Monthly Archives: January 2009

Making the most of the mentoring relationship

Jenny Christenson January 14, 2009

“Overwhelmed” is how Rachel Hoffman describes feeling when she started her master’s program in counseling. In fact, she remembers, the idea of becoming a professional counselor just didn’t seem real to her at the time. Then, she says, “one of my counseling teachers helped me to map that out and told me the steps to take. That really broadened my horizons.” The professor became Hoffman’s mentor, encouraging her to expand her idea of what it meant to be a professional counselor by joining associations and advocating for the profession. Today, Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at Kent State University and serves as a mentoring liaison herself.

Hoffman isn’t alone in her experience. Because of the complex role they play in clients’ lives, many counselors and counselors-in-training find that they can use extra assistance in the form of mentorships. “Mentoring is a matter of working with somebody to help them become more grounded in the practice of their profession,” explains Bret Hendricks, an associate professor of counselor education at Texas Tech University and a member of the American Counseling Association. This most often involves someone with longevity in the profession figuratively walking beside a less experienced colleague — usually a student — to help that person with his or her professional development or scholarly work. “As far as the student goes, we try to impart to them what it means to be a professional counselor, what it means to practice ethically and, looking at the macro level, things such as social justice and advocacy,” says Hendricks, immediate past president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA. Hendricks has helped to establish mentoring relationships between students at Texas Tech and professional counselors in the community and has also worked as a mentoring advocate, encouraging the Texas Counseling Association to involve counselors-in-training at all levels of the state association.

“Mentoring is so integral to being a counselor that it is hard to extricate it,” Hendricks says. “It is just part of who you are as a counselor to connect not just with clients, but with the profession.” He believes counselors have an ethical responsibility first to seek out good mentors for themselves and then to return the favor later by serving as mentors to others. “Whatever mentoring we do helps the counselor and, ultimately, the client,” he points out.

Angela Shores, a doctoral student in counselor education at North Carolina State University and assistant director of academic advising at Meredith College, both in Raleigh, N.C., has a similar perspective. “Mentoring provides an opportunity to serve and teach the next generation of counselors, thereby providing service to one’s profession,” she says. Shores has participated in a formal mentoring program through the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, a division of ACA, and served as a mentor herself in a more informal setting.

Mentoring in the counseling profession is both different from and similar to mentoring in other professions. Says Hoffman, “I think it is different than counseling a teacher, for example. The day-to-day activities are different. Sometimes mentoring in the counseling profession includes more clinical skills, and sometimes mentoring covers more administrative skills. It becomes more situational.”

While mentoring at the micro level is influenced by counseling’s theories of practice, the overall mentoring processes and concepts are generally the same across all professions, Hendricks adds.

Some of the benefits of mentoring seem obvious in a profession as challenging as counseling. “It is important for people to feel supported. It was valuable to have many people along the way giving me feedback, both in my doctoral program and in the process of looking for jobs in academia. I think it is beneficial that we have others who help us along the way,” says Hoffman, who as president of the Kappa Sigma Upsilon Chapter of Chi Sigma Iota spearheaded development of a mentorship program for doctoral students called FLASH (Forming, Linking, Achieving, Succeeding, Helping).

But mentoring relationships can also offer other less recognized, though equally important, benefits to mentees, including opening doors to networking and research opportunities and assisting in the development of a wider perspective of the profession and the professional role of counselors. Mentoring can also provide strategies for successfully navigating graduate school, writing a thesis or dissertation, or pursuing licensure.

Having a mentor can also help mentees navigate a system that is governed in part by unspoken rules, says ACA member Valerie Schwiebert, author of Mentoring: Creating Connected, Empowered Relationships and a professor of counseling at Western Carolina University. “Mentors provide support to their protégés in an effort to remove organizational barriers, to assist protégés in negotiating the ‘system’ and to provide protégés with opportunities for upward mobility,” she explains. Because they have already experienced some aspect of the system, mentors can offer guidance concerning what mentees need to do to succeed in an organization.

