Counseling Today, Cover Stories

On the cutting edge

Lynne Shallcross November 15, 2009

Counselors across the country are heeding the call to conduct research, working not only to increase the knowledge base of the profession but also to improve society as a whole. Following their passions, they search for information that may hold the key to effectively confronting some of society’s most vexing problems, from dating violence to school bullying.

Conducting research is one of the hallmarks of a profession, says Thomas Sweeney, professor emeritus at Ohio University and executive director of Chi Sigma Iota Counseling Academic & Professional Honor Society International. “Professional counseling has prided itself on seeking the best research available upon which to base its practice,” says Sweeney, a past president of the American Counseling Association. “Because we are now recognized as a profession, it is incumbent — especially on those of us in higher education — to further our knowledge base beyond that learned through other professions.”

Research goes hand-in-hand with being an effective counselor or counselor educator, Sweeney contends. “An effective practitioner or counselor educator must stay abreast of the most current literature, including that associated with research outcomes. It is a professional and ethical responsibility to seek best practices, to advance our understanding of client needs and to continually find more effective ways to serve all who need our services.”

Counseling Today recently contacted several ACA members who have exhibited a passion for research. Read on to find out more about their efforts on the cutting edge of the counseling profession.


Kelly Wester

Subject: Self-injurious behaviors

When Kelly Wester spent time as a counselor in a male juvenile correctional facility, she found that about half of the clients she saw engaged in self-injury. Wester, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, wanted to figure out why the boys were injuring themselves and how to help them stop, but when she tried to find literature on the topic, she came up short. So Wester took it upon herself to find the answers.

Wester was awarded the 2008 Ralph F. Berdie Memorial Research Award by ACA for a five-year study she began along with colleague Heather Trepal last year. “This research on self-injury and understanding the behavior is important because very little is known about it in the general or college populations other than prevalence,” Wester says. “Most of what has been researched has been in inpatient settings. Very little is known about how self-injury develops or the trajectory of self-injury among young adults and the factors that relate and fluctuate with the behavior.” Wester and Trepal’s study focuses on two college campuses and examines the relationship between mental health, self-injurious behaviors, coping skills, interpersonal relationships and adjustment to college. The study, supported by a grant from the American College Counseling Association, a division of ACA, began with freshmen at the two universities last year, and it will continue to follow them as they progress toward graduation.

“One of my main goals in this study is to determine how self-injury changes and what factors in an individual’s life seem to be related across the changes — increases, decreases, picking up or extinguishing the behavior — across time at the college level,” Wester says. Although the study is only in its second year of data collection, Wester also finished a small pilot study in an outpatient mental health facility that offered some insight. One positive result, she says, was that self-injury decreases while individuals are seeking counseling. One surprise? “Counselors who approached their client from a person-centered approach had clients who increased the self-injurious behavior,” she says.

Wester hopes her research will shed light on an area about which very little is known. “Understanding the trajectory of self-injury and the factors that are helpful or hinder the changes in self-injurious behavior are extremely helpful to practitioners,” she says. “It would inform how they work with clients who self-injure, the length of time it may take to decrease the behavior and factors that put a client at risk or offer resiliency. Eventually, this research and having a better understanding of self-injurious behaviors in outpatient and general populations can lead to more effective treatment.”

After this study, Wester sees a need for more research concerning adolescents, where self-injury typically originates, and in finding evidence-based practices for working with self-injurers. On a broader level for the counseling profession, Wester says research in the area of needs assessment is important to ensure that the right programs are being offered within schools. “Otherwise, we base all of our decisions on our gut reactions and our subjective thoughts, some of which are incorrect. Combining one’s intuition and experience with research is invaluable.”

Want to know more? Contact Wester at klwester@uncg.edu.


Arthur “Andy” Horne

Subject: Bullying

Arthur “Andy” Horne began working with students who exhibited behavior problems when he was a school counselor. Now dean of the College of Education and distinguished research professor at the University of Georgia, Horne’s decades of work and research have evolved into an ongoing research and intervention project examining the development and maintenance of aggression and violence in young people. For the past decade, the project has focused on bullying, says Horne, who received the 2008 ACA Extended Research Award for his many years of dedicated research.

The Bully Busters Program, which Horne initiated about 15 years ago, involves elementary school, middle school and family treatment interventions, as well as ongoing research and evaluation programs to gauge Bully Busters’ effectiveness. “The goal of the Bully Busters Program is to understand how bullying behavior develops, is maintained and how it can be reduced or eliminated,” Horne says. “The primary application is a systemic intervention in which a school, classroom or family is engaged in developing awareness, definitions and incidences of the problem; potential interventions for bullies, victims and bystanders; and tools to attempt to prevent the problem from developing.”

“In an effort to promote social justice, it is essential that we develop communities — schools, classrooms, family settings — that provide respect and dignity for all people,” he says. “A community that includes violence, aggression and bullying prevents our efforts of developing a just society.” Bullying is particularly important to tackle because it stems from an imbalance of power, is intentional and endures, Horne says. One characteristic of bullying is that the targeted individual anticipates the ongoing threat and feels there is no way out. To drive home this point, Horne uses the illustration of an encounter with an aggressive driver. While other drivers may feel threatened by and get angry with the aggressive driver, those feelings typically pass soon after the encounter ends. In comparison, those feelings don’t pass for a bullying victim because the threat is always there. “We do not — or certainly should not — tolerate such behavior from adults,” Horne says. “There is no reason we should allow our children to live under such circumstances either.”

