Counseling Today, Features

ACA leads delegation to Russia

By Angela Kennedy May 11, 2006

American Counseling Association Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan led a counseling delegation of 12 ACA members to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s People to People Ambassador Programs from May 12-21. The ambassador program offers foreign educational travel experiences for professionals. Through meetings, seminars and cultural activities, participants connect with people in similar professions overseas.t5

The ACA delegates met with representatives and mental health professionals from the Russian Psychology Society, TRIALOG Counseling Center, Bekhterev Psycho Neurological Research Institute and the Humanitarian Gymnasium #11. The 10-day journey gave the Western counselors a new perspective on Russian culture as well as the country’s mental health issues and treatment methods.

“Americans know cognitively that the change from communism to a market economy in the early 1990s must have been difficult for (the people of Russia), but you don’t really appreciate how difficult until you go there,” Kaplan says. “They have no middle class. They have an abundance of poverty and poor people where the average wage is $300 a month, and then, according to our guide, they have more billionaires than any other country in the world. So that has created a great strain.”

Having also led an ACA counseling delegation to China in December 2004, Kaplan can offer some interesting perspectives on counseling around the globe. “When you compare China, Russia and the United States,” he says, “you can see why counseling is needed. You can see where it came from, and in all three, the interest in counseling and the development of counseling is rooted in the same thing — the move to a market economy.” He noted that all three countries have shared similar issues with the social and economic shifts caused by increased industry or the move to a capitalistic society.

“In Russia, with the move to a market economy in the early nineties, you had youth moving to the cities and being by themselves and all of the ’Western’ problems that freedom entails,” he points out. “So it was fascinating to see the mirror of the United States in Russia, like we did in China. One of our Russian counterparts said to us, ’When we talk to you we feel like we are looking into our future.’ Their No. 1 concern was the same thing we heard in China and also a concern we have here in the States — kids today.”

Kaplan and the other delegates noticed that Russia’s mental health professionals were very interested in family counseling. At the same time, the delegates were surprised that depression was not a huge issue of emphasis for their Russian counterparts. “St. Petersburg gets 30 days of sunlight a year, so we thought depression would be the No. 1 concern,” Kaplan says. After hearing no mention of it after speaking with a few of their counterparts, the U.S. delegation asked about the issue of depression specifically and were shocked by the answer they received. They were informed that there is indeed a plague of depression among the Russian people, but it is so widespread that the country’s counselors feel there is little they can do about it. “They said it was just a fact of life,” Kaplan reports. “They are a very philosophical culture, so they take somewhat of an existential approach and accept it. You don’t work on that in counseling because there is no real reason to change it. If you got 30 days of sun a year and were making $300 a month in this economy, you would be depressed too.”

The Russian Psychology Society, founded in 1994, attempts to further the profession by establishing best practices and educational standards. It also protects professional and social rights and advocates for the interests of psychologists while encouraging the cultural development of Russia. The visiting delegates discussed the respective counseling professions in Russia and the United States as well as the structures of the professional counseling organizations found in each nation. Kaplan says the counseling field in Russia is still in its infancy, with graduate programs starting to develop. At this point the programs focus more on psychology’s biological basis of behavior and research, but Kaplan says the Russians are very interested in counseling and its practical applications.

“One of the most progressive places we visited was the TRIALOG Counseling Center,” he says. “There they spoke our counseling language more than anywhere else.” Though professionals at the center were familiar with theories and approaches, Kaplan says their application was quite different from counseling in the United States.

The TRIALOG Counseling Center is composed of experienced psychologists and psychotherapists who are associates and members of the Department of Psychology at Moscow State University. The center’s theoretical basis is humanistic psychology and ontopsychology, and it offers many types of services, including individual counseling, Internet counseling, family counseling and group therapy.

“One of the aspects of them telling us ’We are looking at our future’ is that in terms of theory, they are where we were 60 years ago,” Kaplan says. “They pick a theory and do that with everybody. They train their students in person-centered theory, and there were others who did REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy), but whatever theory they chose was the one and only they used to treat clients.” Professional practice in Russia today might be compared with what the profession was like in the United States before counselors learned how to pick and choose theories and tailor their approach to best fit each individual client’s needs and goals, Kaplan says. “They look at the same theories we do, but they don’t blend them together,” he says.