Finding a mentor

Mentoring relationships often begin informally. “There’s such a loose definition of mentoring,” Hendricks says. “It could be teaching a class, or it could be sitting down and having coffee. I would say most of us in the (counseling) field have been mentored, whether we’d call it that or not. Engaging in those sorts of relationships is mentoring.”

Many relationships are initiated by would-be mentees simply approaching a professional colleague and asking that person to be their mentor. But, as Hendricks points out, “You can recruit in either direction. A mentor can go to a mentee and say, ‘I can make myself available.’”

More formal mentoring relationships are often established by an intermediary, such as a graduate school or a professional association. “Joining your ACA branch is a great way to share experiences with other counselors in your area,” says ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan.

In certain counseling programs, senior students serve as mentors for beginning students. While these mentorships typically end when students graduate, other mentoring relationships last indefinitely. “It’s almost like a family,” Hendricks says. “Once you have this mentor relationship, it goes on. You still have that bond 10 years down the road,” even if the mentor and mentee don’t see each other for several years. Although there may be times when the mentoring relationship isn’t as strong and the dialogue isn’t so frequent, ideally, he says, the mentee should feel that he or she can still seek out the mentor at any time.

Guidelines are often helpful when it comes to maintaining ethical mentoring relationships, Schwiebert says. “When a power differential exists that governs my behavior, I need to make sure that I am operating ethically, particularly in dual-role relationships,” she explains. One benefit of formally established mentoring relationships is that they are more likely to be conducted under the ACA Code of Ethics, Schwiebert adds. (In particular, refer to Standards C.6.d., “Exploitation of Others”; F.3.a., “Relationship Boundaries With Supervisees”; F.3.e., “Potentially Beneficial Relationships”; and F.10.d., “Nonprofessional Relationships.”)

Power differentials aside, the mentor should invite the mentee to engage in a conversation about what he or she wants out of the relationship, Hoffman says. “The mentoring relationship is more a collaborative journey, where both can learn from each other, with the ultimate goal that the mentee feels that he or she is well prepared and has the ability to make decisions,” she says.

Each mentoring relationship should be unique, Shores adds. “Mentoring is defined by the mentee and the mentor, so based on their needs, expectations and interests, mentoring can be quite a creative adventure.”

Hendricks says the mentoring relationship should play itself out on two levels. At the micro level, the relationship focuses on how mentees can grow in their understanding and application of counseling theories. At the macro level, mentors should teach their mentees that they will be at their best only if they take care of themselves properly, participate in wellness activities and set appropriate boundaries. The wellness aspect of mentoring can help mentees successfully integrate their many facets of life, including work, family and school.

Schwiebert has introduced another perspective on mentoring, creating the word “womentoring.” She explains that womentoring is the more feminine-driven aspect of mentoring, whereby women use their inherent strengths in building relationships to teach their mentees how to create connected, empowered relationships without sacrificing other people as they move up the ladder of success. This community-building take on mentoring can be applied to both men and women, Schwiebert says, and can be used by all groups of people, both in counseling and other professions.

Challenges in mentoring

While few counselors would deny the potential benefits of mentoring, making the time to establish or nurture a mentoring relationship is often a challenge. “We, as counselors, get tunnel vision about what we are doing because we are so busy,” Hendricks says. “Too many times, mentoring gets pushed to the back seat because it is not a pressing issue.”

One of the best ways for counselors and counseling students to minimize the challenges of time constraints and the sometimes spotty availability of mentors is to get involved in their professional organizations and take advantage of formal mentoring programs. The Texas Counseling Association has encouraged students to become a part of the organization and reap the benefits of membership, including participation in a mentoring program, Hendricks says. “Mentoring is a self-perpetuating process,” he says. “If you are well mentored, then you will become a good mentor.”

Another often unforeseen challenge is allowing the mentoring relationship to remain fluid enough to accommodate changes in the mentees’ role as their careers advance to the level of their mentors or beyond, Schwiebert says. One solution is to “make mentoring more formalized between the mentor and protégé, because then the protégé can explain his or her specific needs, and the mentor can tell if they can help them,” she says. With each change in the mentee’s career, the mentoring relationship has to be renegotiated. But even when mentees and mentors become professional equals, Schwiebert says the relationship can remain beneficial because each participant has specific strengths and skills that can be shared with and taught to the other.

