Licensed professional counselor and college professor Angela McDonald is helping her students learn more about the mental health of military service members, veterans and their families, and what the best practices are for counseling them.
McDonald, an assistant professor and program director of the clinical mental health counseling programs at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, aims to introduce her students to the unique challenges that this group of clients faces through “Counseling Members of the Military and Their Families,” a three-credit elective course she is teaching for the first time this semester.
“My main impetus for offering this course is to help our program produce highly trained counselors with expertise in this population,” explains McDonald, a member of the American Counseling Association and the North Carolina Counseling Association (NCCA), a branch of ACA. “The demand for jobs [serving the] mental health [needs of] the military community is high yet still cumbersome for counselors who compete with social workers for counseling positions. I want our students to be able to offer the best counseling services they can provide to these individuals and their families. I want our students to be able to tell future employers that they have the best, most up-to-date, empirically supported skills to address the needs of service members and their families.“
Course topics include learning about the history of trends within the military that impact the counseling profession; how to advocate for counselor recognition within both the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs; posttraumatic stress disorder and trauma; suicide risk and prevention; women’s roles in combat; sexual assault and harassment; adjusting to deployment; and family violence. There will also be student-to-student sharing of relevant experiences and guest speakers from the region with expertise on relevant subjects.
McDonald has been planning the course for the past two years, but she says she was able to really put things in motion beginning this past January when UNC-Pembroke received accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP).
“Then, I was able to put in the time to pull the latest research articles and evidence-based practices together for the course reading materials and develop collaborative relationships with community partners to get guest speakers together,” McDonald says. “The first contact I made was to Sen. Kay Hagan [D-N.C.], and from there, I worked with her [on] military issues and [on finding] veterans liaisons to network within the state. The liaisons were a huge source of contacts and information and very supportive of LPCs and mental health issues. There was a lot of networking that had to take place since I am not a member of the military community myself, but I’ve been very excited about getting connected.”
The topic is of critical importance to counselors across the country, but McDonald finds it especially important in this particular area of North Carolina, where there is a high concentration of active duty service members.
“Our campus is within an hour’s drive of Fort Bragg, a large Army military installation,” she says. “We are also only a few hours from Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune. We have many students who are spouses and partners of active duty service members and also many students who are veterans themselves or who grew up in military families.”
McDonald is not a veteran herself, but she says that having grown up in an area of Virginia with a high concentration of service members, she has a “great deal of respect and admiration for this population. As a family counselor and college counselor, I witnessed the impact of associated stress and trauma that these individuals and their families experience. I wish I had had more access to specialized training in the skills needed to sit with clients who had experienced pain that was far beyond what I had or would experience. There are many wonderful professional development opportunities available now at conferences to help prepare counselors in the field, but our course will provide more intensive instruction suitable for beginning counselors.”
During the interview process for the school’s counseling program, McDonald says she frequently hears that applicants’ ultimate career goals are to provide mental health counseling to members of the military.
“This class is being offered in response to an enormous amount of interest from our clinical mental health counseling students, as well as our professional school counseling students,” McDonald says. “Our students see the need to develop specialty skills to meet the unique needs of active duty service members, veterans and their families. The administration on our campus is very supportive and encouraging of our efforts to focus on this population.”
McDonald says she hopes students come to understand the “seriousness of some of the grim statistics [concerning] suicide, sexual assault and relationship violence that are present among the military community after taking the class, but I also want them to understand how to apply the resiliency framework to build on strengths and resources to move forward.”
In addition, McDonald is aiming to cultivate a new crop of counselors who actively advocate for their profession. She has been working with ACA’s Public Policy Department to help with NCCA’s grassroots efforts to gain recognition from the Pentagon of North Carolina’s licensed professional counselor accreditation, something she is incorporating into the class.
“Currently, the DoD does not list N.C. as a state with an approved LPC,” she says. “Counselors who are licensed in North Carolina as LPCs and want to apply for a counseling position at Camp Lejeune, for example, are being told to apply for licensure in another state and seek reciprocity to work as counselors in N.C. The DoD list of approved state LPCs doesn’t reflect major changes in N.C.’s LPC requirements enacted in 2009.”
One of McDonald’s projects for the class is to write an advocacy letter to a state official regarding the matter.
“I want students to know that their advocacy efforts to bring greater recognition of counselors as mental health professionals are effective,” she says. “I want them to know how to advocate for themselves and our profession.”
Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.