Horne and his team have conducted research in middle schools, creating groups for students with bullying behaviors, groups for students who have been the targets of bullies and mixed groups. Horne found that in their respective groups, bullies became more effective at bullying, while targets of bullying complained they lacked the tools to solve the problem. And in the mixed groups, the bullying manifested itself. “We learned that very skilled group facilitators could manage these problems and have effective outcomes but that less-skilled or untrained group facilitators were not effective in managing bullying and that, in fact, the behaviors escalated following the group efforts,” Horne says. “This wasn’t surprising or unexpected but did convince us we needed to go in a different direction — working with classrooms and other group settings wherein a social-emotional psychoeducational approach was implemented. As we began that effort, the results became more encouraging and positive.”

Although Horne has developed a series of activities to be used in classrooms, what matters most, he says, is creating a culture of respect and an environment where bullying has no place. “We have three beliefs that direct the work: All children can learn, all people in our schools are to be treated with respect and dignity, and there is no room for violence or aggression in our schools or families.” Horne says the first focus should be prevention because it’s always better to prevent problems than treat them. He also notes that bullying interventions require skills in group facilitation. “We advocate that counselors and school psychologists, or similarly trained professionals, should work with teachers to model and facilitate the prevention model in classrooms and/or provide leadership with students and families to help reduce the problem.”

Horne’s research has resulted in a number of publications, but he insists the objective was never just to publish — it was to impact the quality of students’ lives and maintain ongoing research that examines what works and how. Working from measurable accomplishments is crucial, he says. “We consistently have educators tell us what a great job we are doing with our bully intervention program, and yet our data challenges those affirmations,” he says. “In some cases, we are told the outcomes are dramatic, but our data are not always so supportive. Then we have to ask the hard questions: Why? What isn’t working? How can we do it differently to get a more positive result? We have the lives of students impacted by our decisions, so the choices should be driven by careful evaluation and examination. Otherwise, we are cheating those most dependent on us.”

What would Horne like other counselors to know? That change is in their hands. “It is possible to have a substantial impact on bullying in schools and communities, and it is the responsibility of counselors to initiate programs that can improve the lives of our students and their families. The work is difficult and requires a commitment, but the payoff is worth it and the impact on students’ lives is substantial.”

Want to know more? Contact Horne at ahorne@uga.edu.


Casey Barrio Minton

Subject: Crisis intervention

When Casey Barrio Minton was working at her first internship as a master’s student, she had a client who was having suicidal thoughts. Although Minton had learned about suicidal clients in class, she didn’t yet feel prepared to put that knowledge into action. So she turned to her internship supervisor, who in turn went to her own supervisor. “Through the process, I learned that many counselors feel unprepared to work with clients who are having thoughts of suicide,” says Minton, now an assistant professor and coordinator of the counseling program at the University of North Texas. “Soon after graduation, I accepted a position in a setting that called me to work almost exclusively with clients in crisis. Through those experiences, I became more and more aware of the importance of crisis preparation, and I became passionate about understanding how we can best prepare counselors to best help clients.”

Minton has been studying various elements of crisis intervention for three years. In 2007, she and her colleague Carrie Wachter Morris received an Association for Counselor Education and Supervision Research Grant to study new counselors’ crisis preparation experiences before and after graduation. About the same time, another of Minton’s colleagues, Carolyn Kern, received a Campus Suicide Prevention Grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and invited her to serve as coinvestigator. In that study, Minton helped provide suicide gate-keeping training on campus and assisted in evaluating its effectiveness. Last year, she began working with the Texas Department of State Health Services to develop and pilot a curriculum to help laypeople respond to the psychological needs of disaster survivors.

During the course of her research, Minton wasn’t shocked to learn that not only do counselors see clients in crisis on a regular basis but that many counselors also lack the proper training to handle those situations. What did surprise her was how resourceful both counselors and clients were in finding ways to respond to crisis. “I was also very encouraged to learn what big differences things as seemingly small as a half-day or weekend workshop can make in counselors’ crisis intervention self-efficacy and subsequent reports of intervention activities,” she says.

The results of Minton’s research indicate that effective training activities are readily available. “Students and practitioners need to be intentional about finding opportunities to practice and get feedback about their crisis intervention activities,” she says. “To date, my research has helped us to better understand the current picture of crisis preparation training in counselor education, and we have a foundation that suggests that some crisis preparation curricula really do help people to believe that they are more competent.” The next step, she says, will be examining the degree to which different approaches are effective. Although conducting field research with people in crisis is problematic, Minton sees potential in assessing crisis intervention techniques through role-playing.

