Tag Archives: Counselor Educators Audience

Counselor Educators Audience

Q & A with a counselor: David Christian

Heather Rudow August 30, 2012

David Christian is a high school counselor in the Denton Independent School District in Texas who opts to go outside the box – literally – to better connect with his students.

Christian, who is a doctoral candidate in the counseling program at the University of North Texas (UNT) and a member of the American Counseling Association, the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES) and the Texas Counseling Association, uses a method called adventure-based counseling, which uses physical activities to get to emotional roots.

Christian explains how spending his childhood summers roughing it Colorado helped spark his interest in adventure-based counseling and why he thinks the intervention would be useful for other school counselors.

To learn about other active interventions, read Counseling Today’s December 2011 cover story, Getting off the couch.

Describe how you first got involved in adventure-based counseling?

Although I am from Texas, growing up, I spent the summers camping in Colorado with my father and grandfather. Our days consisted of hiking, fishing and chatting. Looking back, I realize that our best conversations happened while we were doing something (i.e., fishing, hiking, canoeing). Sitting around the campfire at night also gave me a great opportunity to hear of family traditions and seek advice from those I looked up to. There was something about being outside in nature; it probably had a lot to do with not being distracted by electronics that seemed to foster reflection and conversation. As I grew older, I became active in rock climbing and all types of other outdoor activities. While completing my undergraduate degree in psychology, I became interested in how to improve father/son relationships. Based on my experiences, I wanted to incorporate outdoor experiences into helping others. It was not until I was working on my master’s degree in counseling that I heard about adventure-based counseling (ABC). No one in my program at the time was into it, but I happened to stumble upon a book called Exploring the Islands of Healing. As I read it, I knew that this was what I wanted to do and was excited that others were also interested. I was teaching high school at the time, so I began to incorporate activities into my teaching. I also started leading ABC groups after school as part of my internship. Since then, I have had the honor of collaborating with some pretty awesome people — mainly, Nate Folan of Project Adventure and Torey Protrie-Bethke of Antioch University in New Hampshire. They have been amazing in helping me improve my understanding and practice of ABC. Carolyn Kern (of UNT) and I have been working to incorporate resiliency into ABC.

What kind of an effect have you seen adventure-based counseling have on your students?

One of the main benefits I have seen from ABC is trust. As the students complete activities together, they begin to realize that they can trust each member to help the group be successful. This quickly translates to trust in other areas. The kinesthetic activity also helps students let their guard down and talk about what’s going on in their lives. I have noticed a big impact with my male participants. I’ve run groups where boys from all walks of life are sharing what they are going through, quickly realizing that they are not alone in their struggles. One of the greatest experiences I had was during a group when one of the guys stated that he didn’t have any money for lunch. None of the other members had his same lunchtime, but one offered to miss the first part of his class to run to the café and buy him lunch. These were two guys who hadn’t even met a few weeks before but were now going out of their way to help each other out. Another way I have seen ABC affect students is by helping them better understand who they are and what they have to offer society. When doing an activity toward the beginning of the groups, the “big and strong” guys are usually singled out to do the heavy lifting. We always process this and talk about why the others don’t step in and do their part. We process how everyone has a talent or gift and that by not offering it to the group, everyone missed out on it. One time, I had a group where we were doing an activity that one of the girls did not want to participate in. She decided to sit on the table and watch. Before long she was cheering on the team, offering up suggestions for success and at one point performed 25 pushups in order to help the group move forward. This same student would lead the group in funny songs during the activities and emerged as quite the humorous leader.

Describe a typical session with your students:

I always structure my sessions with a warm-up, an activity and a time for processing. The warm-up typically consists of a fun, “get to know you” activity. The main activities are sequenced to promote deeper psychological disclosure as the group progresses and trust is formed. The processing time is extremely important and is what separates ABC from [physical education classes]. I follow a modified version of David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. First we do the activity. Next we discuss what we just did. These are just the observations everyone made. Then we talk about the so what of the activity. Why did we do that? How does it relate to what they are going through? During this time the members might come up with some metaphors for the activity. Finally we discuss the now what. During this time we talk about how they might transfer their new insights and understandings to their everyday life.

What kinds of positive results have you seen through your work?

I love seeing kids gain new insight into who they are and how their behavior is affecting their interactions with others. It’s really awesome to hear the students use the metaphors they are learning in their everyday lives. Some of the key results I have seen are new friendships and support systems in the school, improved decision making, greater self-efficacy and increased trust.

Are there any misconceptions about adventure-based counseling?

Yes! The main one is that ABC has to be done at a ropes-course or in the wilderness. Although ropes courses are a great tool, you can do ABC anywhere. I regularly lead groups inside a school classroom. I prefer to be outside and do so whenever possible, but often times I find myself confined within four walls. Another misconception is that ABC is only for young people. I have led groups with middle school students all the way up to people with 20+ years of experience in school counseling. I have led them in group homes, high schools, universities and professional development settings. I always say that the group members will have as much fun as the facilitator has, regardless of age. In one group I was leading, I had a teenage boy who was living in a residential facility. He had clearly lived a rough life and had a pretty tough exterior. I was nervous he would not participate and [would] think what we were doing was silly. However, he jumped right in and was acting silly and having fun like the rest of us. I was later reminded of how hard his life had been when I offered him a blue bandana for an activity and he exploded in a fit of anger for my even expecting him to wear such a color: a mark of a rival street gang.

