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Using a wider lens to conceptualize client problems

Heather Rudow April 18, 2012

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the pillars of the counseling is empowering clients to achieve the goals they have set themselves. But over time, counselors have also placed greater focus on international issues and social justice counseling.

Manivong J. Ratts, president of Counselors for Social Justice, a division of the American Counseling Association, calls social justice the “fifth force” in counseling. According to Ratts, social justice recognizes that client problems cannot be understood solely through an intrapsychic lens.

“Social justice counseling calls on counselors to use a wider lens to conceptualize client problems by viewing clients in [the] context of their environment,” says Ratts. “When counselors are able to see clients in [the] context of their environment, they begin to see how larger social, political and economic forces influence client development. Moreover, counselors begin to see how oppressive conditions such as poverty, racism and homophobia negatively contribute to human development issues.”

One way that counselors can broaden their lenses, he says, is by getting involved with organizations that have social justice goals or missions. CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere Inc.) is one such nonprofit organization.

Founded in 1945 with the aim of fighting global poverty and focusing on poor women across the world, CARE often helps people who have gone through traumatic events that have seriously impacted their mental health. Richard Perera, CARE’s communications coordinator, says it is important for organizations such as CARE to provide psychosocial support systems for people who have experienced natural disasters, famine, violence, sexual assaults or poverty or have been displaced from their homes by war. He explains this “can mean direct counseling, but can also mean working through the community.”

For example, says Perera, in emergency camps for Somali refugees in Dadaab, Kenya, CARE provides training to the adult members of the camps so they can provide others with healthy ways of coping with traumatic experiences. Additionally, the knowledge they acquire helps them understand why some of the child refugees might misbehave.

“They don’t [think], ‘Oh, this kid is acting out because they’ve been through a traumatic experience.’ They [typically] just think they’re being bad,” Perera says. “Kids can be resilient, but they need a routine, and they need an environment where they can play and learn.”

Perera says CARE’s top priority is providing the people they help with a place where they feel safe and emotionally supported. He believes this is why the organization resonates with counseling professionals and the reason counselors might consider getting involved with the nonprofit’s endeavors.

“If there comes a time when the U.S. takes a stand [for or against an international issue],” he says, “counselors can be advocates for an enlightened foreign policy.”

One of CARE’s latest aims is supporting President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2013 request for the International Affairs Budget, which helps alleviate poverty, global hunger and famine, HIV/AIDS and maternal mortality. It also enables the United States to respond to humanitarian crises.

“I think of it as an investment,” Perera says of the International Affairs Budget. It doesn’t cost much in comparison to the rest of the budget, he says, and keeping children mentally, physically and emotionally stable in unstable countries helps the entire world to stay safe in the long run.

Ratts says it is important for counselors to take action and support organizations such as CARE as well as the president’s request for the International Affairs Budget because events that occur overseas also have an impact on the United States.

“Poverty is a global phenomenon that permeates all parts of the world,” he says. “More importantly, counselors need to understand that poverty is a global issue that affects us all. We cannot focus solely on local-level initiatives because we don’t live in a vacuum. The growth of technology has helped society to understand that we live in an increasingly global society where international politics can affect us at the local level. For this reason, counselor involvement in such initiatives as CARE to address global poverty is critical because it leads to quality schools, health care and employment. … Social justice-oriented organizations are important in helping to address equity issues that impact our world. These organizations help promote awareness of social injustices and serve as a way to systematically address the social ills of society. I think it is important that counselors be involved with at least one organization that addresses a social issue they are passionate about. Imagine how much better this world would be if all 50,000 members of ACA joined one organization similar to CARE. … As a collective, we would make this world more just and humane.”

In his view, Ratts doesn’t believe that counselor education programs have adequately equipped counselors with necessary social advocacy skills in part because counselor educators are not adequately equipped themselves.

“For the most part, counselor educators are not trained in community engagement and systems-level work,” he says. “Most have been trained under a paradigm that promotes the medical model and intrapsychic ways of helping. This problem is akin to the early days of the multicultural counseling movement when counselor educators were attempting to train graduate counseling students on becoming multiculturally competent but not having the training themselves. Unfortunately, the lack of social justice competence among counselor educators is setting a stage for future students to fail and for clients to leave counseling believing they are the problem when, in fact, their problems may be a result of larger oppressive conditions. “

Developing international and social justice competence would not only enhance the counseling profession, Ratts says, but also help make the world a better place for all citizens.

“Social justice must begin with us,” Ratts says. “Counselors need to develop competence as social justice advocates before they engage in advocacy interventions at the local, state, national and international levels. Counselors, even well-intentioned ones, can do more harm than good when they seek to help others but are not equipped to deal with the complexities of the world. Counselors need to first be multiculturally competent if they seek to address social justice issues. Cultural competence allows counselors to address sociopolitical issues in a culturally appropriate manner. Counselors also need to be cognizant of domestic and global politics. Understanding domestic and global politics can help counselors develop a better sense of whether individual counseling or environmental-level advocacy is needed. Counselors need to allow a community, whether it be domestic or international, to teach them what is needed. Oftentimes, we see counselors coming into a community thinking they know what is best for the community. We see this in higher education settings where well-intentioned faculty develop service-learning opportunities for their students but fail to take the diligence and time needed to truly understand the community. When this occurs, student learning occurs at the expense of the community.”

For more information about CARE’s mission and latest endeavors, visit its website.

For more information about Counselors for Social Justice, visit its website.

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

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