Developing trust in the relationship is another common challenge,Hoffman says. Mentees can alleviate some of these trust issues before they even enter into a mentoring relationship by developing clear expectations for what they want from a mentor. Then, Hoffman advises, mentees should actively try to engage someone who will be a good fit for them.

Finding this good mentoring match is another challenge, of course. Shores suggests mentees look for someone who is engaged in the same kinds of research, advocacy or counseling techniques that they are interested in or want to learn more about.

But don’t let a slightly imperfect fit ruin the potential to have a genuinely beneficial relationship, Hendricks advises. Oftentimes, he says, dedication and commitment within the mentoring relationship can overcome differences in personality. “Some of the people with whom I have the best relationships don’t have personality types anywhere close to mine,” he says, “but they know the value of commitment.” And in the big picture, Hendricks says, commitment is more important than personality type.

Finding a good mentor-mentee match can be even more difficult for counselors from minority or subdominant cultures. “There are so few role models out there for them,” Hendricks says. “It is so important for minorities to find mentors, and yet there is no clear road map for that.” The counseling profession generally acknowledges that finding a mentor of the same race, gender or socioeconomic background is ideal, in large part because the mentor can relate to many of the challenges the mentee is facing, which helps to build a higher level of trust. But while “it would ultimately be best if people could be mentored by someone from the same cultural group,” Hendricks adds, “I think it is most important to have a mentor, period.”

Regardless of the mentee’s background, an important tool in finding a good mentor match is networking. “Most people who are successful are so because they have relationships and networks that provided opportunities in their lives,” Schwiebert says. “Most giants in the counseling field have multiple mentors.”

In her book, Schwiebert states that “mentoring is most effective when the individuals share similar values, attitudes, goals and worldviews.” However, she goes on to say that both parties can benefit from cross-cultural mentoring relationships because they can “expand their awareness and understanding of individuals from different backgrounds.”

These relationships can also be very powerful because the participants demonstrate unity and acceptance — two of the very principles most counselors advocate.

Effective mentors

Many of the qualities and skills needed to become an effective mentor are already second nature to counselors. “Being available and listening and encouraging people, especially on the wellness aspects, are important,” Hendricks says, adding that if mentees are not taking care of themselves properly, they cannot be effective counselors. “Don’t concentrate so much on theory and technique that you ignore the bigger picture of wellness,” he says.

Having an open dialogue with mentees is also important. This involves helping mentees to determine what is best for them instead of making decisions for them. As Hoffman points out, this often means “not just providing quick answers.”

As counselors mature as professionals in the field or in academia, they can give back to the profession and to society by becoming mentors. “As we find our own places in life, we can assist others in negotiating their own journeys toward shared goals, visions and attainment of personal and professional accomplishments,” Schwiebert says.

Adds Hendricks, “I think that the counseling profession is one that needs advocacy. For us to present a united front, to present consistent messages to the public, we must be mentoring one another. We must be talking to one another.”

Jenny Christenson is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

Letters to the editor:

Assisting incarcerated women

Jenny Christenson

When Kim Mapp left the jail where she counseled women in Bergen County, N.J., four years ago, something unexpected happened. Women inmates gave her handmade cards and gifts made from their pillowcases. “It was rewarding to me, and it was a chance for them to tap into their artistic skills, to give back and to work together,” says Mapp, whotoday works for the Center for Alcohol and Drug Resources and as a student assistance counselor in East Rutherford, N.J.While some people may question whether counselors can have much of an effect working with prison populations, Mapp says she was encouraged to see not only that she could help, but that this population of women actually desired help.

About 10 years ago, the state of Texas fired all of its prison counselors as part of a cost-cutting measure, recalls Joycelyn M. Pollock, professor of criminal justice at Texas State University-San Marcos. Yet Pollock believes that counseling is actually a very effective and necessary process in prisons. “Of course, you can run a prison without counselors, but I’m not sure what you are accomplishing besides incapacitation. Women in prison respond to treatment,” says Pollock, the author of Counseling Women in Prison. “In fact, they plead for it, and they give high marks to any kind of group or treatment program.” While counseling does have a positive effect on incarcerated women, she says that effect is often hard to measure right away. “The treatment may not take effect until years later when they are ready to put it into action,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t listen and remember.”