What kinds of counselors do you recommend taking advantage of adventure-based counseling?

School counselors can use ABC to facilitate discussion, especially with males. Males typically struggle with emotional communication, so it is helpful if [they] can act out their feelings and then discuss what everyone experienced. I was recently working with a director of guidance to add some ABC activities to a professional development to facilitate better understanding of the concepts. Although best done in groups, I have also adapted ABC to individual and paired counseling. I think if you are a counselor, and you like having fun, you should find a way to learn more about ABC and think about implementing it in parts of your practice.

Are there techniques used in adventure-based counseling that all counselors can use with their clients?

Absolutely. There are books with fun activities that can be adapted to fit any setting. However, I think it is important to seek out workshops and learning experiences related to ABC. Further, it is important to remain within one’s scope of competence. After all, we are responsible for our clients’/students’ physical and emotional safety.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

ABC is a wonderful way to have fun and promote growth and change in our students/clients. By using ABC, counselors are able to create a fun environment that feels more like P.E. than therapy. This allows students, especially males, to let their guard down and engage in the process. After all, what kid doesn’t like to have fun?

Looking for more information? Christian says Project Adventure has many resources and is a good place to start.

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

ACA weighs in on anti-bullying efforts at Bullying Prevention Summit

Heather Rudow August 14, 2012

Katie O’Malley speaking at the 2012 Bully Prevention Summit. (Photo: Flickr/ MDGovpics)

The U.S. Department of Education held its third annual Bullying Prevention Summit Aug. 6-7 in Washington, D.C. The American Counseling Association was among the education and advocacy organizations invited not only to learn more about bullying and the government’s anti-bullying efforts, but also to share their thoughts on the programs.

ACA, along with organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the School Social Work Association of America and the National Association of School Psychologists, listened to keynotes from actress Marlo Thomas, famous for her role on the 1960s TV show That Girl, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.); Katie O’Malley, wife of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-Md.); Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to President Obama for education; and Cynthia Germanotta, mother of musician Lady Gaga, also gave presentations.

David Kaplan, ACA’s chief professional officer, attended the summit on the association’s behalf. He recounts how a controversial statement during Thomas’ keynote shocked the crowd but also made many of the attendees realize they were on the same page regarding the protocol to follow when dealing with bullies.

“During Marlo Thomas’ opening keynote, she stated that in her opinion, anyone caught bullying in elementary, middle or high school should be expelled,” Kaplan says. “Everyone gasped, because in the mental health field, that is not our approach. We don’t want to demonize bullies, and we don’t want to put them out on the street because they’ll bully out there.”

Kaplan says that in his closing keynote, Duncan subtly referenced Thomas’ controversial statements and rebuked them, adding that the Obama administration wants to avoid zero-tolerance practice polices that would expel bullies from schools.

“What was useful about the summit was that it presented to the major constituents the current research and initiatives the federal government is planning to fight bullying for the upcoming year,” says Kaplan. “It also provided feedback from the constituents on the programs the federal government is planning on implementing.”

Kaplan says ACA and other participating organizations recommended that the government “stop siloing bully prevention programs.” Current protocol focuses on specific groups that are targeted by bullying, such as children with special needs, Muslim children or LGBTQ children, he explains. “But what research is indicating is that bullies tend to bully across areas,” Kaplan says. “We need to see bullying as a comprehensive concept and to all work together.”

Additionally, participating organizations recommended that the overall tone of bullying campaigns should change, Kaplan says. “Instead of focusing on the negative, [with messages such as] ‘Stop bullying,’ we need to create a culture of respect,” he says. “Focusing on creating a culture of respect takes a much more holistic approach to bullying. It’s something that each member of a school system can work on, from the superintendent to the principals to the teachers to the school counselors to the students. It teaches respect for individual differences and valuing human dignity. A student who learns to appreciate individual differences and the dignity of their fellow students will not bully.”

For more information, visit the Department of Education’s blog, stopbullying.gov, or read Sheri Bauman’s Cyberbullying: What Counselors Need to Know, a 2011 book published by the American Counseling Association, as well as the June 2011 Counseling Today article “Bullies with byte.”

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

Man of action

Heather Rudow August 1, 2012

Bradley T. Erford has never considered himself a leader, at least not in the traditional sense. This despite becoming the 61st president of the American Counseling Association on July 1 and previously having held almost every other leadership position the association has to offer.

“Rather, I am a doer,” says Erford, a professor in the school counseling program at Loyola University Maryland’s School of Education. “I have always strived to accomplish important things that moved the profession forward. Being involved in multiple levels of volunteer leadership over the last 15 years has given me a vantage point of where we are and where we need to go. My leadership experiences have been immensely rewarding and have provided me with an understanding of layered, rich contexts which should be considered in developing and implementing initiatives that will move our profession forward.”