Minton says it’s crucial for counselors to conduct research across the entire scope of the profession because they owe their clients competency and practices that offer a reasonable promise of success. Research, she says, is the way to find out what works. She likens the importance of research to her recent search for a new car. “I was particularly concerned about making a good investment that would serve me in the long term,” Minton says. “It wasn’t enough for me to simply hear a salesperson tell me that the vehicle was pretty and that she believed with all her heart that the vehicle would be good for me. I needed some kind of evidence about cost of ownership, likelihood of various problems, etc. Counseling is a lot more complex than buying a car, and I don’t consider counselors to be salespeople, but the principle stands. When I choose a counselor, I want one who both believes passionately in the service and can back up that belief with something concrete. If not, I’ll keep shopping.”

Want to know more? Contact Minton at casey.barrio@unt.edu.


Heather Robertson

Subject: Youth gangs

The old proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” still rings true today, says Heather Robertson. The importance of community in the lives of young people is just one of the lessons she learned during years of studying youth gangs. As part of her dissertation, Robertson, who earned her doctorate from North Carolina State University, conducted a four-month research project into the world of young people involved in gangs.

“I became interested in youth gangs when I moved to the Raleigh, N.C., area from coastal North Carolina,” says Robertson, a crisis counselor for Carteret County Schools in North Carolina. “Even in the first elementary school I worked in, I began seeing young kids drawing gang symbols and wearing the beginnings of gang paraphernalia like bandanas and particular colors.” She then began working at a high school and learned even more about youth gang involvement. The more she learned, the more interested she became. “I was working as a crisis counselor, and that allowed me access to many kids who were gang-involved,” she says. “My heart went out to them because they became labeled so quickly, mostly due to their trouble with the juvenile or adult judicial systems.”

Robertson’s research project was aimed at discovering, through the voices of the gang members themselves, what the experience was like for youth gang members in an area where gangs were just starting to sprout. She worked with a half-dozen young people who attended a program called Second Round, a boxing and physical fitness program that also involved mentoring youth gang members. Robertson’s group was made up of males of different ethnicities between the ages of 18 and 23.

The research project included three parts. First, Robertson had the young men draw a map of their neighborhood and encouraged them to label locations where possible gang activity or other things such as drug activity might take place. In reviewing the map, she also wanted the young men to discover the positive places and people in their communities. The second part of the project involved a “photovoice” activity in which the youth gang members took disposable cameras into their homes and neighborhoods in an effort to answer Robertson’s four research questions. The questions concerned finding out in what ways individuals who influenced the young people the most contributed to their gang involvement, how where the young people lived contributed to gang involvement, what was helping them the most in the intervention program and how they differed from their peers who weren’t in intervention programs. The final part of Robertson’s research involved interviews with the young men about their lives and the circumstances that led to gang activity.

The biggest surprise from her research, Robertson says, was finding out that the youth gang members were holding their gang activities in other neighborhoods of the city, not their own, because they didn’t want those activities taking place near their own homes and families. According to Robertson, the significance of this finding is that counselors and others cannot assume where the focus of education and intervention should be. The participants in Robertson’s research were not the stereotypical youth so often seen in media portrayals of gang involvement — namely, young people living in poverty. Instead, her small sample size indicated that in this emerging area of gang activity, the youth were still living at home, usually in more suburban neighborhoods.

“Youth gangs are more multicultural and multiage and are living anywhere from the inner city to the most rural of places,” Robertson says. “Opportunities need to be available everywhere — not just in inner cities — to give youth positive options rather than joining one of the local gangs.” Another significant finding, Robertson says, is that her research subjects indicated the main reason they continued attending the intervention program was because of the mentoring, friendship, acceptance and support they received from the coaches there.

Looking back on her research, Robertson says it’s important for counselors and criminal justice personnel to work together. “Working as a team, where counselors can intervene as much as possible and do as much prevention and early intervention with the youth before they have their first offense in the juvenile justice system, is of utmost importance in saving as many kids as possible,” she says.

Robertson also encourages her fellow counselors not to be afraid of working with this population. “It’s all about developing a trusting relationship with the youth,” she says. “It’s about mutual respect, not for what they have done wrong or even continue to do wrong as a gang member, but for who they really are inside. Pulling that out of them and beginning to recognize the positives they have going for them is what it’s really all about.”

Want to know more? Contact Robertson at heatherjean_r@yahoo.com.


Andrea Dixon

Subject: Mattering

Mattering, or mattering to others, was first termed in 1981 by Morris Rosenberg, but it wasn’t until the 21st century that it garnered closer inspection. “Mattering to others is focused on individuals’ interpersonal relationships and their perceptions of whether they believe they matter to others who are significant to them,” says Andrea Dixon, associate professor of counselor education at the University of Florida.

Dixon would know — she has studied the subject for nine years and believes she has published more on mattering in the counseling field than any other researcher. She is careful to note that mattering is different from having a sense of belonging. “Mattering focuses on whether we believe we matter to others on individual levels — mother, father, friends, colleagues,” she explains.

Dixon first got interested in the subject as a school counselor and doctoral student conducting research with high schoolers. After students started seeking her out for relationship help, Dixon came across Rosenberg’s mattering concept but soon realized no research had been done on the topic for many years. Dixon embarked on nine years of research, studying the topic as it related to individuals ages 13 to 90. She conducted her research in schools, online and in person at a retirement facility. “I have found that mattering to others is related to lower levels of depression and anxiety and greater levels of academic self-efficacy, wellness, academic achievement, life satisfaction and interpersonal relationship satisfaction,” says Dixon, who has published a number of studies on the topic.

