Monthly Archives: January 2013

Jain’s championing of Eastern and Western cultural and counseling exchange leads to meeting with Dalai Lama

Heather Rudow January 18, 2013

DalaiLamaSachin Jain has been taking counselors, counselor educators and counseling students to rural India for the past six years in an effort to expand their worldviews and give a real-life picture of how individuals in different socioeconomic statuses live. But this past June, trip participants had an even more meaningful experience when they met the Dalai Lama.

The group spent 11 days traveling through the rural, poverty-stricken Indian countryside. In the process, they also got to to know exiled Tibetans living in the region.

“My goal is to expose the audience to a different lifestyle,” says Jain, an assistant professor of counseling at Oakland University and a member of the American Counseling Association, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development. “It’s not even necessarily about experiencing different cultures, because there are different cultures within the United States. I try to organize my trip in the rural parts of India where there are no five-star hotels so [attendees] can see and experience how the people really live.”

The attendees, who were alerted about the trip through counseling Listservs, were from various parts of the United States. Jain is originally from Rajasthan, India, located in the northwestern part of the country, so he possesses firsthand knowledge of the stark contrast between the countries’ cultures.

“The rural lifestyle in India is so different [that] if you have never been there before it is … a big shock,” he says.

Jain says taking American counselors to this part of the world helps them gain perspective. “It forces you to live that lifestyle and it forces you into self-discovery,” he says. “You rely mainly on internal resources, and that is an important part of counselor training.”

Contending with these elements for an entire week and a half also allows the counselors to change their mindsets more permanently than if they simply sat in an hourlong session on multiculturalism at a counseling conference, Jain says. “[At conference], they always have in the back of their mind that they can leave these sessions and go back to their comfortable hotel rooms,” he says.

This was the first time, however, that Jain or any of his travel groups had met the Dalai Lama or heard him speak. The Dalai Lama’s organization, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), reached out to Jain to attend the third annual Tibetan School Counselors Conference cum Workshop, where the Dalai Lama spoke. The CTA’s offices are located in the same region as Jain’s trips, which is how the organization heard about his efforts.

The purpose of the conference, which ran from June 11-15, was to provide professional enrichment to Tibetan school counselors and give them a platform to meet and exchange experiences with other counselors, especially those utilizing Western approaches in their counseling practices. Jain himself presented a session at the workshop titled “Revisiting [the] American Counseling Association Code of Ethics.”

The Dalai Lama’s talk focused on education of students and how teaching should have the broader goal of emphasizing the individual’s path to spirituality and inner peace and the individual’s role in world peace efforts. Afterward, attendees were given the opportunity to ask the spiritual leader questions.

Jain describes the experience as “mesmerizing.”

“You are in a totally different dimension,” he says. “Being in his presence is like being on autopilot.”

The Tibetan counselors who attended the conference — and who follow mostly Eastern counseling practices — use the gathering to gain a better perspective of Western approaches to counseling and to enhance their professional development. But Jain says the conference provided his fellow American attendees with the opposite experience, showing them the importance of integrating Eastern practices into their counseling approaches.

“Most of the counselors [on the trip] had never interacted with any Eastern philosophies in the past,” he says. “And except for a couple of us, most had never been outside of North America, so this was their first time expanding their horizons and being out of their comfort zones. It was a win-win situation for both groups of counselors.”

Jain believes it is important for counselors to use a combination of Eastern and Western philosophies in their approaches. “Neither one is complete without the other,” he says.

Jain says he regularly combined Eastern and Western approaches when he used to counsel middle school and high school students, as well as when he spent time at community counseling centers as an addictions counselor.

“When I worked with clients with addiction, they [didn’t] really know what to do with their lives,” he says. “They started to make money, but they didn’t know what to do with it. It’s about creating the balance in their lives between the spiritual needs and the materialistic needs.”

He used a similar protocol with the students he counseled, and added in positive psychology methods. “You need to have emotional and spiritual levels of happiness too,” he says.