Erford views himself as a servant of the counseling profession and says he is devoted to always being a strong advocate for licensed professional counselors. “For me, the honor and privilege of serving as ACA president will be providing an additional opportunity to strengthen the profession to which I have dedicated my career,” he says. “I have held leadership roles at virtually every level of the association [see box, p. 47] and want to continue to make a difference in the lives of all professional counselors, counselors-in-training and the consumers we serve.”

Hailing from Shrewsbury, Pa., where he lives with his wife of 24 years, Judy, and their two kids Breann, 22, and Matthew, 20, when they’re home from college, Erford remembers tendencies toward becoming a counselor — and actually putting those desires in action — as far back as grade school. “I can recall a predisposition toward being a helper when I tutored — and, upon reflection, encouraged and counseled — fellow students who were struggling and frustrated,” he says.

In 1986, Erford received his master’s in school psychology from Bucknell University and also fulfilled all of his school counseling degree requirements. He became a licensed professional counselor in Virginia and maintained a private practice from 1989–1993, while simultaneously working at a public school in Chesterfield County in what he calls “a hybrid psychologist-school counselor position, made possible through Virginia’s elementary school counseling mandate.”

In terms of fully developing his identity as a counselor, Erford says he was influenced more by the role models he encountered while working toward his doctorate in counselor education at the University of Virginia than by any defined experiences. He cites these role models as the reason he decided to become a counselor educator himself.

“I am unabashedly proud to be a professional counselor,” says Erford, “and my college professors were instrumental in my development. I admired their mission, helpfulness and lifestyle. But I also wanted to be a teacher and researcher, so while I was working in the schools and doing a bit of private practice, I finished my doctorate in counselor education. My seven years of practitioner and graduate student experiences at the University of Virginia (UVA) made me realize that I could make an even greater contribution as a counselor educator, a role that would allow me to train future generations of counselors and also contribute as a researcher to our burgeoning literature base.”

Inspiring confidence in others

While attending UVA from 1988–1993, Erford had the good fortune of having Spencer “Skip” Niles assigned to him as his doctoral adviser. Niles became — and remains — Erford’s mentor. “He has made all the difference in my career,” Erford says, “and is why I often say, ‘Mentors matter.’”

Niles, now a distinguished professor and head of the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education at Penn State, University Park, recognized Erford’s ability to multitask early on and says it remains one of his most impressive skills. “As a doctoral student, Brad was hardworking and conscientious,” recalls Niles, editor of ACA’s Journal of Counseling & Development. “He juggled being a student, a full-time worker, a partner and a father with his customary aplomb.”

Niles believes the passion and drive that Erford has consistently demonstrated as a counselor educator will shine through during his term as ACA president. “As a professor, [he] is dedicated to elevating the field of professional counseling through his teaching and mentoring of students, his scholarship and his leadership,” Niles says. “I have long been aware of his seemingly endless energy. He has an enthusiasm for his work that is inspiring. Most importantly, he truly cares about others. He will be an effective and visionary leader for ACA. I look forward to his presidency and the good things that will happen as a result of it.”

Lynn Linde, a past president of ACA and now the association’s treasurer, also cites Erford’s strong work ethic as a quality that will help him succeed in his new position. “He will be a good president because he wants to be. This is important to him,” Linde says. “He is tireless. He is like the Energizer Bunny and will give ACA his time and attention.”

Linde met Erford more than 18 years ago when she began working alongside him in the school counseling program at Loyola University Maryland. She has had a number of opportunities to work with him on ACA committees since then and says his combination of leadership experience and love of the profession will make him a great president who implements real, lasting change.

“Brad is passionate about the profession and the association,” she says. “His focus is on moving the profession and the association forward. I have seen over the years that presidents who have a personal cause on which they focus during their year tend not to be as successful as those presidents who are more global in their thinking. Second, he has a big picture of counseling. He sees how all the pieces fit together. He sees counseling as being very global and understands the importance of working with our international colleagues. Third, he has been involved in the association for a number of years and understands how ACA and its partners and other counseling groups work together. That information decreases the learning curve for a president.”

Sam Gladding, a past president of ACA and numerous ACA divisions, joins the choir in singing the praises of Erford’s personality traits and work experiences and predicts they will make him a strong leader for ACA. “One of the wonderful qualities Brad has is his ability to articulate his vision and his ability to work with others and help them work with each other,” Gladding says. “He has been a vital part of the 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling initiative and has given to ACA through his tireless effort and endless energy. … As ACA president, Brad will help to make the association and those of us in it better yet.”

Gladding has known Erford for more than two decades and says he has always been confident that Erford would make a good ACA leader. “I remember getting to know Brad well when I did a workshop at his university and had some free time to visit with him in his office,” Gladding recalls. “I was impressed with how organized Brad was and how he seemed to have a plan for his professional life. I left Maryland that day thinking, ‘This man would make a good president of ACA.’

“Brad is as competent as the day is long. He knows counseling as a profession and knows those of us who are counseling professionals. His identity is clear, and he has a heart for what we do as counselors and how. Brad is focused on building the profession and working with graduate students and young professionals, while living in the present with those of us who are experienced as counselors.”

