Clinician Responsibilities During Times of Geopolitical Conflict

Cassondra L. Feldman, PsyD


December 21, 2023

The current conflict in Israel and Gaza has evoked more questions than answers, existentially and professionally, for mental health professionals.

Cassondra L. Feldman, PsyD

In the realm of clinical psychology and psychiatry, our primary duty and commitment is (and should be) to the well-being of our patients. Yet, as we find ourselves in an era marked by escalating geopolitical conflict, such as the Israel-Hamas war, probably more aptly titled the Israeli-Hamas-Hezbollah-Houthi war (a clarification that elucidates a later point), clinicians are increasingly confronted with ethical dilemmas that extend far beyond what is outlined in our code of ethics.

These challenges are not only impacting us on a personal level but are also spilling over into our professional lives, creating a divisive and non-collegial environment within the healthcare community. We commit to “do no harm” when delivering care and yet we are doing harm to one another as colleagues.

We are no strangers to the complexities of human behavior and the intricate tapestry of emotions that are involved with our professional work. However, the current geopolitical landscape has added an extra layer of difficulty to our already taxing professional lives. We are, after all, human first with unconscious drives that govern how we negotiate cognitive dissonance and our need for the illusion of absolute justice as Yuval Noah Harari explains in a recent podcast.

Humans are notoriously bad at holding the multiplicity of experience in mind and various (often competing narratives) that impede the capacity for nuanced thinking. We would like to believe we are better and more capable than the average person in doing so, but divisiveness in our profession has become disturbingly pronounced, making it essential for us to carve out reflective space, more than ever.

The personal and professional divide

Geopolitical conflicts like the current war have a unique capacity to ignite strong emotions and deeply held convictions. It’s not hard to quickly become embroiled in passionate and engaged debate.

While discussion and discourse are healthy, these are bleeding into professional spheres, creating rifts within our clinical communities and contributing to a culture where not everyone feels safe. Look at any professional listserv in medicine or psychology and you will find the evidence. It should be an immediate call to action that we need to be fostering a different type of environment.

The impact of divisiveness is profound, hindering opportunities for collaboration, mentorship, and the free exchange of ideas among clinicians. It may lead to misunderstandings, mistrust, and an erosion of the support systems we rely on, ultimately diverting energy away from the pursuit of providing quality patient-care.

Balancing obligations and limits

Because of the inherent power differential that accompanies being in a provider role (physician and psychologist alike), we have a social and moral responsibility to be mindful of what we share – for the sake of humanity. There is an implicit assumption that a provider’s guidance should be adhered to and respected. In other words, words carry tremendous weight and deeply matter, and people in the general public ascribe significant meaning to messages put out by professionals.

When providers steer from their lanes of professional expertise to provide the general public with opinions or recommendations on nonmedical topics, problematic precedents can be set. We may be doing people a disservice.

Unfortunately, I have heard several anecdotes about clinicians who spend their patient’s time in session pushing their own ideological agendas. The patient-provider relationship is founded on principles of trust, empathy, and collaboration, with the primary goal of improving overall well-being and addressing a specific presenting problem. Of course, issues emerge that need to be addressed outside of the initial scope of treatment, an inherent part of the process. However, a grave concern emerges when clinicians initiate dialogue that is not meaningful to a patient, disclose and discuss their personal ideologies, or put pressure on patients to explain their beliefs in an attempt to change the patients’ minds.

Clinicians pushing their own agenda during patient sessions is antithetical to the objectives of psychotherapy and compromises the therapeutic alliance by diverting the focus of care in a way that serves the clinician rather than the client. It is quite the opposite of the patient-centered care that we strive for in training and practice.

Even within one’s theoretical professional scope of competence, I have seen the impact of emotions running high during this conflict, and have witnessed trained professionals making light of, or even mocking, hostages and their behavior upon release. These are care providers who could elucidate the complexities of captor-captive dynamics and the impact of trauma for the general public, yet they are contributing to dangerous perceptions and divisiveness.

I have also seen providers justify sexual violence, diminishing survivor and witness testimony due to ideological differences and strong personal beliefs. This is harmful to those impacted and does a disservice to our profession at large. In a helping profession we should strive to support and advocate for anyone who has been maltreated or experienced any form of victimization, violence, or abuse. This should be a professional standard.

As clinicians, we have an ethical obligation to uphold the well-being, autonomy, and dignity of our patients — and humanity. It is crucial to recognize the limits of our expertise and the ethical concerns that can arise in light of geopolitical conflict. How can we balance our duty to provide psychological support while also being cautious about delving into the realms of political analysis, foreign policy, or international relations?

The pitfalls of well-intentioned speaking out

In the age of social media and instant communication, a critical aspect to consider is the role of speaking out. The point I made above, in naming all partaking in the current conflict, speaks to this issue.

As providers and programs, we must be mindful of the inadvertent harm that can arise from making brief, underdeveloped, uninformed, or emotionally charged statements. Expressing opinions without a solid understanding of the historical, cultural, and political nuances of a conflict can contribute to misinformation and further polarization.

Anecdotally, there appears to be some significant degree of bias emerging within professional fields (e.g., psychology, medicine) and an innate calling for providers to “weigh in” as the war continues. Obviously, physicians and psychologists are trained to provide care and to be humanistic and empathic, but the majority do not have expertise in geopolitics or a nuanced awareness of the complexities of the conflict in the Middle East.

While hearts may be in the right place, issuing statements on complicated humanitarian/political situations can inadvertently have unintended and harmful consequences (in terms of antisemitism and islamophobia, increased incidence of hate crimes, and colleagues not feeling safe within professional societies or member organizations).

Unsophisticated, overly simplistic, and reductionistic statements that do not adequately convey nuance will not reflect the range of experience reflected by providers in the field (or the patients we treat). It is essential for clinicians and institutions putting out public statements to engage in deep reflection and utilize discernment. We must recognize that our words carry weight, given our position of influence as treatment providers. To minimize harm, we should seek to provide information that is fair, vetted, and balanced, and encourage open, respectful dialogue rather than asserting definitive positions.

Ultimately, as providers we must strive to seek unity and inclusivity amidst the current challenges. It is important for us to embody a spirit of collaboration during a time demarcated by deep fragmentation.

By acknowledging our limitations, promoting informed discussion, and avoiding the pitfalls of uninformed advocacy, we can contribute to a more compassionate and understanding world, even in the face of the most divisive geopolitical conflicts. We have an obligation to uphold when it comes to ourselves as professionals, and we need to foster healthy, respectful dialogue while maintaining an awareness of our blind spots.

Dr. Feldman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Miami. She is an adjunct professor in the College of Psychology at Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she teaches clinical psychology doctoral students. She is an affiliate of Baptist West Kendall Hospital/FIU Family Medicine Residency Program and serves as president on the board of directors of The Southeast Florida Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology. The opinions expressed by Dr. Feldman are her own and do not represent the institutions with which she is affiliated. She has no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

Follow Medscape on Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), Instagram, and YouTube


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.