Monthly Archives: July 2013

An open letter to the ACA community regarding the acquittal of George Zimmerman

Cirecie West-Olatunji July 16, 2013

acaLogo3012As ACA members reflect on the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, it is important to realize that – no matter what each of us might think about the outcome of the trial – this case has serious implications for the counseling profession. Specifically, the political climate that has surrounded the case reflects the current state of affairs in the U. S., one steeped in polarization and toxicity.

More and more, individuals are demonstrating their closed mindedness and revealing pre-conceived notions about others. Even more discouraging, this lack of openness is often celebrated and encouraged by the media as well as within some social groups. Unfortunately, this polarization frequently breeds interpersonal conflict, fear, and resentment rather than relationship, community, and unification. And, if we are not careful, a very real outcome from this chronic polarization might be home grown acts of terrorism against each other. Or, even worse, we could become vulnerable to attacks by our enemies while expending our energy attacking each other verbally, psychologically, and physically. This move toward an “Us vs. Them” society, where we only see our own point of view rather than seeing the value in others’ views compromises our human development.

As counselors, we are trained to become relationship seeking rather than relationship avoidant. We are taught that, when we isolate ourselves and become inflexible, we are seen as dysfunctional and toxic. We are socialized to facilitate relational consciousness within our clients. Coupled with this belief in relationship is a history of social action. Counselors have historically taken a stand to challenge conventional beliefs and advocate for our clients within a holistic context.

Let us think critically about what the Zimmerman case really means within the context of the greater good for society. We should ask ourselves, “What is our role in enhancing relational skills in our society? In what ways can we advocate for peace or for justice?” Some would say that having more guns make us safer. Others would say that fewer guns are the answer. As counselors, we believe that it is our attitude that dictates our actions.

Nelson Mandela (who served as president of South Africa following the abolition of apartheid) once stated, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” It’s a long walk to freedom but the journey feels lighter with company.

Cirecie West-Olatunji, Ph. D.


Q&A with ACA Institute for Leadership Training keynote speaker Sherene McHenry

Heather Rudow July 15, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALeaders from various branches, regions and divisions of the American Counseling Association are convening in Washington, D.C. July 24-27 for the ACA Institute for Leadership Training.

 The institute gives attendees the opportunity to enhance their leadership skills and dedication to the counseling profession through workshops, learning sessions, visits with elected officials and a keynote presentation. This year’s keynote speaker is author, speaker, licensed professional counselor and ACA member Sherene McHenry.

 McHenry runs a company called Fully Engaged, which focuses on helping professionals, including counselors, avoid burnout, reduce stress, reach goals and more.  “I am thrilled to be a part of the Institute for Leadership Training,” McHenry says. “It’s an honor to join the American Counseling Association in serving and empowering our leaders to create even stronger branches, regions and divisions.”

For more information, visit

What will your keynote address entail?

It’s a heartwarming, humorous invitation for counselors and leaders to decrease their self-inflicted stress while increasing their emotional and physical reserves so that they can best meet the needs of those they serve.

Why do you think it’s important for counselors to focus on self-care?

Counselors are on the front line, and they tend to be extremely caring. If they aren’t strategic, they are at high risk for compassion fatigue and burnout, which impair counselors and can harm the very people they are striving to serve.

 How did you become interested in this subject?

As a classic over-functioner who cares deeply about the pain and suffering of others, I’ve flirted with burnout myself. Then, as a counselor educator, I noticed the same patterns of over-functioning and the lack of boundaries in many of my students. What counselors do is far too important to risk being sidelined, and I simply couldn’t stomach seeing well-trained, previously passionate and highly caring counselors leave the field.

In the past two decades that you’ve focused on this subject, do you think counselors have gotten better or worse at taking care of themselves?

While it depends on the individual, counselors are confronted with ever increasing needs and severity of mental health issues. It’s a tough and stressful time to be a counselor, and it often feels like we’re trying to bail out a boat with a spoon. We tell counselors they need to engage in self-care, then turn right around and ask them to give more and more.

When did you found Fully Engaged? What prompted you to start this endeavor?

I started speaking in 1993 and immediately fell in love with making people laugh while sharing life-enhancing information. The scariest decision I ever made was leaving my full professorship in December of 2011 to fully pursue my passion of empowering, equipping and inspiring audiences around the world.

Tell us about your new book, Pick: Choose to Create a Life You Love.

Pick: Choose to Create a Life You Love centers on developing the mind and skillsets needed to live life to the fullest. It helps readers identify their hopes and dreams, live their passion and overcome what holds them back from living a life they truly love. It’s full of stories from my life and what I learned along the way, it helps the reader identify where they are and want to be, and it offers quick tips for things they can immediately implement to enhance their life. 

What do you hope attendees get out of your keynote address?

That what they [are] as counselors and leaders is ever so critical and appreciated. We need them to strategically take care of themselves and those who volunteer under their leadership so that they can meet the ever-increasing needs of those they serve.

Why do you think the Institute For Leadership Training is important for counselors to attend?