Attending the conference and meeting the Dalai Lama not only reaffirmed Jain’s desire to continue the trips, but also opened new professional doors for him. Upon returning home to the United States, he co-wrote a proposal with fellow counselor educator Mark Stauffer titled “The Internationalization of Counselor Education in Tibetan School Communities in India” based on his experience. His proposal was recently awarded $10,000 in funding from Walden University’s Faculty Research Initiative Grant (FRIG) Program.

Jain’s study will examine how successfully CTA school and mental health counselors are able to synthesize Western mental health techniques with their current practices, which mainly focus on Eastern and Buddhist philosophies.

“We want to see what’s working and what’s not,” Jain says. “All of these counselors have [a] master’s degree in counseling, but all their experience is mostly limited to Eastern practices.”

He is also looking forward to pursuing his research because he believes it might offer a unique perspective.

“We’ve always interviewed the Western counselors to see how they’ve infused Eastern philosophies into their practices,” Jain says,  “but you never see interviews with Eastern counselors who use Western philosophies in their approaches.”

Jain envisions his research to be the beginning of a long-term, beneficial partnership with counselors living in rural India and the clients they serve.

“What is learned globally and what is practiced here is so different,” Jain says, “ so we hope to help serve their needs of professional development.”

He also hopes his efforts might eventually help to fix the dearth of mental health professionals in that part of India.

“When we talk about rural India,” Jain says, “there are more clients here than counselors [can handle], and there is not enough professional development in these areas to help [make it better]. That is why I am looking forward to continuing my efforts with this.”

For more information on integrating Eastern and Western approaches to counseling, read Counseling Today’s October cover story, “Where East meets West.”

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.

ACA member among first to respond as disaster mental health volunteer after tragedy in Newtown

Heather Rudow January 11, 2013

(Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Tony Colombrito has been a trained American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer for the past two years, but it wasn’t until the Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that he finally deployed. He spent nearly a week with residents of the town and quickly realized the importance of mental health professionals during times of tragedy.

A member of the American Counseling Association, Colombrito works in a private group practice and another group practice in New Haven, Conn., and lives in Hamden, an hour away from Newtown. He was onsite in Newtown within hours of the shooting.

He says all of the American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteers — not just first-time responders like him — needed time to adjust to the severity of the situation. In all, 26 people — six educators and 20 children — were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, making it the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. The shooter also turned the gun on himself.

“This was such a unique situation, even for the experienced clinicians I worked with,” Colombrito says. “Many of them had 10, 20 years of experience working with the Red Cross, but even for them this was a unique experience because of the mass casualties.”

Colombrito and the other early responders were instructed to head to the American Red Cross chapter in Bethel, Conn., where plans were being formulated. From there, they headed to a fire department close to Newtown Elementary School, where Sandy Hook students were evacuated to and reunited with their families.

“When we arrived [at the firehouse],” Colombrito says, “there were several families, and each family who suffered a loss had a state trooper [with them]. My role was to be a clinician. I felt my obligation was to acclimate myself to the community. My role was to work the crowd, so to speak, touch base with the other first responders and the Ladies Auxiliary [who was also there]. Sometimes we had to take a supportive role, whether it was giving them a pat on the back or telling them a joke.”

During the six days he spent with Newtown residents, Colombrito says his top priorities were “getting to know them as neighbors and trying to be sensitive to what they needed and didn’t need.”

 A new role for mental health workers

The families of the victims were not given official death notifications on the day of the shooting. Instead, the following day, 26 teams were created, each composed of a state trooper, a minister and a mental health professional from the American Red Cross. For the first time in American Red Cross history, its mental health volunteers, including Colombrito, were being involved in the notification process.

The teams went door to door to break the news to the families. Connecticut Gov. Dan Molloy did not want families to see pictures of the victims or to view their bodies, so each team was given a packet of information containing a school photo, the name of the child’s teacher (if the victim was a student) and a description what the individual was wearing that day. Also enclosed was information regarding federal support to help the families with funeral arrangements, Colombrito says.

