Knowledge Share

A closer look at developing counselor identity

Timothy E. Coppock March 1, 2012

Professional identity has emerged as one of the hot topics in the counseling profession. A quick look at the 2011 ACA Conference schedule and a preview of the sessions for the 2012 conference in San Francisco reveals that, as counselors, we are interested in discussions that investigate the topic and equally interested in adding the topic to our research agendas. This article is a personal reflection on the importance of professional identity from my vantage point both as a professional counselor and a counselor educator. An aspect I am most interested in is how we can strengthen and enhance the process of developing identity as professional counselors.

As is the case with most counselors, the first thing I need to do when meeting a new client is to introduce myself and talk about my identity as a professional counselor, what my client can expect from the counseling process and the expectations that he or she might have. I most often find that I have to define my professional identity by describing what I am not: I cannot prescribe medications, and I am not a psychologist. I go on to say that professional counselors are licensed to help resolve mental and emotional problems. A few clients ask for even more clarification concerning specific competencies, but most individuals are satisfied that their needs can be met so long as I assure them that their insurance will cover my charges.

I find that I have almost the same conversation with applicants to our master’s program in community counseling. If this conversation doesn’t take place at their admissions interview, then most assuredly I will need to provide some further explanation and clarification at several points during their first two or three semesters until the notion of professional identity begins to sink in. By the time master’s students reach their fourth or fifth semester and begin practicum and internship, maybe they will have some level of confidence in the professional identity for which they have trained. At least that’s our hope, isn’t it?

A personal journey

I believe my understanding of professional identity was formed in much the same way. I remember asking dumb questions of my professors at Bowling Green State University as I explored the shared concepts of analysts such as Freud, Jung, Adler and Rogers. Like many of the students entering into the community counseling program where I now teach, I did not have a background or degree in psychology or an applied science such as social work. And, to be honest, the lines between disciplines were quite blurry as I acquired the skills for counseling. What distinguished my identity as a professional counselor from the other professions was not so much based in what I was taught but rather in who was doing the teaching and in the application of these concepts. My professors were counselors who had put the theories and techniques into practice, who exemplified the best of the skills needed to help others bring about desired changes, and who understood the importance of what works and what doesn’t in the development of plans to reach goals.

It’s tough to say exactly when my identity as a professional counselor first emerged because it is indeed a process. It takes time for professional identity to develop, and it requires strong mentors who are willing to invest their time and energy not only in teaching but also in leadership and advocacy. I was simultaneously flattered and challenged when my master’s program adviser, Susan Huss, invited me to co-present at a regional counseling conference. Similarly to most of my fellow students, my life consisted of working a full-time job, attending night classes, finding time to study and balancing multiple roles as a father, student and, now, counselor-in-training. How would I work a two-day event into my already full schedule? How could I stretch my meager budget to include a conference registration and professional membership?

To be sure, professional identity is much more than attending and presenting at conferences. But the process of building identity does include strong relationships with mentors and colleagues who aspire to teach and learn from one another at conferences and continuing education events. And, most formidably, professional identity is built during the two to four years devoted to acquiring the master’s degree required for licensure as a professional counselor in all 50 states. Indeed, there would be no licensure for professional counselors and, hence, we would not be able to provide vital services to clients if it weren’t for the dedication and advocacy of professional counselors and counselor educators. Professional identity depends in part on the critical decisions and crucial sacrifices made by leading counselors and counselor educators. They forged the relationships and coalitions necessary to enact laws that ensure credentialing and accreditation by organizations such as the National Board for Certified Counselors and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. They also provide us with the ACA Code of Ethics and other professional guidelines that protect both the public and our obligation to provide services that meet standards of care. Ultimately, if not for the perseverance and continued dedication of these leaders, counselor licensure laws would not have been enacted in all 50 states.

What distinguishes counselors?

Ever since my years as a doctoral student at the University of Toledo, I have clung to the tenets of a profession that has worked hard to define itself within the complex context of other related professions. Ideally, these related professions would work together as a team, with an integrated approach, to provide mental health services. However, these professions often perceive one another as competitors, fighting for community contracts, insurance endorsements and licensure rights.