All work and no play? No way

Erford says his work ethic has always been strong, even as a child. “From about 11 years of age, I have always had a job of some sort, and I learned early on that conscientiousness and hard work literally pay off,” he says. “I have always been very organized, task oriented and driven.”

It’s evident to anyone who knows him that Erford loves to stay busy in his professional life, but he is equally active when it comes to his personal hobbies. “I love the outdoors,” he says, “whether it is spending time in our backyard, walking our golden retriever on nearby trails or hiking in this nation’s glorious state and national parks.”

Erford also loves to write, and much of his free time is spent writing and editing various projects. “I have been blessed with a number of book projects that have or will shortly go into second or subsequent editions,” he says. “Along with journal articles and other scholarly projects” — and dozens of student and counselor educator mentees — “these keep me quite busy. I am further blessed to have always considered writing to be fun rather than work.” Among his diverse projects, Erford served as the general editor of The ACA Encyclopedia of Counseling, a reference work published in 2009 that contains more than 400 entries and nearly 700 pages.

Despite his busy schedule, spending time with his wife, son and daughter remains a top priority — and a prominent source of stress relief — for Erford. “Family has always been a central anchor in my life,” he says. “We enjoy traveling, especially international travel, and have enjoyed meeting colleagues from diverse cultures around the world. My wife and I are engaged, from a distance, in our children’s progress, as both are at universities studying in the mental health area and eventually want to become college professors.”

Big-picture view

The upcoming year promises to require even more hard work and multitasking on Erford’s part. Among the goals and initiatives he looks forward to pursuing during his presidency:

  • Supporting employment and economic issues that will positively affect counselors’ abilities to practice and receive compensation
  • Promoting the professional identity of counselors
  • Enhancing services to graduate students and developing initiatives to support “new professional” members
  • Promoting the internationalization of counseling

As for attracting new members to join ACA and enhancing the overall membership experience, Erford says this remains an ongoing mission for the organization. “Every professional leader and staff member is 100 percent committed to this goal,” he says. “Last year’s [almost] 10 percent increase in membership is a testament to what can happen when we focus on members and provide outstanding membership services. With [ACA Executive Director] Rich Yep at the helm, the leadership and staff at ACA headquarters are thriving, and we will continue to support their efforts with ample resources and encouragement.”

Technology will increasingly play a vital role, both in enhancing ACA members’ experiences and making those experiences more environmentally friendly, Erford says. “Over the next few years, members will see that we are becoming more technologically savvy,” he says. “The website will be upgraded with a new look and with more sophisticated search capabilities. Journals and other services will go fully electronic — an approach that is ‘greener’ and that will allow members to instantaneously search back issues free of charge.”

ACA members can also look forward to international organizations playing a more important role in the upcoming year. “Counseling has gone global, and we need to reach out to potential international members to provide electronic memberships that are sensitive to diverse economic and cultural needs,” Erford says. “Members will see an increase in collaboration with international counseling organizations. For example, we are working to co-host counseling research conferences with partner organizations around the world. We are hopeful that as counseling expands globally, ACA can help support our members and colleagues in other countries to develop systems, processes and practices that promote human dignity, social justice and effective counseling. During the past year, I have spoken with counselors from at least 40 different countries. Counseling is emerging around the world, and counselors from these diverse cultures and nations want to benefit from ACA’s experiences and expertise.”

Additionally, Erford says he is planning to continue with all of ACA Immediate Past President Don W. Locke’s initiatives from the past year. “We are a team at ACA,” Erford says, “and as Don commented in his final column [in the June issue of Counseling Today], this leadership transition simply reflects the passing of the baton so ACA can keep running at full speed. All of the initiatives from the past several years came from the strategic plan we constructed as a Governing Council during 2009–2010 when Lynn Linde was president. Since then, we have never discussed ‘Marcheta’s year’ or ‘Don’s year,’ and we certainly will not be discussing ‘Brad’s year.’ We are moving full steam ahead to address the issues that are of importance to our members and the profession. Staff and leadership will continue to be focused on member services and professional issues.”

But he also emphasizes that he doesn’t want the fate of these initiatives to rest solely on the shoulders of the ACA staff. “The ACA staff works incredibly hard, and they have their hands full with continuing initiatives,” Erford says, “so we are asking all of our professional and student members to get involved and to volunteer their time and expertise to accomplish these initiatives and keep our profession moving forward.”

Challenges, opportunities and ‘planned happenstance’

Erford also is aware that challenges, both of the anticipated and the unforeseen variety, will crop up over the course of the year. “All I know is that some previously unknown issues will catch fire and consume time and resources. That said, we remain gravely concerned over the state of the U.S. economy and, as a result, the decreased number of new jobs for counselors and lagging pay increases. The ACA staff continues to work tirelessly to connect members to job opportunities and to meet members’ job search-related needs through our Career Center. Our legislative advocacy staff members continue to work with Congress and the Obama administration to fund counseling initiatives and raise the prestige level of the counseling profession so that we are in a strong position to make substantial employment and compensation gains. An additional challenge continues to be for various counseling organizations to work together on common goals — and to better understand that when we all row in the same direction at the same pace, we all make the greatest progress.”