According to recent incarceration data published by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 1.8 percent of women will serve time in prison (compared with 11.3 percent of men). Many experts believe that women end up in prison based on issues and experiences that distinguish them from most of their male counterparts. As explained by Pollock, the pathways model, a model developed in the criminology field, contends that women commit crime as a result of different life pathways, specifically histories of sexual and physical victimization as children, drug issues and the effect of having children. In addition, she says, the pathways model teaches that relationships have a much greater influence on women’s psychological development. According to Pollock, about 40 percent of women offenders have been victimized sexually or physically. In addition, she says, “More women offenders have drug dependencies than men do in prison populations. It seems to be more of a salient issue for women. Drug use for women may have stemmed from earlier life experiences” that differ from those of men. For example, she says, women may use drugs as self-medication to get over childhood abuse or for a mental health issue.

An “inside” look

As most counselors would anticipate, the therapeutic environment in prison is drastically different from that of the “outside” world. Even so, counselors might be surprised by some of the distinctions. For example, counselors, prisoners and prison officials won’t necessarily have the same goals. “All prison employees are expected to promote and protect security,” Pollock says. “Issues of confidentiality may come up if there is a security threat.” If a client reveals confidential information that could affect the security of the prison, the counselor must tell prison authorities. She says some counselors have also reported that prisons expect mental health professionals to make prisoners more docile through the use of prescription drugs rather than focusing on improving the inmates’ mental health.

The challenge of optimizing the mental health of women prisoners is further complicated by the fact that many inmates bring significant problems with them from the outside. These problems might include a lack of life skills, sexual victimization, codependency, serious mental health issues, drug addiction and high-risk sexual behavior. “All these are impossible to treat in isolation, and all are difficult to address in prison,” Pollock says. “I think it is a perfectly acceptable goal (for counselors) to help a woman deal with the prison experience itself and learn to have healthier relationships in prison rather than reduce the possibility of recidivism.”

Dianne Barber, a counselor for the Hillsborough County Department of Corrections in Londonderry, N.H., points out there is long-term value in beginning the process of counseling in prison because it increases the likelihood that these women will also seek treatment after their release. “In addition to problems with prior abuse, there is a significant percentage of women (prisoners) diagnosed with personality disorders that are very difficult to manage,” says Barber, a member of the American Counseling Association. “It can be a long and tedious process. These women benefit greatly from weekly counseling.”

Another consideration when working with incarcerated women is that, in many instances, their needs and concerns aren’t just individual. Whatever happens to them is likely to have a powerful impact on their families, says Vanessa Alleyne, associate professor and coordinator of the addictions studies program in the Montclair State University Department of Counseling and Educational Leadership. “Because women occupy a central and organizing role in so many families, incarceration then has a major disruptive effect on families in ways that are unique to women,” she says. “That’s not to say that men don’t play an important role, because they do, but women are the primary caregivers in families.” Children are especially affected when someone is removed from the role of primary caregiver, she asserts. In many instances in which the mother goes to prison, families are dissolved and children go to foster care. At that point, there is often a domino effect. “Children who are put into foster care are not always able to stay connected to their mom who is incarcerated” because prisoner contact with the outside world is limited, Alleyne says. “Contact is seen as a privilege, not a right, in the correctional world. If there are any infractions, that is the first privilege to go. You lose your visitation rights or phone rights, or you get put in lockdown or solitary confinement.”

Women who are more verbal and assertive about needing help are more likely to receive counseling assistance, Alleyne says. “It is very much a squeaky wheel environment,” she asserts. On the other hand, “There are counseling avenues. Most prisons and jails are required to have health networks in place. Help may come through a nurse or physician who is treating something physical and who then may make a referral for counseling as well.”

There are also certain populations of women prisoners which counselors are unlikely to hear from or see, Alleyne says. These include illegal immigrants who have been picked up for immigration charges. “Many women cannot speak English, and translation is very limited, so they are cut off in ways that are unimaginable,” she says. “In theory, translating services are provided by the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), but they are not at the level that they need.”