Mattering is especially important in counseling relationships — for both the counselor and the client. “By definition, counselors are altruistic helpers,” Dixon says. “Through the counseling they do and the relationships they form, counselors want to matter to their clients. Counselors are informed daily of their mattering to clients if their clients are accountable to them and committed to growth, change and the counseling relationship.” When counselors think they matter to their clients, they feel greater meaning in their professional lives and more desire to help, Dixon says.

Just as counselors want to matter to their clients, clients want to matter to their counselors. “Clients who believe they matter to their counselors are likely to be more productive in counseling, show efficacious outcomes and have a greater sense of trust in their counselors,” Dixon says. She adds that counselors are in good position to demonstrate how important clients are to them and the counseling process and to communicate that they rely on clients for successful outcomes. She suggests counselors stay current with the research, verbally express how much clients matter in the counseling process and use empathic eye contact and nonverbal gestures to express importance to clients.

“The counseling relationship illustrates such a significant interaction where mattering acts as a powerful dynamic,” Dixon says. “When clients and counselors perceive they matter in the counseling relationship, the shared relationship can act as a powerful force for change. In addition, counselors are in the unique position of modeling the facilitation of mattering for clients with the hope that clients will apply it in other relationships.”

Dixon is currently conducting mattering research with elementary-age students, which she says has never been done before. She’s also studying mattering with academically successful African American school-age males in an effort to determine how mattering aids academic self-efficacy and relationships at school.

To Dixon, research isn’t a privilege, it’s a responsibility. “As we move further into the 21st century, our call is to advocate for social justice and equity for all clients, as well as culturally conscious and ethical counseling services,” she says. “There is no true competent manner of following through on these calls to our profession without curiosity, questions and research outcomes that only we can make happen. As professional counselors, conducting research is not an extraneous activity that we engage in — it is an expectation. Today and into the future, it is one of our critical responsibilities as agents of change and wellness.”

Want to know more? Contact Dixon at adixon@coe.ufl.edu.


Amy McLeod

Subject: Intimate partner violence

Amy McLeod began researching intimate partner violence (IPV), a health concern that disproportionately impacts women, in an effort to give survivors an outlet to talk about their personal strengths and resources. McLeod, an assistant professor in the counseling department at Argosy University’s Atlanta campus, won the Glen Hubele National Graduate Student Award from ACA in 2008 for a two-year IPV research project she conducted between 2006 and 2007. “By listening to these stories of survival, counselors can learn how to more effectively assist women in the process of leaving violent relationships,” says McLeod.

In conducting the research as part of her doctoral studies in counselor education and practice at Georgia State University, McLeod contacted counseling agencies and community centers, encouraging them to hand out fliers informing IPV survivors of her study and letting them know how to contact her. McLeod was looking for women over the age of 18 who had been in an abusive relationship that had ended at least six months prior; the women couldn’t currently be in a crisis situation. Five women contacted McLeod and agreed to participate.

McLeod met with each of the women individually at whatever location made them feel most comfortable. She asked questions about the women’s experiences accessing personal and community resources when they were leaving their abusive partners. “I was awestruck by the courage of the women who shared their experiences to help counselors learn how to better help women in the process of leaving abusive relationships,” she says. “During the interviews, many of the women showed me the scars left on their bodies by their abusers. At one point in their lives, these women took great care to hide their scars and bruises due to shame. This was such a beautiful representation of strength and healing. These women chose to break their silence about IPV, to show their scars, in order to help other women in violent relationships.”

The study participants shared positive experiences they’d had, such as being offered protection, being asked directly by a counselor about IPV and engaging in self-care activities. They also revealed negative experiences, including counselors siding with the abuser or misdiagnosing the issue. On the basis of that information, McLeod developed an IPV competency checklist for counselors. “A few of the topics covered on the checklist are universal screening for IPV, providing information about IPV resources regardless of disclosure, addressing the impact of IPV throughout the counseling process and assessing the personal strengths and resources of IPV survivors,” McLeod says.

“My hope is that this study raises awareness about the prevalence and impact of IPV,” says McLeod, who adds that a future area of IPV study could be with lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. “Through the experiences of the women who participated in this study, counselors can learn how they may inadvertently respond to IPV survivors in an ineffective or even harmful manner. Counselors can also learn about the extra steps they can take to make sure they are meeting the needs of IPV survivors.”

Want to know more? Contact McLeod at almcleod@argosy.edu.


Isabel Thompson

Subject: Wellness and self-care

The topic of wellness and self-care is of vital importance to counseling students, says Isabel Thompson, assistant admissions coordinator and doctoral fellow at the University of Florida. Thompson, along with research adviser Sondra Smith-Adcock and coresearchers Cheryl Pence Wolf and Eric Thompson, found through reviewing research on the topic that the level of wellness for counseling students typically remains static throughout their counseling programs, meaning programs typically come up short in teaching students strategies to improve their wellness and self-care. The troubling aspect, Thompson says, is that counseling students really need to learn these skills before heading into the workforce.