Erford is excited about ACA’s future and is especially looking forward to the ACA 2013 Conference & Expo in Cincinnati (March 20–24). “We are expecting a great conference next year,” he says. “It’s guaranteed to be one of the most affordable ACA conferences of all time. … The actress and mental health advocate Ashley Judd will be one of our keynote speakers, and we have an incredible array of more than 300 presentations and Learning Institutes. It is also a closely guarded secret that Cincinnati is a fascinating, diverse city.”

Coincidentally, Erford also has a personal connection to the host state of the 2013 conference. “I was born in Ohio, and my family moved away when I was about 10 years old. Almost all of my extended family still lives in Ohio, as well as some of my closest colleagues. So, in a way, the Cincinnati conference is a fitting homecoming.”

Although the question of what the next year has in store cannot yet be answered in full, Erford is thrilled to be spending it as ACA president, working for an organization he loves and advocating for a profession he cares about deeply. He often talks with colleagues about John Krumboltz’s concept of “planned happenstance.” Erford says he believes he has made it to where he is today because of the opportunities presented to him along the way.

“I don’t think there is anything mystical or magical about my approach,” Erford says. “I am systematic and planful, so I am able to look at long-term, multifaceted and complex projects and just sort of make sense out of how to approach them, plan the best path forward and bring them to a successful completion. And I learned long ago to keep busy working on multiple tasks so I always have a number of projects going simultaneously that are interesting.”

However, he says, it is his energy and enthusiasm for the counseling profession that will serve as both a driving and guiding force and push him to make the most of his year as ACA president.

“As a counselor educator and counseling researcher, I love what I do, and I think it shows,” Erford says. “Time is the only variable that really matters in the world, the only thing you really can’t control. All you can do is orient yourself with respect to time and choose to spend the time and energy you have on the things that really matter, the things that bring you alive.”

A record of leadership

A partial listing of other leadership roles Bradley T. Erford held prior to becoming ACA’s 61st president:

  • Past president and treasurer of the Association for Assessment in Counseling and Education
  • Past president of the Maryland branch of ACA and three state branch divisions
  • ACA Governing Council representative
  • Chair of the ACA Southern Region
  • Chair of the ACA Task Force on High-Stakes Testing
  • Chair of the ACA Interprofessional Committee
  • Chair of the ACA Bylaws Committee
  • Co-chair of the ACA Task Force on Test User Qualifications
  • Co-chair of the ACA Public Awareness and Support Committee

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Are counseling degrees approaching an economic tipping point?

John McCarthy July 1, 2012

Imagine this scenario: A college senior enters the office of a counselor educator.

“You see, it was suggested that I come to see you,” the student starts. “I’ll be graduating in May, and I’m thinking about graduate school. I guess I’ve always been interested in counseling at a mental health facility, and I’ve done well in my undergraduate major. I’m pulling a 3.8 GPA, have done some presentations with my adviser at a couple of conferences and will have an article published with another professor. Well, I know that you teach in the counseling department here, and, um, do you think it might be a good decision to apply to the clinical mental health counseling program?”

The counselor educator looks away and ponders intently before responding. “Let me ask you three questions. First, are you prepared to be in a master’s degree program for two and a half or three years?”

“I think so,” the student replies.

“Second, unless someone is covering your tuition, are you ready to have to pay … oh, say $20,000 or more in tuition in order to get this master’s degree?”

“Hmm, that sounds like a lot of money,” the student says hesitantly.

“I understand,” the professor acknowledges. “And now to question No. 3. Your starting job, if you find one right after you graduate about three years from now, could be in the vicinity of $35,000. Is that OK with you?”

Now it is the student’s turn to look away, think intently and pause momentarily.

“Professor, thank you for your time today. I think I’ll go in a different direction. This counseling idea isn’t going to happen for me.”

End of conversation.

What is the economic tipping point related to the decision to pursue a degree in clinical mental health counseling? According to the 2009 CACREP Standards, “As of July 1, 2013, all applicant programs in Clinical Mental Health Counseling must require a minimum of 60 semester credit hours or 90 quarter credit hours for all students.” Under the same standards, a program accredited as “community counseling” and undergoing a name change to “clinical mental health counseling” is required to be 60 credits in duration by the time it applies for reaccreditation.

The point of this article is not to dispute the CACREP Standards, nor is it to dismiss the personal gratification received while engaged in a career as a clinical mental health counselor. Rather, it is to take a quick look at the costs of entering — and perhaps remaining in — the counseling profession and to raise questions about how much longer these costs will remain sustainable if the profession wants to keep attracting new counselors-in-training.

First, let’s begin by acknowledging that the college debt load for an undergraduate education is escalating. According to a recent New York Times article, student loans amount to more than $1 trillion, with 94 percent of students borrowing money to pay for their undergraduate education. The average amount of debt carried by students was $23,300 in 2011. Incurring such debt prior to even completing an application for a graduate program in counseling is significant.

Second, if pursuing a 60-credit clinical mental health counseling degree at a full-time, year-round pace (nine credits per semester), students would invest nearly eight semesters, including summers, to earn their degree in three years. For part-time students (six credits per semester) trying to juggle their studies with employment or other obligations, it could take as long as five years (without summer enrollment) to gain the master’s degree.

