple of comments from yours truly).
Another group that is predominantly liberal-leaning is mental health professionals. I have remarked about this before and am quite sure that I have seen surveys supporting it, but with limited time and database access I am unable at the moment to summon citations (I welcome suggestions by anyone who knows of any, even if they don't support my supposition). I am not saying that this professional political bias is obviously either good or bad (and certainly not that a liberal therapist is better than a conservative one), but I'm curious as to why it may be. I am not aware of this kind of trend in health care professionals in general (if anything, physicians are popularly associated with more conservate viewpoints on average, although I don't have data for that either--after all, this is a hobby, not a job).
In thinking about this I was reminded for some reason of Jonathan Haidt's work on morality and political worldviews (links to which can be found here). Haidt, a psychologist who has also written extensively on happiness, has argued that both liberals and conservatives place high value on moral and ethical considerations, but that they tend to appeal to different sources of moral significance.
Briefly, Haidt maintains that moral considerations can be divided into five domains, which he describes as: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity (and he postulates evolutionary roots for each of these). In general meaning these terms are fairly self-explanatory. His central point is that modern ethical thought in the West (which has been the foundation of liberal politics) has focused, disproportionately perhaps, on the first two domains, which pertain to issues of individual autonomy, the well-being of the self, and particularly justice.
According to Haidt, conservative thought does not disregard the domains of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, but it tends to give equal weight to the other three domains, which relate to the need for collective restraint and clear boundaries of appropriate behavior. For example, political dissent even in tense wartime conditions, which is a basic value of liberalism, is suspect from a conservative point of view due to appeals to loyalty and respect. Liberals and conservatives often cannot agree on a particular issue not because one group is more ethical or even more clear-thinking than the other, but because their moral foundations are different. As a psychologist Haidt is just trying to explain, not to justify; I don't know if he is right, but the categories make intuitive sense to me.
So why would mental health professionals lean toward the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity domains? A possibility that comes to mind is that we tend, on average, to work with people who have been socially marginalized as a result not only of direct illness effects but also of often very powerful social stigma. Autonomy and self-determination are precisely what they struggle with; too little self and not too much (in the true sense of the term) is the issue.
We keep seeing the David half of countless David and Goliath confrontations, so perhaps it is natural for us to be critical of prevailing trends and to stick up for the little guy. Somewhere I read once that the mad are the absolute poor, for they have lost even their minds. And as Myers points out with respect to academia, once a political slant gains ground in a subculture, it often grows more marked with time as members tend to recruit more of their own into the discipline.
Of course, most liberal therapist-types are liberal well before they become therapists. And with respect to the five moral domains, we still have a lot to learn about how people, through whatever vagaries of biology and culture, develop the "courage of their convictions." And these five factors presumably interact with five other factors, those commonly used for psychological profiles (OCEAN: opennness (vs. conventionality); conscientiousness (vs. laxity); extraversion (vs. introversion); agreeability (vs. contentiousness); neuroticism (vs. lack thereof)).
For instance, I have always had a strong aversion to violence, whether toward animals or human beings. What seemed squeamish or even weak to a 13-year-old has become an attribute that I do not apologize for (although I would be a really pathetic Marine). And I have long had a regard for authority that is not, so to speak, excessive. So presumably both psychological and moral factors account for what I do for a living.