“Counseling graduate students seem to find it easy to get overwhelmed. They talk about their need for self-care but neglect to actually follow through,” she says. “Self-care and personal wellness impacts who we are as therapists and what we bring to our clients, so it was imperative for us to make an impact on the students in our program.”

With that in mind, Thompson and her counterparts began a wellness research project in 2007 that received a grant from Chi Sigma Iota in 2008. The study began with an informal needs assessment in which students were surveyed to gauge which wellness topics were of interest to them. Thompson and her team then developed workshops based on those topics. Students, alumni, faculty, staff, friends and research participants were invited to attend, and weekly e-mails went out describing upcoming workshops. Almost 40 counseling students participated in the study, Thompson says, completing both a pre- and post-test to assess change in overall wellness. “We asked participants to commit to working on improving at least one area of wellness during the semester and provided them with worksheets and tracking sheets to help them determine or track their level of well-being,” she explains.

Although the workshops attracted a lower turnout than expected, Thompson says a noticeable increase took place in the focus on wellness within the department. “The initial data analysis shows a significant improvement in the overall level of wellness and several subscales,” she says. “We are beginning a follow-up qualitative study to explore the effects of the program, understand what impact exposure to a wellness philosophy had on participants and learn about contextual factors that may have impacted wellness.”

Although previous research suggested that counseling students’ wellness had not improved during the course of their counseling programs, Thompson’s research showed that an intentional focus on wellness had a positive effect on students. Thompson says her team is not sure that workshops are the most effective way to increase wellness, but they’re hoping to make a clearer determination in their follow-up study.

“It can be challenging to make the time for activities that promote personal well-being when there are so many other demands,” Thompson says. “However, if students don’t learn to integrate it into their academic lives, then it is possible that they will not incorporate it into their professional lives when it will be crucial to reducing stress and preventing burnout.”

When students learn to take care of themselves, they become more effective counselors for their clients as well, Thompson says. “Counselors who understand the effort it takes to enhance personal wellness can more effectively support clients to make intentional changes,” she says. “It is our hope that students are learning how to better take care of themselves and can serve as role models for their future clients by taking the time and initiative to practice self-care.”

Want to know more? Contact Thompson at isabelthompson@gmail.com.


Danica Hays

Subject: Domestic violence in adolescent and college relationships

Danica Hays, an associate professor of counseling and graduate program coordinator at Old Dominion University, has been studying intimate partner violence since 2003. In the past few years, she has focused her attention on domestic violence intervention and prevention in adolescent and college dating relationships. “With approximately 25 to 30 percent of adolescents experiencing unhealthy and abusive acts each year from a dating partner, we saw an opportunity to intervene with adolescents ages 12 and older and provide training materials to those who would be working with these adolescents,” says Hays, who won a Counselor Educator Advocacy Award from ACA this year in honor of her advocacy-based research.

Hays’ answer to this growing problem was a service-research initiative called the Healthy Relationships Project, which she began in December 2008. The twofold purpose of the project, she says, is to educate adolescents who may be in dating relationships and to provide training seminars to assist mental health professionals in helping clients achieve healthy relationships. Hays’ project partnered with a local Girl Scout troop to provide a series of workshops, which began this past spring. The workshops focus on topics such as promoting healthy relationships, gender and cultural norms in relationships, introduction to dating violence and preventing dating violence. The Healthy Relationships Project also has an outreach arm that provides a training program to help counselors and other professionals increase their knowledge, awareness and skills concerning this topic. “The training seminar consisted of four hours of a free continuing education opportunity for students and practitioners,” Hays says. The project is being implemented in the current school year with middle school, high school and college students.

Although the research is ongoing, Hays says she is collecting pre- and post-test data on dating violence victimization and perpetration among the groups, as well as doing data collection at each workshop. It is her hope that the Healthy Relationships Project will lead to decreases in psychosocial and sexual abuse victimization and perpetration, better communication and conflict resolution skills, less gender stereotyping and greater awareness of available services.

“One of my mentors in my doctoral program once said, ‘Research is practice,’” Hays says. “I’ve never forgotten that and try to conduct research that directly benefits clients along the way. Whether it’s research intended to make someone a better practitioner by enhancing training and theory or aimed at direct client services, counselors are doing important work that needs to be empirically validated. We cannot separate the two.”

Want to know more? Contact Hays at dhays@odu.edu.


Alan “Woody” Schwitzer

Subject: College counseling and student affairs

For 20 years, Alan “Woody” Schwitzer has been researching ways to improve college counseling and college student affairs. Schwitzer, professor of counselor education and coordinator of the college counseling specialty at Old Dominion University, focuses his research on professionals working in counseling centers, mental health centers and health centers at two- and four-year colleges and universities, as well as student development and student affairs professionals, such as those working in residence life or women’s centers. “Although college counselors tend to be more visible during crises such as the April 2007 tragedy on the Virginia Tech campus, they serve student mental health needs every day,” says Schwitzer, recognized with the Ralph F. Berdie Memorial Research Award from ACA earlier this year. “An estimated 1.5 million students are served by college counseling centers on U.S. campuses each year. Even more are served by student development and student affairs professionals.”