“The idea was to create an indirect confirmation [of the victims]” and to notify all of the families at the same time, he explains.

“You don’t know what you’re going to run into when it comes to notifying families,” Colombrito acknowledges. “All you can do is do your job the best you can and be supportive, assess the situation and be available if the family wants to talk.”

Many of the families already knew the fate of their children by the time the teams arrived, Colombrito says. His team spent roughly 20 minutes with the family assigned to it. “The family was very numb in a sense,” he says. “They were [also] very receptive … and had a sense of appreciation that we were talking with them.”

However, he adds, “A true sense of what they’re going through is beyond our understanding.”

Consoling one another

On Colombrito’s third day in Newtown, one of the lead clinicians asked him and four others to form a team responsible for counseling the families of victims before a memorial service.

The families were cordoned off in different classrooms in the high school where the service was being held. Colombrito was assigned to speak with the families of the adult victims.

“When I was introduced,” he says, “the atmosphere was solemn but peaceful. You got the sense they were grieving. It was not a highly charged emotional situation. It was in line with the shock and numb phase of the grief process.”

The families sat in chairs, which were set up in a circle. Colombrito worked with the families for three hours. “There was a [substantial] amount of time where quality interaction could occur and where a sense of opening [up] could occur,” he says.

Allowing the families to communicate with one another during this time was just as important as having them speak with a licensed professional counselor, Colombrito says.

“These families had been isolated up until this point,” he says. “This brought an opportunity for them to be together and console one another. I saw one family find out they shared relatives with another. This discovery was a very beautiful thing.”

This dynamic between the families remained strong even when President Obama came in to speak with them.

“I think everyone was really impressed,” Colombrito says. “Here we are in a relatively good-sized room, but not a big room, so there was an intimacy with the president. It was very beautiful to see. But as each family watched the other family talk to the others, you could tell their hearts just went out to each other.”

The president spoke with each of the families, doing his best to say the right thing and acting in almost a “fatherly” manner, Colombrito says. But the mood in the room instantly lightened when someone asked the president to take a photo with him.

“[That] became a very important ritual for the families,” Colombrito says.

During the memorial service, Colombrito and the other mental health volunteers stood off to the side, attentively watching for whether the families needed comforting.

At the beginning of the ceremony, a police officer who had been one of the first to arrive on the scene at Sandy Hook started having trouble keeping it together. “I just put my arm on him and tried to be there for him,” Colombrito says.

The police officer wasn’t alone in needing support.

“There were a lot people on our side of the auditorium who just broke down and wailed,” Colombrito says. “Our job was to recognize that they were having a hard time and hand them a box tissues or do whatever [else] we could.”

Providing comfort to the town

Much of Colombrito’s time in Newtown as an American Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer was spent doing whatever he could to provide comfort to the heartbroken residents.

At one point, Colombrito was stationed at a makeshift memorial for the victims located in the center of the town.

“They created a corridor for people to walk up to and honor the victims [so they could] pray or do whatever they wanted to do to express their grief,” he says. “If people needed to talk or express what they were going through, it was my job to [listen] and work the crowd.”

Colombrito had many opportunities to provide crisis counseling to town members. At one point, a woman was taken to the fire station, accompanied by school personnel. The woman worked at the Newtown Elementary School cafeteria, and people were asking her who had survived the shooting at Sandy Hook. The continuous questioning had taken a toll on her.

“After awhile it was just too much,” Colombrito says. “She wisely decided, ‘I’m not going to break down in front of my kids. I’m going to the fire station [to talk to someone].’”

Colombrito spoke with her for roughly 45 minutes about what she had been going through since the tragedy. He found that opening up about the pain she had been experiencing helped her resilience to shine through.

“It allowed her to vent and grieve,” Colombrito says, “and once she went through that, it was like she snapped through that and her strength came out. Her professional role as school personnel came out.”