Third, the cost of graduate school tuition over these three to five years is significant, particularly when added to the possible student debt accumulated during undergraduate studies. Although tuition fees vary among institutions, the average price tag for a master’s degree in education is noteworthy. According to Mark Kantrowitz of FinAid.org, students earning a master’s degree in education have loans amounting to an average of $26,487 from their graduate education alone. Although financial aid, assistantships and scholarships may lighten this amount, the financial burden is still clearly considerable.

Finally, the paycheck earned after gaining a master’s degree is a critical ingredient. According to O*Net OnLine, the median annual income for “mental health counselors” in 2011 was $39,190. The Occupational Outlook Handbook offered a comparable median annual income of $38,150 for 2010. To place these figures in perspective, a U.S. Census Bureau report issued in September 2011 found that the median non-family income in 2010 was $29,730. This means many counselors may earn only about one-third more than the national non-family median.

Regardless, the trend is troubling. With graduate school tuition rising and programs lengthening for some students in this specialty, one can only wonder if the annual income of clinical mental health counselors will keep pace. If these patterns continue, to what extent would this area of counseling be affected in another, say, 20 years?

If considering a career in clinical mental health counseling today, I might have to think twice. From a personal perspective, the counseling profession would still hold the same level of attraction and for the same primary reason that initially drew me: the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. Yet, in 2012 and beyond, I would have to carefully consider the economics of the required investment, including the cost of a master’s degree, probable and consequent long-term debt, and the projected post-degree salary.

About three years ago, the following question was posed in Yahoo!®Answers: “I’m hopefully going to Graduate school next fall to pursue a masters degree in Counseling. Does anyone know what the starting salary is? What is the average salary? I’ve always been good at listening to people and helping them out. I really enjoy it. But it never occurred to me what the salary is until now. Anyone know?”

The designated “Best Answer” to this query? “Starting salary is about 30-35k/year. Few benefits. It’s not worth the cost of the degree. You’re better off going to law school or becoming a bartender or masseuse. It’s the same kind of work, you have less liability, and you’ll make more money.”

Disheartened to read this response? Me too. Surprised to read this response? Me neither.

Counselors can make a difference in this scenario though. First, a silver lining may be emerging. Perhaps mental health counselors’ salaries are rising: The median salary for a mental health counselor in 2002 was $29,940, according to the 2004-2005 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook. When that figure is compared with the more recent data on annual salaries mentioned earlier, you’ll notice a sizable increase has taken place in a relatively short period of time. Advocacy on behalf of the profession can heighten awareness of the value of professional counselors, which will hopefully result in a continued rise in salary levels.

Because of the escalating costs associated with the pursuit of a graduate degree, however, I believe the path to becoming a counselor could be more difficult than ever. The availability of funding at many universities has shrunk or been eliminated, and competition for the monies that remain is fiercer. Grants, scholarships, monetary awards and fellowships are vital, and counselor educators can become critical facilitators of financial support by identifying these resources for students. Examples include the National Board for Certified Counselors Foundation Scholarships, the Corey Graduate Student and Ross Trust Graduate Student essay competitions administrated by the American Counseling Association Foundation, the American Mental Health Counselors Association Donald Mattson Award/Scholarship and awards associated with other professional associations.

Finally, although I acknowledge that counselor educators are not financial aid counselors, I do believe that sensitivity and empathy toward the monetary challenges associated with attending graduate school can be tremendously helpful to students. Even seemingly small, empathy-laden comments can be meaningful to trainees in the midst of their degree programs. In my mind, they are to be commended when successfully juggling various academic and life responsibilities, particularly when a considerable financial investment is overarching.

In the end, we need students — and good ones at that — if the counseling profession is going to survive and thrive into the future. I hope those same good students won’t be walking out of the professor’s office.

John McCarthy is a professor in the Department of Counseling at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Contact him at jmccarth@iup.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Creating a common language

Jonathan Rollins

During the long march to obtain licensure status for counselors in each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and major U.S. territories — beginning with Virginia in 1976 and ending with California in 2009 — the profession as a whole rightfully celebrated each individual victory.

“Unfortunately,” points out American Counseling Association President Bradley T. Erford, “the unintended consequence of this success is that we now have 50-plus different licensure laws, and if you want to move your practice from one state to another because you or your partner were transferred, you have to meet the qualifications for that new jurisdiction. Sometimes, the qualifications are very different. Sometimes, there are qualifications that came after the time when you received your education and training, so you do not qualify without meeting new standards. It is extremely frustrating to be deemed ‘qualified’ in one state and practice for a number of years and then move, only to be deemed ‘not qualified’ by another state. I am licensed in three states, and the hoops I had to jump through were somewhat different in each jurisdiction.”

The long-standing and knotty problem of license portability is precisely what delegates to 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling are working to resolve. The delegates, representing 31 diverse counseling organizations, have been tasked with three objectives as part of the Building Blocks to Portability Project: to reach consensus on a common licensure title for counselors, to reach consensus on a licensure scope of practice for counselors and to reach consensus on licensure education requirements for counselors.