Schwitzer, who also serves as editor of the Journal of College Counseling, has published approximately 40 articles on the topic and says his focus remains on determining how professionals can be most successful in their work with college students. “The main theme has been to find out which of our theories and approaches are good fits with which of our many diverse campus populations,” he says. “Some of our models and practices are a good fit with everyone on campus, while others must be more tailored for specialized groups.”

Schwitzer and his colleagues recently completed a series of four studies on girls’ and women’s experiences with eating-related concerns, most of which were published in the Journal of American College Health. Schwitzer’s research included studying women participating in counseling center support groups and workshops, reviewing six years of records from a college eating disorder treatment program and studying eating disorder symptoms among non-client university women. On the basis of their findings, Schwitzer and his colleagues developed a diagnostic model describing symptoms, duration, severity, psychosocial themes and more.

“What was surprising was that although eating disorders are very common on campus, we found that most women do not experience anorexia or bulimia,” Schwitzer says. “Instead, they usually are dealing with a very specific combination of midrange, subthreshold weight control and body image problems. The implication for practitioners is that without an awareness of the diagnostic model, the most common eating disorders would go unnoticed or unaddressed. Counseling centers might be investing heavy resources into the more severe problems of anorexia and bulimia, which affect only a small group on campuses.”

Another area Schwitzer has studied is the adjustment of African American first-year students at predominantly white universities. “There is a widely accepted model of college adjustment describing the academic, social, personal-emotional and institutional adjustment needs of university students,” says Schwitzer, who along with colleagues conducted three studies, one of which was published in the Journal of Counseling & Development. “However, my colleagues and I were interested in why retention rates for African American students were problematically low and what we might need to know to better assist this population.”

After studying students in a counseling center peer-mentor program and about a dozen focus groups, Schwitzer found the traditional mainstream model of college adjustment didn’t fit for African Americans on mostly white campuses. Unlike white students, he says, the African American students faced a sense of “underrepresentedness,” direct perceptions of racism, trouble approaching faculty and lack of familiarity with faculty. “Based on our research model, we recommended the general programs for new students, multicultural student services support programs, student affairs staff training and faculty development all include a component aimed at these social adjustment needs,” he says.

“Those working on college campuses have a great opportunity to positively impact a wide range of late adolescents, young adults and non-traditionally aged learners,” Schwitzer says. “But research findings are needed to build a knowledge base that can impact and guide the day-to-day practices so that the interventions and strategies we choose to use are conceptually sound and outcome-driven rather than based on unsure impressions. A research-guided knowledge base is needed so we can be more certain that the professional actions we take will have the effects we want for our college clientele. Otherwise, although well intended, our services may or may not be what our students need.”

Schwitzer encourages those interested in learning more about conducting research and submitting their manuscripts to journals to attend the ACA Council of Editors workshop presentation at the ACA Annual Conference & Exposition in Pittsburgh in March.

Want to know more? Contact Schwitzer at aschwitz@odu.edu.


For details on three additional counselor researchers and their cutting-edge work, see the box below.

Lynne Shallcross is a staff writer for Counseling Today . Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor:ct@counseling.org.

Online extras

Three more researchers forge new territory within the counseling field

Counselor researcher: Amanda Healey, doctoral candidate at Old Dominion University

Subject: Professional identity

What is your research about?

My dissertation research is entitled “Women’s perspectives of professional identity and success in the counseling field.” This study is a mixed-methods review of how women perceive the counseling profession in terms of what the counseling identity is and how it related to determining whether one is a successful counselor educator, practitioner or supervisor. From the qualitative data gathered, an inventory was developed, which is called the Professional Identity and Values Scale. Its goal is to measure agreement with the elements of the counseling identity as defined by participants (philosophy and values) as well as their level of development within the field. The developmental subscale was based on participant statements as well as the qualitative work of Skovholt & Ronnestad (1992) concerning counselor development and Belenky’s (1997) qualitative research as reported in the book Women’s Ways of Knowing. This scale will be given to all counselors, counseling students, supervisors and counselor educators available through the recruitment methods that will be used. Results will be compared to scores gathered through the Professional Identity and Engagement Scale, which was developed by Puglia (1998) and contains elements of a previous scale that measured agreement with the counseling philosophy developed by Gray and Remley (2000). Both of the previous scales were based on conceptual ideas related to counseling, whereas the new scale is based on the voices of female professionals who were doctoral candidates, tenure-track counselor educators or newly licensed practitioners (LPC received in 2006 or after) at the time of the study. Analysis will be conducted to determine if gender differences exist between the scale developed as part of this study and the scale developed by Puglia specifically with regard to development, engagement and agreement with the counseling philosophy. Implications for counselor educators concerning the process of tenure and evaluation of students will be presented in subsequent articles intended for publication. Also, it is hoped that a strong instrument to help gauge professional identity development can be developed through this process for use in counseling programs or for other professionally appropriate purposes. My committee consists of Danica Hays (chair), Ted Remley and Jennifer Fish.