In another instance, a man who ran a local catering business came to the fire station. He said he was worried about one of his employees.

“It was really difficult for [the man], not knowing who had survived or not,” Colombrito says. The man also wanted the mental health intervention to be performed for his employees at their place of business.

After speaking with the chief of police and Newtown’s first selectman, Colombrito connected the man to a local crisis counseling center. Colombrito could sense, however, that the man still had more he needed to process.

“I turned to him and said, ‘It’s not just your employees who are grieving, it’s you who is grieving. Tell me how you’re feeling.’”

The man admitted he had been experiencing feelings of depression since the shooting and spoke with Colombrito about what he had been going through.

Looking into the future after an atypical disaster 

Spending six consecutive days in Newtown allowed Colombrito to dive headfirst into disaster mental health service and truly understand what it means to be one of the first to respond in the aftermath of a tragedy.

“First responders have to put aside what they’re feeling to deal with the situation,” he says. “It’s about blending in with the situation.”

Colombrito found that going with one’s instinct is a key trait for a disaster mental health volunteer.

“When you’re on the scene, you’ve got to decide what your role is going to be,” he says. “You have to assess the situation, and you can’t have any second thoughts.”

Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, he says many counselors have asked him how to get involved with disaster mental health counseling.

“Many clinicians I know really want to step up and help out with the Red Cross,” Colombrito says. “If something happens like this again, they want to be able to help. [I predict] more clinicians will volunteer in the future.”

He believes the tragic circumstances of what occurred in Newtown brought to light the need for mental health services after national emergencies.

“I think people were drawn to the ages and the circumstances, and the idea of people being ripped away from their families,” says Colombrito. “I don’t think people can imagine a worse type of suffering. This is something we have never experienced as a community and as a nation.”

For more information on becoming a certified disaster mental health volunteer, visit counseling.org/sub/dmh/redcross.aspx

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.

School counselor exercises leadership to spread holiday cheer

Jessica Eagle January 10, 2013

Law_presents[1]For the past seven years as a school counselor at Valdosta High School in Valdosta, Ga., Brian Law has collaborated with the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and coordinated a program to help needy families and children in the district. With the help and input of the school community, Law identifies families in the school district who could benefit from gifts and food during the holiday season. Calling this responsive program VHS Santa’s Elves, Law asks faculty, staff and student organizations to donate food for the family and help wrap presents. The recipients remain anonymous by using a number system for each gift. On the day before Christmas break, Law delivers the food and gifts to DFCS, which then delivers the presents to families ensuring a bright holiday.

This year, after personnel changes at DFCS, the program was not able to continue. However, the caring faculty and staff at Valdosta High requested for Law to look at other avenues for helping local families. Many faculty and staff members felt strongly about doing class projects that instill compassion and character in their students. Law knew of students who had lost their parent and were now being supported by a grandparent. Under Law’s leadership, the school pulled together many gifts for the children, food and gift cards for the caregiver.

For the teachers in grades 10-12, Law was able to coordinate with Lowndes Commission for Children & Youth Family Connection to sponsor a military family whose parent served in the National Guard with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and recently lost a job in the community. With the support of Georgia National Guard Christmas Assistance Program, the participating students, teachers and the support of the school principal, who personally understands the needs of military families, Law collected gifts for the children and food for this special, struggling family.

As the school’s winter break comes to a close, Law reflects on the many positive things that came from this school gift collection. Families received help from the community. Students practiced compassion and examined a greater meaning of the holiday season. In addition, as the school counselor, Law was able to build meaningful relationships with struggling families while talking to the parents and student guardians and delivering the gifts.  He felt the economic barriers breaking down and the families feeling a little more connected to the school community.

Law did all the communicating and coordinating with the receiving families, as well as the shopping and wrapping, outside of school hours. Law even finds the time, year after year, to collect data for this effort allowing him to track the perceptions of student and faculty who participate.  Although they have a few months to tackle next year’s holiday effort, Law and Santa’s Elves are already looking forward to spreading the holiday cheer in a meaningful way once again.