“The goal of the 20/20 Building Blocks [project] is to agree on a model for training, education and scope of practice so that jurisdictions can standardize their requirements and promote portability of licensure across states. If we had the foresight to construct this standardized process 30 years ago, perhaps we would not have thousands of frustrated counselors annually trying to reestablish a licensed practice in another state or territory,” says Erford, who was the Association for Assessment in Counseling and Education’s delegate to 20/20 before joining the 20/20 Oversight Committee, first in his role as ACA president-elect and now as ACA president.

At the ACA Annual Conference in San Francisco this past March, the 20/20 delegates reached consensus on “Licensed Professional Counselor” as the designated licensure title. They also endorsed the concept that having a single education accrediting body would be a clear benefit for the counseling profession. Finally, the delegates decided that the two 20/20 work groups focused on counselor education requirements and counselor scope of practice should develop their respective recommendations by mid-September so the 20/20 delegation as a whole can reach consensus on these two areas at the 2013 ACA Annual Conference in Cincinnati.

In March 2010, before turning its attention to the Building Blocks to Portability Project, the 20/20 delegates reached consensus on a unified definition of counseling as a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education and career goals.

Burt Bertram, who headed up the 20/20 work group that recommended LPC as the consensus licensure title for counselors, sees commonality in much of the work the 20/20 delegation has engaged in since its inception in 2006. “So much of what we’re doing throughout this whole process revolves around the issue of naming things so we can communicate and talk about them,” says Bertram, the Association for Specialists in Group Work’s delegate to 20/20. “In some ways, ‘things’ don’t really exist until they are named. … When the name of something is understood and accepted, the thing becomes more real, and there is less likelihood of confusing the named thing with other similar things.”

Perry C. Francis, who is leading the scope of practice work group, has a similar view concerning the work of 20/20. “We as a profession have struggled with defining counseling and what counselors can and cannot do for decades,” says Francis, the American College Counseling Association’s delegate to 20/20. “That is a reflection of the many different types of counseling specialties that make up the profession — school, clinical, college, etc. Each has a unique way of applying counseling to their population or setting. Creating a common language will help unite these specialties under the banner of ‘professional counselor.’”

Licensure title

Recommending LPC as the consensus licensure title to the overall 20/20 delegation wasn’t a difficult decision, according to Bertram. “There really wasn’t much debate [within the licensure title work group]. It seemed like the obvious choice,” he says.

In deciding which licensure title to recommend, the work group weighed several factors, including:

  • How easy the title would be for the public to grasp
  • Whether the title would offer a “pathway” for all counselors
  • Whether the title aligned with the previously established consensus definition of counseling
  • How consistent the title was with terms already in use in jurisdictions across the United States
  • How well the title distinguished “professional” counselors from other groups using counselor in their names (such as funeral counselors, financial counselors, camp counselors and so on)

Bertram says the title LPC is already in use in 32 states. “If our goal is to get all 50 states … to come around to one term, this made the most sense,” Bertram says.

In addition to already possessing “name recognition,” LPC owns an advantage because the terminology isn’t inherently limiting, Bertram says. “When you put something in front of the word counselor — for example, clinical mental health counselor — that narrows it,” he says.

The counseling profession has confronted a long-standing identity struggle in part because many counselors identify themselves by a specialty title rather than by a title that presents their core identity as a counselor, Bertram says. LPC should readily communicate that core identity. “The importance of the title is that it reduces confusion and increases understanding,” he says.

At the same time, the licensure title work group also recommended that an ability to recognize specialties be included for counselors, similar to physician licensing laws.

The 20/20 delegates voted 22-2 in favor of adopting LPC as the consensus licensure title.

Erford views this as a very important step. “Across the 50-plus jurisdictions, counselors have 40-plus titles. Think about it,” he says. “If we cannot even decide what to call ourselves, how can we expect U.S. citizens to know who we are and what we do? Calling ourselves licensed professional counselors and promoting a unified role and definition of counseling help protect the public from those unlicensed individuals who would harm the public and set our profession and professionals back in the process. When legislators in every state find out that every major counseling organization in the United States supports the title LPC, and then adopts that title, we are one step closer to a unified profession.”

Licensure education requirements

The 20/20 delegates did not vote on consensus licensure education requirements in San Francisco, but they did endorse their preference for having a single educational accrediting body (by a vote of 20-1, with three abstentions).

“Except for counseling, all mental health professions have a single accrediting body,” Erford points out. “They decided this issue long ago, and their professions are unified and powerful as a result. Having a single accrediting body sends a strong message to universities, and when governmental entities recognize an accrediting body, the profession becomes more unified and powerful. … It is crucial that we adopt standardized professional accreditation standards under a single accrediting body so that we can move forward as one profession with a single voice and huge influence.”

Currently, there are two accrediting bodies participating in the 20/20 initiative — the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and the Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE). Several people involved with the 20/20 initiative have indicated their hope that the two organizations, which explored the possibility of a merger several years ago, will unify in some fashion.