Areas of need

While prisons aren’t the first place most counselors think about when expressing their desire to better society, the needs and opportunities are plentiful. “If you are interested in doing clinical work, jails and prisons are ideal places to do that kind of work,” Alleyne says. “There is a tremendous need for short-term counseling, crisis counseling and group counseling. Certainly, this is one of the best places to get solid experience in drug and alcohol counseling.” She adds that direct service in prison humanizes a very dehumanizing environment. In addition, she says, well-trained counselors can provide models and learning opportunities for correctional staff, potentially making a positive difference in how incarcerated women are treated.

“There’s lots to do for incarcerated women,” Alleyne notes. “Talented counselors and academics are needed to bring their expertise to the forefront. These are environments where one can truly get involved and make a real difference for good.”

Alleyne is a member of ACA, the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision. After graduating, she gained an in-depth knowledge of women’s issues while running groups in the women’s unit of the Bergen County jail in New Jersey. At the request of the sheriff, Alleyne also produced a needs assessment, which led to a collaboration between the jail, the Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (under the leadership of Ellen Rocca) and the master’s counseling students at Montclair State. A report produced by the team provided the evidence needed to develop an in-house women’s drug treatment program.

“A counselor goes to counteract all the negative effects of prison life,” Pollock says, adding that therapeutic groups, in particular, can have a positive effect on inmates. She cites an example in which an art teacher ran a group for five women prisoners who had committed multiple infractions during their incarcerations. During the entire time the group was running, the women stayed out of trouble with prison authorities. When asked why, the inmates said they looked forward to the group and knew the art teacher wasn’t going to judge them. That provided enough support for the women to make good choices and maintain themselves. After the teacher left and the group ended, Pollock says, the women started getting into trouble again.

Another area in need of more counselors is case management, Alleyne says, particularly in terms of helping people connect with services outside of jails and prisons after they are released. “People usually get released at 12:01 midnight, with just enough money for a bus ticket and what they came with,” she says, “so their life is out of sync. What are they supposed to do? There is lots of help needed with linking people up to viable services.”

According to Barber, counseling women in prison can also reduce recidivism rates by addressing some of the problems people had before entering prison. “Education on mental illness, where applicable, and drug and alcohol addiction is so key to creating awareness and insight into their individual diseases,” Barber says. “Empowerment is also important because the majority of incarcerated women were never taught healthy functioning and appropriate coping skills. If they had more insight into all the contributing factors that bring them back to jail or prison, the recidivism rate would decrease.”

Alleyne says the biggest challenge counselors must overcome to counsel incarcerated women is probably just facing personal fears — “the fear of getting hurt, the fear of being locked in. It is very intimidating to go behind bars and have your movements monitored so closely. It takes some appreciation and adjusting. People have a fear of working with incarcerated people that starts to diminish once they do it. But (women prisoners) are the same people as you and me. They have the same fears, joys and desires as everyone else. As long as you are genuine and professional and offer appropriate assistance, you’re going to have a good experience and be able to help.”

Counselors may also find that their own struggles come up in the process of interacting with women inmates, Mapp says. For example, issues of rape, abandonment and not receiving the care one needed while growing up might be issues that both inmates and counselors have in common. Having appropriate supervision in their work with incarcerated women can help counselors in these situations, says Mapp, who was supervised by Alleyne.

Alleyne suggests that counseling students interested in working with people who are incarcerated take course work on substance abuse and treatment, as well as learn more about co-occurring disorders and the impact of trauma on women. Adds Barber, “Training in criminal justice as well as mental health and psychology is important, as well as having general knowledge of the psychological nature of those who have been incarcerated more than once or twice.” (See sidebar above for more suggestions.)

In preparing to work with incarcerated women, Mapp suggests that counselors pay attention to their own biases. For example, she says, most women prisoners are not what society regards as “hardened criminals”; roughly 80 percent are there for drug-related offenses. “In many ways, those women were like me,” Mapp says. “They just made a lot of different choices along the way. But many of the women I encountered were educated, were mothers, daughters.”