Resolution of EMU case confirms ACA Code of Ethics, counseling profession’s stance against client discrimination

By Heather Rudow January 9, 2013

(Photo:Flickr/krossbow)

(Photo:Flickr/krossbow)

In December, after years of litigation, the court case Julea Ward v. Board of Regents of Eastern Michigan University was resolved. The resolution upheld the university counseling program’s policies and confirmed the ACA Code of Ethics as the guide for defining ethical behavior for professional counselors. The case also reiterated that equal rights and social justice remain key pillars of the counseling profession.

“The resolution of the lawsuit leaves the university’s policies, programs and curricular requirements intact,” said Walter Kraft, vice president for communications at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), in a press release. “The faculty retains its right to establish, in its learned judgment, the curriculum and program requirements for the counseling program at Eastern Michigan University. EMU has made the decision that it is in the best interest of its students and the taxpayers of the state of Michigan to resolve the litigation rather than continue to spend money on a costly trial. The matter has been resolved in the amount of $75,000. The university’s insurance company, M.U.S.I.C. (Michigan Universities Self-Insurance Corporation), will pay the cost of the settlement.”

The case began in 2009, when then-student Ward began her practicum at EMU. Upon reading the file of a client to which she was assigned and finding he had previously been counseled about his same-sex relationship, Ward, a conservative Christian, notified her supervisor that, in accordance with her religious beliefs, she would not be able to counsel the client and needed to refer him to someone else.

Ward’s supervisor canceled the counseling session and scheduled an informal review, during which EMU faculty members explained to Ward that she needed to abide by the university counseling program’s policies and curricular requirements, which adhere to the ACA Code of Ethics. The ACA Code of Ethics states that “counselors may not discriminate against clients on the basis of age, culture, disability, ethnicity, race, religion/spirituality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status/partnership, language preference, socioeconomic status or any basis proscribed by law.” This meant Ward was required to set aside her personal beliefs and values when working with clients during practicum.

Given the choice of completing a remediation program, leaving the EMU counseling program or requesting a formal hearing, Ward chose the hearing. As a result of the formal hearing, she was dismissed from the program for violating the ACA Code of Ethics.

Ward sued EMU for her dismissal with the backing of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) — formerly the Alliance Defense Fund — an organization of Christian lawyers that also assisted in another counseling student’s case at Augusta State University that revolved around counseling clients who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

According to the EMU press release, “The ADF lawsuit sought to stop [EMU] from enforcing its policies prohibiting discrimination and requiring the students in its counseling program to counsel students in conformance with the code of ethics of the American Counseling Association.”

ACA provided expert testimony for the case, which the judge quoted when granting the summary judgment in the decision.

On July 27, 2010, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted summary judgment in favor of EMU, which Ward appealed. She made her oral arguments on Oct. 4, 2011, and on Jan. 27, 2012, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to district court for a jury trial. ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan spent a morning being deposed for the scheduled trial.

In December, Ward officially left the program.

“Personally and as a department, we are pleased that the lawsuit is settled,” says Perry Francis, counseling professor and counseling clinic coordinator at EMU. “It has taken a great deal of time and energy to defend ourselves, and now we can continue to focus on educating our students to become excellent clinicians in the mental health profession.”

Francis believes implications from the court case are clear, showing that counseling is “best accomplished by entering into the world of the client, valuing that client as a worthwhile individual who deserves [our] nonjudgmental care and concern. That has been what we teach to our students; it drives our policies and is a reflection of the professional values and ethics of the counseling profession. To accomplish this, we teach our students how first to become aware of their own values and issues, how to bracket off those values and issues that would interfere with client care and then to enter into the client’s world to help him or her develop into the best person he or she can be.”