Why is this topic important?

In conversing with female professionals within the counseling field, I noticed a dissonance between what they felt was expected of them within the profession to be deemed “successful” and the obligations they felt they had to family, etc. as influenced by societal gender role expectations. There was this idea that female professionals needed to be a “superwoman” or “supermom” in order to be viewed as successful in both their professional life and their personal life. This seemed to weigh heavily on them in terms of navigating a balance and discovering their own professional and personal identity. As I read through the literature, I noticed that in terms of professional development, the ideal was to create a boundary between the personal and professional life. I did not see this as being a prevalent goal among the women I knew and the literature I had read on the expectations and development of professional women. In reading literature on professional identity, I noticed that many of the philosophical tenets related to the “mission” of counselors led to how they were evaluated as successful within the profession itself. I wanted to see if gender differences would emerge.

How are you going about your research?

I decided to do a mixed-methods approach because I felt another scale that was based on the voices of women in the field was needed to assess professional identity development. I used a feminist framework for my approach in that I kept the participants of the study involved in the process as much as possible and included a consensus coding team of nine counseling professionals (men and women) to review the qualitative results and develop a codebook. All coding and transcripts/field notes were sent to participants so that they could make comments and reflect on the process. When quotes were used in the final codebook to substantiate themes, participants were notified and sent the codebook and directed to their specific quotes to make sure they agreed with the placement of their statements. Seventeen professionals participated in a two-part interview series and seven women (including one from the interview series) participated in two separate focus groups. Participants were recruited through various professional listservs and included women from twelve states and Canada. Most initial interviews were conducted in person with the second interview taking place by phone; all focus groups were conducted in person. When the inventory was developed, four members of the coding team were asked to review it and nine counselor educators and one women’s studies educator were asked to provide an expert review. The inventory will be distributed soon through survey monkey by providing the website details to CACREP accredited counseling programs and licensed professionals included in the LPC mailing list for the state of Virginia.

Did any surprises pop up?

There was a significant focus on the need for building and maintaining strong relationships within the profession as well as personally. This seemed to be a major priority for most of the women who participated in the study and played a major role in professional decision making and planning. Advocacy issues related to social justice and a focus on spirituality also popped up frequently as professional values.

What are the implications for counselors?

For counselor educators, the implications for this study would impact the tenure process, specifically at research-focused institutions and may play a role in the presence of women in those institutions or at higher levels of academia (assistant vs. full professor). As part of this study, I am also collecting information from all CACREP programs regarding men and women at different levels of faculty status (adjunct through full professor) as information regarding this through the national center for educational statistics amalgamates psychology, social work and counseling. For counseling professionals, women in the qualitative study discussed passing up promotion within their agencies to maintain their work with clients, as they saw this process as being of greater direct value to the community and they felt this role would allow them a better balance in maintaining personal relationships. They also related the perception that men received social messages that they should be leaders, which is supported in the literature. So, this could have implications for the power structure present within schools and agencies and therefore affect how services are implemented and how the culture of the agency develops. Overall, there was a noticeable conflict between meeting externally imposed professional expectations and maintaining personal and professional values that counselors saw as core to their overall identity, such as wellness and service.

How will this help counselors in their work with clients?

Practitioners discussed how client perceptions of traditional gender roles impacted both male and female professional counselors. They stated that, societally, women were viewed as naturally nurturing and caring and therefore this was expected from them in the counseling relationship. Whereas, men were typically viewed as leaders and experts and so, it was perceived, that this played out in the counseling relationship and sometimes clients would request working with a male or female counselor based upon these perceptions. This is definitely an area that warrants further study.

What’s the next step?

Implications for how traditional gender role expectations impact the counseling relationships, educator/student and supervisor/supervisee relationship are all areas that need further study. It would also be beneficial to conduct a qualitative analysis on how men view the counseling profession. There are far reaching implications for the profession, so this area of research will not end with the publication of articles from this particular study.

Why is research important?

Research is important for many reasons. It not only helps to guide treatment and improve the lives of our clients and communities, but it also allows for practitioners/educators/supervisors to gain insight into their own process as a professional and how their actions influence a larger system. Research within counseling also serves to promote the profession and the counseling philosophy. If, as a professional, you believe the counseling profession has something unique and important to offer society, then you should be doing research to promote it—be it one project or many.


Counselor researchers: Philip Clarke and Denisha Champion, doctoral students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Subject: Wellness in substance abuse counseling

What is your research about?

Clarke: The strengths of a wellness model and wellness counseling and have not yet been tapped in the area of substance abuse. The premise of our research is to incorporate wellness counseling into traditional substance abuse counseling and determine its effectiveness on client outcomes. Our population is college students who are mandated by the university for substance abuse counseling because of violating campus substance abuse policies. The counseling itself entails infusing a wellness assessment (5F-Wel) into the intake process, and using the results to frame counseling goals. This also allows the student to examine how their substance use affects their wellness and vice versa. We hypothesize that as counseling continues, substance use behaviors will decrease and overall wellness will improve.

Why is this topic important?