Counseling in the criminal justice system

Vanessa Alleyne, associate professor and coordinator of the addictions studies program in the Montclair State University Department of Counseling and Educational Leadership, offers the following recommendations for students considering a counseling career in the criminal justice system.

  1. Take coursework to become more knowledgeable about substance abuse and treatment. This is particularly important in forensic settings.
  2. Learn more about co-occurring disorders, as well as the impact of trauma on women.
  3. The best way to overcome fear of this environment is by being exposed to it. Utilize opportunities to speak to and visit with counselors in criminal justice settings as well as with people who have been incarcerated. If you are in a prison or jail setting, make sure that you have good supervision from clinical staff who have appropriate experience, authority and credibility to work effectively with you as you negotiate the environment.
  4. Raise your level of awareness about the far-reaching impact of criminal justice issues. Now more than ever, counseling students are likely to have contact with a student or parent who is dealing with or has dealt with the criminal justice system, either through arrest, incarceration, adjudication, parole or probation.
  5. Consider an area in which you currently have an interest, and see if you can apply it to forensic settings. Grief, trauma, substance abuse, people of color, group work, juvenile justice and other areas of counseling are all found in forensic settings.

Jenny Christenson is a past staff writer for Counseling Today.

Letters to the editor:

Changing, giving, belonging

Richard Yep January 1, 2009

Richard Yep

Happy New Year. I wish all of you a peaceful, healthy, rewarding and transformative year. While this is my first column of 2009, it also concludes a three-part effort that began with what I shared in November. My previous two columns focused on “change” and “giving,” respectively. This column addresses “belonging.”

I believe most people would acknowledge that they “belong” to something — a family, a professional organization, a service group, a school. I am of course interested in what you and your colleagues value in your professional organizations. My sense is that you would belong to an organization that promotes your profession, provides resources to the profession, teaches about the profession’s ethical standards and advocates on behalf of the profession.

Belonging to the American Counseling Association is all of those things — and much, much more. Belonging to ACA creates a community of like-minded, well-intentioned, dedicated professionals who come together to enhance, improve and professionalize the art and science of professional counseling. Think about it. For an investment of about 43 cents per day, professional counselors receive the full benefit package offered by ACA (it is only 25 cents per day for students and retirees). And for just a few more pennies per day, one can also increase the value of membership by joining any of our 19 divisions (which many thousands of you have already done!).

However, it is my belief that you will only want to belong to an organization in which you see value. With the changes in the world economy, many people are cutting back on what they spend. My observation is that this cutting back is done to preserve the ability to purchase services or make donations that have a special place in the life of the individual. Once again, we see that change (in this case relative to the economy) affects what we give (to those organizations with which we feel a special affinity), with the result being that we belong to those organizations that resonate with who we are as caring and professional people.

When we embrace change and give of our time and limited resources, we also receive the benefit of belonging. ACA continues to look at what we need to do to change in the current environment, but we also try to look five, 10, even 20 years into the future. We will only be a vital, useful, beneficial organization to our members if we change to meet needs, provide the best possible services and benefits, and nurture a community that welcomes those who wish to belong.

I encourage you to bring your colleagues and students to our table. Let others know of the good things ACA has done, is doing and will be doing as we transition into the second decade of the 21st century. Quite simply, those who identify as professional counselors need to belong to ACA. While we are 40,000 strong, we have not even engaged one-quarter of those who identify as professional counselors in the United States, and when you think about counselors around the world, the percentage is even smaller.

We have been changing things in “our house” and refocusing our efforts to provide the best services and benefits possible. Now what we need to do (with your help) is to let others know that we would be honored to have them belong to our organization. So, as we begin a new year, I ask that every ACA member bring at least one or two new people to our table. If you need information about ACA membership, services and benefits, contact us; we will be happy to provide you with these materials or even send them directly to a colleague, student or friend.

Let’s make this a banner year for those who will say, “I BELONG to the American Counseling Association.”

I hope you will contact me with any comments, questions or suggestions that you might have. Please contact me via e-mail at or by phone at 800.347.6647 ext. 231.

Thanks and be well.