Kaplan echoed those sentiments. “ACA is pleased that the settlement leaves intact the district court ruling that fully supported Eastern Michigan University’s gatekeeping function in dismissing a student who refused to counsel an [LGBT] client, the right for CACREP to require adherence to the ACA Code of Ethics and the nondiscrimination statement within the ACA Code of Ethics,” Kaplan says.

Pete Finnerty, president of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, a division of ACA, says the case was especially relevant for LGBT individuals, who are often marginalized and discriminated against.

“Eastern Michigan stood strong for nondiscrimination and should be applauded for doing so,” Finnerty says. “When Julea Ward refused to counsel a gay man, she was discriminating against an individual for religious reasons. This not only shows a refusal to move past her own values but also creates an environment where it is impossible for all persons to have equitable treatment under policies long in effect at university and community levels.”

Because of the lawsuit, EMU has also come under fire from Michigan legislators, Finnerty adds.

“Two bills within the last few years, including the recently shelved SB 975 …  sought to make it illegal for Eastern Michigan and all other educational institutions in the state to enforce its nondiscrimination policies by allowing medical and mental health professionals to refuse service based upon ‘conscience,’” he says. “This bill nearly made it to the governor’s desk but was not voted on in the House before the end of the legislative session. There was specific language in this bill that targeted educational institutions [that] utilize a nondiscrimination policy. The language noted penalties and fines for enforcing nondiscrimination clauses.”

Finnerty notes the likelihood exists that similar legislation could still come about, however, because other freedom of conscience bills were passed into law in states such as Arizona.

In 2011, Arizona passed HB 2565, which prohibits schools from disciplining a student in a counseling, social work or psychology program if the student refuses to counsel a client about goals that conflict with the student’s “sincerely held religious belief.” In 2012, the state passed SB 1365, prohibiting the denial, suspension or revocation of a person’s counseling license or certification for “declining to provide any service that violates the person’s sincerely held religious beliefs, expressing sincerely held religious beliefs in any context, as long as services provided otherwise meet the current standard of care or practice for the profession, providing faith-based services that otherwise meet the current standard of care or practice for the profession, making business-related decisions in accordance with sincerely held religious beliefs, including employment decisions, client selection decisions and financial decisions.”

In Michigan, SR 66, a resolution to enact legislation protecting the rights of conscience of students seeking counseling degrees and licensed professional counselors, calls out ACA directly: “Whereas, the American Counseling Association, a private organization that promulgates a code of ethics widely used by university counseling programs and state licensure boards in training for and regulating the counseling profession, has publicly supported universities that have punished or dismissed students for adhering to their sincere religious convictions.”

However, says Finnerty, “The conclusion to [Julea Ward v. Board of Regents of Eastern Michigan University] is a win for the LGBTQQIA community, as those who serve this population were activated to defeat the legislation and not allow anti-gay groups to press their agenda upon the counseling profession that holds equitable and fair treatment as paramount to counseling. LGBTQQIA clients can be sure that counselors will continue to be trained through a multicultural lens where nondiscrimination and personal growth, not a counselor’s personal values, is pertinent to the counseling relationship. For counselors and educators, this shows that believing in a world that values nondiscrimination and diversity is still very much a plausible reality and must be continually strived for.”

Says Francis, “We as a profession must continue to teach these professional values to our students so they can have a positive impact not only on our clients’ lives but on the society as a whole.”

To learn more about the case, visit emich.edu/aca_case

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Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.

Counseling interns team up to start networking group

Heather Rudow January 7, 2013

Virginia Gonzalez from the San Antonio Counselor Networking Group.

The months immediately after graduation can be a time of transition for counseling students, as they look to carve out a professional identity and find a counseling niche in their communities. With firsthand experience of this time of adjustment, a group of recent grads working as counseling interns in San Antonio, Texas, chose to take matters into their own hands by forming a networking group to cultivate and foster relationships for counselors in the area.

Tiffany Frias, a member of the American Counseling Association and co-founder of the San Antonio Counselor Networking Group, says the organization started out collaboratively, in true networking fashion.