Martin Ritchie is another mentor/adviser, and now colleague, who has made a profound impression on my life and career. Indeed Martin Ritchie and Susan Huss represent a league of counselor educators who have invested their entire careers in the building of counseling as a profession. On one unforgettable occasion, Martin challenged my doctoral cohort with a concise history of professional counseling, giving specific emphasis to the identity conflicts professional counselors experienced regarding the related professions of psychology and social work. Embedded in his lecture were the primary issues of a fledgling profession — a profession oftentimes viewed as a stepchild in the course of lobbying and legislative efforts to secure licensure, a profession scrutinized by managed care and representatives of federal funding to determine if its members are legitimate providers of mental health services, a profession frequently lumped together with other social service providers variously as “mental health therapists,” “psychotherapists” and “clinicians.” Dr. Ritchie’s questions still reverberate in my memory: What gives us distinction? What sets counselors apart? Have we indeed earned our identity as a separate profession?

There are no simple answers to any of these questions. The reality is that professional counselors share a heritage of theories, techniques and, to some extent, training with several other types of mental health professionals, most notably marriage and family therapists, social workers and counseling psychologists. In Pennsylvania, where I currently am a counselor educator and also have a limited practice, professional counselors can be licensed with educational backgrounds in no less than 10 related fields. Indeed, the multiple tracks available to licensure in some states have in my opinion contributed to a blurring of professional identity, for counselors and consumers. From the point of view of the consumer, it doesn’t matter which license I use to practice, so long as my profession is regulated to protect the consumer. Psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, and professional counselors all use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and bill the same insurance companies. Some attempt to make the distinction that professional counselors subscribe to a wellness model as opposed to a medical model. But quite frankly, other related professions would claim the same.

So what does make the difference? I believe the difference lies primarily in two areas: in our education and in our supervision as counselors. Professional counselors are trained in counselor education programs by faculty who identify as professional counselors, and we are supervised by licensed professional counselors (LPCs). Counselors educated and supervised by professionals other than counselors are unlikely to have a clear professional identity. CACREP’s work has provided a foundation to ensure that students develop both professional identity and standards for knowledge and skills specific to the profession of counseling.

Supervision is equally influential with regard to our identity as professional counselors. For a number of years, before there were enough LPCs to provide supervision, professional counselors were supervised by other professionals. However, as a profession, we have reached the point at which all 50 states have licensure laws that regulate not only the title of “professional counselor” but, in many states, the practice of counseling as well. Related to the achievement of that objective, most states currently require either that a professional counselor provide supervision or that a minimum number of supervision hours be provided by an LPC.

The task of instilling and developing identity as a professional counselor includes some serious challenges, not the least of which is the limited time available for the identity-building process. The program I am privileged to teach in at Gannon University is a three-year master’s degree program. Other master’s programs can be completed in as little as two years, however. Students entering master’s counseling programs come from a variety of backgrounds and with corresponding bachelor’s degrees: social work, psychology, art therapy, criminal justice and even from humanities or business. Entering students often possess almost no understanding of how counseling is different from other social service professions. In comparing my experience with that of other counselor educators, I have found this is commonplace among three-year master’s programs and even in larger programs featuring multiple tracks or offering a doctoral degree in counselor education.

The challenge is that counseling, unlike other related social service professions, has no corresponding undergraduate major and, hence, no undergraduate professional identity. Undergraduates typically may choose to major in psychology or social work in their freshman or sophomore years, which provides those professions as many as six to eight years to create and develop strong professional identity. Indeed, for a number of students the expectation is that a master’s degree in counseling will be a stepping-stone to a Psy.D. or a Ph.D. in psychology. It has become a challenge for counselor educators to develop curricula that offer the essential components to train counselors, while simultaneously including experiences that will instill and enhance strong identity as a professional counselor. A number of master’s programs are three-year programs in which the third year is spent in clinical practice and internship. Many full-time programs are only two years, however. At best, this leaves only one or possibly two years of classroom contact and exposure to professors and other students in the cohort during which identity-building experiences can be planned.

Suggested solutions

I view myself as a solution-focused, strengths-based counselor. In the best of that tradition, it is time to consider ways to reach beyond the next two to three years. One option for addressing this deficit of time is to expand beyond the bounds of graduate education and training by developing an undergraduate minor in counseling. At a minimum, this would provide undergraduate students — particularly those with related majors in psychology, social work or criminal justice — an opportunity to explore professional counseling. In turn, an undergraduate counseling minor would provide three to four courses in content areas such as basic helping skills, human development and professional orientation. This potentially would expand the amount of time students could develop their identity as professional counselors to as many as four or five years. An important component of this solution is that these undergraduate courses would have to be taught by instructors who strongly identify as professional counselors. One option would be for counselor education doctoral interns to teach the courses. This would represent a secondary benefit for larger counselor education programs that support doctoral degree programs. Another advantage of this approach is that undergraduate students who minored in counseling would be much better prepared for master’s programs. Universities might benefit from this increased awareness in the form of higher enrollment.