“To achieve licensure portability for the counseling profession, it is imperative that the criteria for licensure become comparable across the states. The profession does not currently have this,” says Carol Bobby, president and CEO of CACREP and chair of the licensure education requirements work group for 20/20. “What we have instead is 50 different states with 50 different sets of educational and supervised practice requirements. Some states require only a master’s degree, while others specify the number of graduate hours in the degree program. And these numbers can range from 42 to 60. Thus, students who graduate from 48-hours states will likely find themselves at a disadvantage, needing to go back to graduate school to gather more hours when they move to a state that requires a minimum of 60 graduate hours. … It gets more complicated than just hours, though, because some states list specific courses that must be included in the degree, and the lists of required courses can also vary from state to state.”

Bobby points out that when the Institute of Medicine (IOM) conducted research to determine whether counselors should be recommended to work as independent providers in the TRICARE health system, it raised concerns, saying there was “substantial variability among the states in training programs and requirements for licensure as a counselor.” IOM also noted that only some counselor education programs were accredited by CACREP and that in some states, a counseling license could be obtained with a postgraduate degree in a field other than counseling.

“One of the primary reasons that the IOM included graduation from a CACREP-accredited [mental health counseling] program in its final recommendations to Congress was to ensure consistency in the educational preparation of counselors hired within the TRICARE system,” Bobby says. “The IOM report indicated that they could not guarantee this level of consistency through acceptance of the use of the LPC status only.

“It is difficult for the counseling profession to gain the respect of our external publics with such variability in what it means to be a counselor, since the profession has offered so many pathways to becoming a counselor. Other professions, such as architecture, engineering and physical therapy, have one pathway to getting licensed, and that pathway is through graduation from an accredited program. This allows for the public to know what has been required in the licensee’s curriculum and supervised practice. This also allows for greater comparability of state licenses, and thus allows for greater mobility of professionals.”

Linda Shaw, CORE’s delegate to the 20/20 initiative, says she understands the sentiment behind endorsing a single educational accrediting body. She is concerned, however, about rehabilitation counselors’ ability to get licensed if the 20/20 delegates ultimately recommend CACREP accreditation as the sole educational criterion accepted by licensure boards, particularly if CACREP and CORE do not end up merging in some fashion.

“Counseling has always been a critically important part of our identity,” Shaw says. “We label ourselves as ‘rehabilitation counselors,’ our accreditation and certification standards strongly emphasize counseling, and every roles and functions study ever conducted identifies counseling as being a central role of rehabilitation counselors. The American Rehabilitation Counseling Association has been a division of ACA since 1958. … We, too, seek to secure for the counseling profession a strong, unified identity and to advance the profession. While the specialization of rehabilitation counseling has different accreditation and certification organizations, the primary reason is that CORE and CRCC (Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification) actually predate CACREP and NBCC (National Board for Certified Counselors), not because we see ourselves as being so different from other counselors that we must have different organizations. It was our very ‘sameness’ that led to the merger talks [with CACREP]. It would be a grave disservice to rehabilitation counselors and to individuals with disabilities who may need to access the services of rehabilitation counselors to exclude them from the credentialing process. As counselors, we value inclusion and we value the similarities that bind us together, as well as respecting the things that make us unique. I have confidence that these values will continue to guide us as we work together to create building blocks that will serve the best interests of the profession and of the individuals we serve.”

Licensure scope of practice

The scope of practice work group is reviewing a content analysis of all counselor scopes of practice across all 50 states. As is the case with licensure titles and licensure education requirements, scopes of practice vary from state to state.

“Simply put, licensure laws, which generally contain the scope of practice, are governed by each state, and each state has different politics and constituencies that seek to influence what those laws [include],” Francis says. “Some constituencies are supportive of our field, while others seek to restrict what counselors can do based on ignorance about our profession or hoping to limit competition for the ever-shrinking mental health dollar.”

The work group conducted a frequency analysis of the words used in the different scopes of practice to define the tasks that counselors are allowed to do, Francis says. “This gives us an understanding of the common tasks we are allowed to do and increases our awareness of the tasks we are not allowed to do but are trained to do, such as administer different types of assessments and inventories.”

“We will look at the tasks that are common across the board and seek to standardize the language and definitions used to create a scope of practice,” he continues. “Additionally, we will compare the laws to our education and abilities to identify those areas of practice that we may be denied, even though we have the skills and training to accomplish those tasks. Once we have that information, we can then create a scope of practice statement that will reinforce not only what we are already doing, but also expand into areas that we are capable of doing.”

“The scope of practice issue also signals insurance companies that professional counselors are equally competent as our cousins in the other mental health fields,” Francis adds.

Maturing of the profession

“The 20/20 Building Blocks initiative is all about developing a standardized process for title, educational requirements and scope of practice that will allow professional counselors to move across a state line and continue a professional practice and livelihood, just like medical doctors, psychologists and social workers do every day,” Erford says. “This process reflects the maturing of the profession of counseling. It also reflects the importance of vision and forethought as the counseling profession continues its forward momentum. We have to visualize where we want to end up, and then plan an efficient path to get there. Otherwise, we will be cast about by capricious winds and chaotic, tumultuous times. If we cannot explain to the public and our legislators who we are, how we were educated and trained, and what we can do — all in a unified voice — then how can we expect the public and our legislators to embrace the counseling profession?”

Jonathan Rollins is editor-in-chief of Counseling Today. Contact him at jrollins@counseling.org.