Clarke: I first became interested in integrating wellness approaches into substance abuse counseling in my work facilitating co-occurring disorders at an outpatient drug treatment facility. I noticed that although many clients were working a recovery program and abstaining from substance use, a large portion of these clients appeared not to be well in several areas of their lives including physically, emotionally and socially, despite months or even years of sobriety. Involving wellness models in substance abuse counseling will encourage clients to develop recovery plans that not only address sobriety but overall well-being.

Champion: I got interested in this topic when I worked with college students who had been mandated for violating the university alcohol and drug policies. When working with these students I found that many of them were lacking in several of the areas for total wellness and that conceptualizing them through a wellness framework might decrease their substance use increase their holistic well-being.

How will you conduct the research?

Clarke: The first step in our research plan is to complete an n(1) or case study employing the wellness-substance abuse counseling approach with a college student client. The next step will be to do an outcome study with a larger sample to determine if this approach results in increased readiness to change, reduced substance use behaviors and improved overall wellness.

Champion: We set up a protocol for how the sessions would be structured: We began by using substance abuse and wellness assessments to get baseline data, next we used the assessment results to guide how severe substance abuse behaviors or deficits in wellness were and co-constructed treatment goals with the clients. Finally, we framed session interventions using a wellness theoretical orientation and used the same assessments at the end of the sessions to monitor if a change in levels of wellness and extent of substance abuse are evident.

What are the implications for counselors?

Clarke: I believe this research holds potential for counselors, counselor educators and counselors in training because wellness models provide a useful way to understand the effects of substance use on clients’ holistic well-being and also how wellness levels and the systems in which clients live impacts their use of substances. For example, one can conduct a wellness assessment with a client along with a substance abuse assessment during the clinical evaluation. One can then process with a client whose Coping Self scores are low, how he or she uses alcohol or drugs to manage stress, improve sense of self-worth or to fill leisure time. If the client chooses Coping Self as a goal area for his or her treatment plan, the person may focus on developing stress management skills or leisure activities other than substance use to improve wellness of the Coping Self. Further, the client can utilize identified strengths from their wellness assessment to bolster the Coping Self. If the client has a strong Social Self, for instance, he or she can employ healthy aspects from this wellness area to improve the Coping Self. Non-using friends may provide an outlet for stress-management as well as pleasant activities for leisure time. Wellness models add a key element to the substance abuse counseling: a strength-based framework. In substance abuse counseling clients have often dealt with issues of guilt and shame. We believe that integrating a wellness component will help break the guilt and shame cycle that can fuel substance abuse while fostering a positive identity in recovery.

Champion: Implications for practitioners include a new tool in the toolbox for working with substance abusers of all ages. Viewing clients with the presenting concern of substance abuse through a wellness framework allows the counselor to address holistic wellness and touch on several areas of a client’s life that may be lacking and possibly and underlying motivation to abuse substances. By tackling these areas and working to remove the underlying issues we hope to teach clients how to assess all the areas of their lives so that after counseling has ended clients have the knowledge of how to assess areas of their wellness and attend to them in ways that do not rely on alcohol or drug abuse.


Counselor researcher: Jane E. Myers

Subject: Wellness

What is your research about?

Wellness—holistically, with all populations, including cross-cultural and cross-national. What are the dynamics of wellness in various populations, what variables relate to greater or lesser wellness across wellness domains and what can we do as counselors to help clients choose to be more well?

How long have you been doing it?

About 30 years, most intensively 20 years.

Why is this topic important? Counseling is unique among the mental health professions in our concern for prevention and for optimum human development. We work from a strength-based perspective to help clients make choices that will help them live longer and live well. We understand that health is a neutral state, neither ill nor well, and we work to help clients make intentional choices for healthy behaviors that are self-reinforcing. Since all components of wellness interact, making positive life choices is self-empowering for even more positive choices. The younger we can help people learn to make healthy choices, the greater the potential to alter their developmental trajectory for a lifespan, and that can be 60-80 or more years.

What have you researched? I have had multiple studies over 20 years. I work with students and faculty and researchers around the world, and we co-design different studies based on our interests, populations we see at risk, etc. Dr. Donna Gibson of USC is one researcher I worked with the study cadets at the Citadel and see how their wellness compared to other undergraduates and undergraduates at West Point. She was working at the Citadel and of course wanted to promote greater wellness for the cadet population. That is just one example.

We seek populations of interest from multiple sources. My databases, which number more than 25,000, are aggregate data of wellness of various populations—children, middle school students, adolescents, undergraduate students, counseling graduate students, other graduate students, adults working in business and industry, in urban and rural areas—all wellness studies using the 5F-Wel contribute data to this “master file” of aggregate, anonymous data to help us understand the wellness of various populations and how wellness differs across populations.

What are the implications for counselors? Knowing how different populations differ in terms of wellness helps us target interventions to those most at risk or most in need, and since everyone can benefit from enhanced wellness, this approach is useful for identifying and building strengths for everyone.

Counselors can learn first about their personal wellness and then how to be models for clients. Knowing that all clients have strengths is important, and wellness helps us pursue a positive asset search (as Ivey discussed) to find out where their strengths lie, which leads us to how those strengths can be used to facilitate positive change.