A strong predictor of professional identity is membership in professional organizations such as the American Counseling Association, attendance at professional conferences and pursuing leadership opportunities in professional organizations. One of the hats I wear is as faculty adviser for our local chapter of Chi Sigma Iota, the professional honor society that has distinguished itself as being clearly and singularly identified with professional counseling. Students are not eligible for membership in CSI until their second semester. Although the work of CSI is commendable in building professional identity, for students in master’s-only programs, this leaves precious little time for active involvement: about 18 months. I participated in a roundtable discussion in March 2011 with other chapter faculty advisers from master’s-only programs, and it was quickly noted that my experience is not unique. Again, as one who looks for solutions, what if CSI chapters placed even more emphasis on non-membership participation in events for first-year master’s students? And in the interest of expansion of opportunities for identity development, what if CSI supported programs that could be implemented at the undergraduate level to promote the profession of counseling?

Gannon University’s master’s program, like many other CACREP-accredited programs, is in the process of preparing for reaccreditation under the 2009 CACREP Standards. Much adieu has been made over the requirement that 50 percent of master’s course work be taught by core faculty. At issue has been an additional standard related to the professional identities of core faculty members. From a very practical, strengths-based approach, it would seem that the counseling profession could only gain from strengthening the identity of those who are primary to the formation of professional identity in the counseling profession.

In summary, I believe an expansion of the time allotted for development of professional identity can serve to strengthen and enhance our work as professional counselors. The bottom line, of course, is the public we serve. Clients will benefit if they are treated by professional counselors who are not only competent in their counseling skills but also confident in the specific role professional counselors play in providing services.

“Knowledge Share” articles are adapted from sessions presented at past ACA Annual Conferences.

Timothy E. Coppock is assistant professor an clinical experiences coordinator in the community counseling program in Gannon University’s Department of Psychology and Counseling. Contact him at coppock001@gannon.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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2 Comments

  1. Toya Compton

    Very interesting read! I am about to start my practicum and internship experiences myself as a Masters-level counseling student and your article has provided encouragement to carry on and not be afraid of developing my own identity. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC

    Timothy, thank you for addressing this critical issue in our profession. I do not hear it talked about often enough out here in the trenches. Certainly my graduate program, The University of North Texas – Denton, stressed counselor identity and Texas – the state I was originally licensed in – required supervision by LPCs only. However, in 2002, I relocated to Colorado – a state that does NOT require licensure for mental health professionals (backwards, I know!) and does not require clinical supervision for licensure by LPCs!

    Having lived and practiced as an LPC in both states now, I can vouch for these differences making a difference. When therapists-in-training miss out on the clinical supervision of LPCs while in pursuit of their licenses, they also miss out on learning about the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of being a counselor.

    If professional identity wasn’t muddy before, it gets muddier now. Research shows that although the foundations of our disciplines are different – with psychology emphasizing research and pathology, counseling emphasizing prevention and a mind-body-spirit conceptualization, and social work emphasizing systems and institutions – the longer we are in practice, the more similar mental health professionals’ practices become.

    That we learn from the other mental health disciplines is great. However, like you, I believe that there is a place for those foundational differences and that they are, in large part, why we are drawn to the different disciplines.

    To expand on your suggestions for strengthening professional identity among counselors, I would like to suggest that, beginning in graduate programs, students be introduced to the differences between the mental health disciplines. Additionally, it could be useful to start to uniformly implementing (in all graduate programs) some type of document that addresses “How to Be A Professional Counselor.”

    As simplistic as this sounds, it seems to me that this can be related to standards of practice / care. As part of that, identifying as a “Professional Counselor” or “Counselor-in-Training” rather than as a “therapist” or a “psychotherapist” is a logical addition to this standard. I remember making that conscious choice . . . to identify as a “Professional Counselor” rather than a “psychotherapist” and truthfully it was a difficult choice to make because, as a young professional, “psychotherapist” and “therapist” sounded more credible . . . it carried more weight in my mind. I made (what felt at the time) a sacrifice to adopt the title of “Counselor” over those other titles because my professors emphasized the need to do so. It was just blind faith in those professionals. And I suspect if there had not been Professional Counselors who were also Counselor Educators teaching and mentoring me, I would have made a different choice.

    Thanks, Timothy, for continuing this discussion and also for allowing me a place to share my experiences and thoughts on this topic, too.

    Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC
    http://www.AllThingsPrivatePractice.com

    Reply

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