There are hundreds of theories and approaches to counseling and psychotherapy documented in the professional literature. Counselors often ask, “What theory works best? What approach will best meet the needs of my clients?”
Along with my students, supervisees and colleagues, I often struggle to make sense of this reality. Like many in our field, my approach to counseling practice draws from a number of sources. I have found many of the concepts and techniques from person-centered, systems, family of origin, structural, strategic, communications, rational emotive, Gestalt and existential approaches — to name just a few — very useful in my work with clients.
The particular theory we employ reflects our assumptions about the nature of people, problems and change — concepts that are either well thought out or muddled and confused. There is nothing magical or sacred about any particular theory. It merely provides a conceptual frame to guide our work. As most counselors recognize, “theory” is only useful to the extent that it informs our work and better equips us to help our clients.
Related to theory, the field of counseling has become infused with perspectives emphasizing “multicultural” and “social justice” issues. In recent decades, these issues have emerged to occupy a position of dominance in the consciousness of our profession. For some counselors, multicultural and social justice issues are the raison d’être for their work. For most counselors, however, these issues offer useful perspectives and an ethical foundation for working with all clients.
In the final analysis, articulating and prioritizing social justice issues presents some challenges — often an expression of personal values rather than a consensus within the counseling profession. Regrettably, I have heard from many counselors who view the dominant voices within the multicultural and social justice movements as “one-sided,” reflecting a politically liberal and biased perspective. This is unfortunate, because insights into social justice issues and an awareness of the challenges and complexities of living and working in a multicultural society are important to everyone. I hope this conversation will continue. In particular, there is a tremendous need for research that better informs counselors about multicultural and social justice issues. Not just radical diatribes and “soapbox opinions,” but real research that expands our skills for helping others.
Some folks consider “research” — particularly research in the scientific method vein — to be a restrictive and lineal Western concept. As such, much of what passes as “research” in the counseling field has little empirical basis and often reflects, intentionally or unintentionally, opinion rather than objective and systematic inquiry. Any form of research has its limitations, but if we consider research in the broadest sense, we are endorsing a systematic process of inquiry that minimizes bias and seeks to establish qualified facts. For many of us in the counseling field, well-conceived research provides the best hope for the future of counseling practice. A greater emphasis on research — in particular, research on counseling outcome effectiveness — will greatly enhance our credibility as a profession.
Counseling has always been more “art” than “science,” so expanding our research efforts will not be an easy undertaking. Nonetheless, without a systematic evaluation of the work we do, professional counseling will remain in the eyes of many a dubious and largely unproven activity and, consequently, a marginal part of the larger mental health care industry. As counseling professionals, we cannot allow this to happen. Every counselor can take the following steps to enhance the level of professionalism in the field of counseling:
- Maintain membership in the American Counseling Association, your state branch and the national division that best reflects your primary work setting or practice emphasis. Become as active within these organizations as possible. Insist (or at least strongly encourage) that your students, supervisees and associates also maintain membership in these organizations. The organizations publish the research and utilize resources on our behalf.
- Subscribe and read professional counseling journals. Distinguish between articles that present facts and objective data from “opinion pieces” that advocate a particular political agenda or bias. Contact journal editors and editorial board members requesting a greater emphasis on articles that better inform counseling practice through research, particularly in the area of outcome effectiveness.
- Hold counseling association leaders accountable to ensure that association resources focus, first and foremost, on advancing the profession and practice of counseling and the career needs of counselors. Insist that ACA, its divisions and branches maintain a neutral position on political issues and issues of social conscience that do not directly relate to the counseling profession, the needs of our clients and the professional interests of counselors. To do otherwise divides our membership and impedes our effectiveness.
If you have any questions or comments, I welcome your e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.