Frias and fellow co-founders Virginia Gonzalez and Tracy Cooper, also members of ACA, were discussing over lunch the difficulties they were having cultivating a client base and other struggles they encountered since obtaining their LPC-Intern licenses.

“We all kind of felt after we graduated [that] we were thrown out into the world and not really supported,” Frias says.

Cooper, a counseling intern who completed her master’s in December 2011 agrees. “As recent graduates, we were perplexed,” she says. “Why are we as counselors willing to help others, but not each other? Through further conversation, we realized quickly the importance in building professional relationships with our colleagues in order to obtain referrals, resources and any other helpful information.”

Cooper has found mixed support for new counseling graduates looking for leads in the professional world.

“I felt I had support from colleagues when working with clients, but not a lot of support to meet up or network,” she says. “I learned quickly that to some colleagues, networking means competition; therefore, the concept [of meeting or networking] in order to obtain support and referrals was undesirable. “

Within weeks of their lunch meeting discussion, the women had taken action and started the Facebook page for the San Antonio Counselor Networking Group.

The group held its first event in September and had nine colleagues in attendance. Since then, the group has grown to nearly 200 members. In addition, Frias has been informed that a networking group in Killeen, Texas, is starting up based on the San Antonio Counselor Networking Group.

“It has taken on a life of its own,” she says.

Though the group is becoming popular among local mental health professionals — it is open to more than just counselors — Frias, Gonzalez and Cooper make sure to cap off each networking event at 10 and 12 members.

“We want it to be easy to speak up while you’re there and ask for what you need,” Frias explains.

The focus of each event centers around topics pertinent to counselors new to the profession and ways to enhance their practice, such as apps or other technology that can be used in one’s counseling practice. The women typically invite a keynote speaker about a third of the time.

Gonzalez says her favorite event so far was one the group facilitated in December on topic of LGBTQ development across the lifespan, led by ACA member Rebecca Munsey.

“I highly enjoyed the topic and learning from a professional with experience and knowledge on this specific topic,” she says. “In addition, I also enjoyed seeing other counseling professionals interested in learning about our LBGTQ community and how we as counselors can better support them.”

Cooper’s favorite event so far was the group’s first.

“The theme for this particular group event was go-to books and resources for clients,” she recalls. “All attendees were encouraged to come prepared to share, and therefore everyone had book recommendations to offer. The event ended with time to exchange business cards and build referral relationships. I obtained new resources, book recommendations and made new connections. I left our event encouraged and motivated to continue our group and prepare for our next event.”

Cooper says she believes that what makes the San Antonio Counselor Networking Group stand out is its accessibility.

“We are accessible via Facebook, email, blog and in-person at our events,” she says. “This allows for continual contact in meeting colleagues for support and referrals.”

In addition, Gonzalez says, “We learn along with our members of the group and highly encourage others to ask questions and participate in the discussion, whether online, on Facebook or at our networking events. I believe our group allows members to easily access a variety of therapists with a range of different knowledge and experiences in our field to seek guidance. Our members can contact us, along with others, through Facebook, our blog and in person at our networking events.”

Though she is a cofounder, Cooper says she has still gained from being a part of the San Antonio Counselor Networking Group.

“Our group has helped me professionally by creating more exposure for me as my name and work has been shared more on the Internet,” she says. “It has [also] challenged me to get out and meet new colleagues as well as improve my writing skills due to frequent blog post writing. This was particularly difficult for me, as I am a shy person and at times self-critical of my writing.”

Gonzalez, too, has seen positive changes in herself as well as her professional persona since the group’s founding.

“This group has helped me build on my self-esteem and encouraged me to meet other professionals,” she says. “I believe I am rather shy, so this helps me come out of my comfort zone both professionally and personally. The group has also helped me by providing support from two friends, and colleagues, as we three are entering new stages in our personal life while completing our licensure hours.”

For more information, visit sacounselorsnetworking.wordpress.com.

  Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.