The delegates next toured the Bekhterev research institute, a unique, scientific practical facility with special clinics and laboratories that work to comprehensively develop the issues of psychiatry, neurology, neurosurgery, addictions, clinical psychology, psychotherapy and rehabilitation of patients.

Although some counseling practices in Russia may seem behind the times, many of the delegates found the trip’s final destination to be highly advanced in terms of counseling. The delegates met with school counselors at the Humanitarian Gymnasium #11, a school of 800 students in St. Petersburg. Delegates witnessed firsthand the school counseling structure as well as the counseling theories, approaches and techniques utilized in Russia — a few of which were, in the eyes of some delegates, superior to practices in U.S. schools.

“The Humanitarian Gymnasium #11 was absolutely fascinating,” Kaplan says. “It was clearly different from most other schools and did not represent the average school. They designate the gymnasium as their high level school for gifted and talented students, and there they infuse counseling throughout the entire curriculum rather than for one person to do it. For example, we went to a P.E. class, and the teacher was having the students do essentially dance moves. But with the moving and stretching she also had them do visualizations and relaxation exercises. It would be great if the gym teachers in the States did that kind of mind-body work. They were clearly ahead of us on that.”

 

Kaplan and the delegates compiled journals detailing their trip. Following are some of the counselors’ impressions of the trip in their own words:

 

Janet Whittington, licensed professional counselor at the Western Kentucky Center for Psychiatric Medicine
“My most memorable moment came during our first meeting with a group of Russian psychologists and educators. One of our delegation asked how they treated depression and wanted to know if they used a combination of medication and counseling, as is common in the States. The man who answered the question is a psychologist and professor, an older man who was working in the field during the Soviet era when, according to him, the field and its practitioners were suspect. He sort of shrugged his shoulders and with a grim smile told us that 30 percent of the Russian population lives below the poverty level and that, basically, they don’t treat depression. It was at that moment that I realized how different our two societies’ life experiences and expectations are.”

“It’s important for counselors to have the widest experience and view of life that we possibly can. We work with people whose lives may appear to have little in common with our own. And while travel and the exchange of ideas certainly highlight cultural differences, they also bring into very sharp focus our fundamental similarities as human beings. I think that, as counselors, that awareness is one of our most vital tools.”

Mary Elizabeth “Betsy” Glass, licensed mental health counselor and adjunct professor at Florida Gulf Coast University
“The first and most striking surprise to me was the desire our Russian colleagues had to share and exchange counseling concepts. When I asked if they would enjoy collaborating in psychological research studies, their eyes opened with excitement and e-mail addresses were rapidly exchanged. I intend to follow through with suggested studies, once I can secure some grant money, to assist both sides of the proposed and agreed to research protocols.”

“For me, the delegation to Russia was the experience of a lifetime. I felt like a child in a candy shop, with so much to take in, see, learn and discuss. It would really take years of residency to help integrate our ideas and methods, while maintaining respect for cultural or individual differences. Multicultural counseling training is not just essential in the U.S.A. but also in other countries where there is also a mix of many beliefs and traditions. I would look forward to going back to Russia on a team of research counselors so that we could coordinate and collaborate on a great variety of psychological studies between the populations of the U.S. and Russia.”

Tatyana Cottle, elementary school counselor at Corinth-Holders School in Johnston County, N.C.
“Due to differences in cultures, many answers spawned new questions, and both rich and culturally different information was shared during the meetings. It was interesting to note that my American counterparts were so pleasantly surprised by Russian openness and eagerness to share and learn. The old 1960s Cold War stereotype of Russia being a closed society seems still to be rather strong in the minds of foreigners.”

“The American delegates asked about a code of ethics. The answer was a complete surprise: The process is under way, but such a document does not exist. It may take years before such a document will be established. In spite of the problems and issues, it became very clear how eager Russians are to gain new knowledge and experience to improve their own skills and be able to share newly learned information with their colleagues. American counselors and psychologists have a lot to learn from our Russian counterparts. One of the most significant facts, I think, would be to promote a multidiscipline approach to offer services to clients both at schools and in the community.”

The trip to Russia marked the fifth in a series of counseling delegations organized by ACA. This fall, Sam Gladding, a past president of ACA, will lead the next delegation to South Africa. For more information about future delegations, contact David Kaplan at dkaplan@counseling.org or log on to the People to People Ambassador Programs website at www.ambassadorprograms.org/.