It’s a complex time in our nation and in our field, and leaders need to be able to hit the ground running. The more skilled they are as leaders and the more they know, the more effectively they’ll serve their constituents. Unfortunately, being a great counselor doesn’t necessarily translate into being a great leader. It’s an entirely different skillset, often like herding cats, to lead a volunteer organization. The Institute for Leadership Training is designed to equip leaders to significantly impact the world. How cool is that?

 Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

Letters to the editor:


Helping clients reach collaborative conflict solutions in the workplace

Pamela Gordon, Susanne Beier & Brett Gordon July 8, 2013


(Photo:Flickr/Kris Krug)

Conflict regularly occurs within the organizational setting. Whenever two or more employees are together, the potential for disagreement arises. At the basic level, conflict simply means a difference of opinion. While an initial impression might suggest resolving the conflict, a more effective approach may be to manage it.

Professional counselors working with individuals and groups in the corporate organizational setting need to be well versed in the different types of conflict and conflict management techniques required to successfully coach employees toward positive outcomes.

 Types of conflict

When the word conflict is mentioned, it conjures up images of turmoil, fighting, harsh words and resentment. Generally, a winner-takes-all attitude arises. Each party is so intent on arguing his or her point of view that very little listening occurs. Unsettled disputes of this type negatively affect the organization. They can lead to increased employee turnover, decreased productivity and, ultimately, threaten the very survival of the firm. This certainly describes the common interpretation of destructive or dysfunctional conflict.

There is, however, a positive side to conflict. Diverse viewpoints promote a variety of perspectives, which can lead to innovation. Managed correctly, conflict can transform a stagnant organization into one that inspires change and creativity. Constructive or functional conflict can also prevent groupthink, which is a dangerous form of standardized thinking that encourages a go-along-to-get-along mentality.

Conflict management styles

There are five commonly used conflict management styles: avoiding, accommodating, competing, compromising and collaborating. Each style is appropriate in certain situations. The following overview provides the positive and negative aspects of each style. One style emerges as the most productive technique for counselors to use as they coach employees toward functional conflict outcomes.

Avoiding: In some instances, a cooling off period is needed, and suggesting the avoidance technique is a recommended action. Unfortunately, avoiding the issue does not help the employees toward resolution. Counselors should use this strategy as a short-term technique to diffuse a highly volatile situation. This is a beginning step and not a long-term solution.

Accommodating: The accommodating strategy means that one party forfeits his or her stance on an issue in order to accept the other party’s viewpoint. This technique only works if the accommodating party does not have a strong interest in the outcome and is willing to forgo his or her initial stance regarding the issue. Counselors should be aware that this technique promotes a stronger-vs.-weaker mindset of conflict management and does not lead to creative outcomes.

Competing: This technique is the flip side of accommodating. Competing is characterized as a power-play technique in which one party becomes dominant in forcing his or her viewpoint upon others. This is a less effective conflict management style and generally leads to destructive conflict.

Compromising: Encouraging compromise between conflicting parties may sound like a positive option. However, it is not necessarily the best choice. Although both parties enjoy acceptance of some aspects of their viewpoints, neither party fully achieves his or her desired goals. Counselors may want to use this strategy as employees reconvene after the cooling off (avoidance) period. As with avoidance, this style is used as an interim technique.

Collaborating: Numerous research study results indicate that in the business setting, collaboration is the most effective conflict management style. It embodies all of the aspects of functional conflict. Unlike compromise, collaboration does not force either party to forfeit goals. Collaboration is the only conflict management style that embraces the concept of shared opinions and synergistic outcomes. Counselors should create a mediation environment that is conducive to an open exchange of ideas and information.

How can counselors help?

Counselors can train clients in a process called UNITE. Using this approach, their clients will reach collaborative solutions to workplace conflicts.

  • U – Understand and clearly help clients identify the conflict issue.
  • N – Negotiate and mediate client discussion efforts.
  • I – Invite clients involved in the conflict to share concerns and possible solutions.
  • T – Target a combined solution and promote a win-win outcome for all involved clients.
  • E – Evaluate results to ensure a collaborative solution was achieved.

The dichotomous aspect of conflict poses a challenge to counselors as they mediate disputes and coach employees. The goal should be to promote strategies that drive functional conflict and positive outcomes. An understanding of the five conflict management styles helps to underscore the importance of managing conflict in a way that encourages constructive outcomes for all parties. The collaborating style emerges as the most effective technique to use within the corporate setting when managing employee conflicts.



Pamela Gordon earned her doctorate in business administration with a specialization in management from Northcentral University. She currently works for University of Phoenix to foster faculty development. Her research interests are in the areas of management, organizational behavior, marketing, and human resource management. Contact her at

Susanne Beier is a licensed professional counselor (Pennsylvania and New Jersey) and a diplomat in clinical forensic counseling. Susanne has 10 years of teaching and educational administration experience as well as 15 years of clinical counseling experience.  She has been featured in New Woman, Working Woman, SELF and Cosmopolitan magazines for her work with corporate relocation clients. Contact her at

Brett Gordon earned his degree in organization and management in 2002 after spending 11 years in the pharmaceutical industry in the areas of sales and marketing and corporate training. He currently holds faculty positions at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, University of the Rockies, Keller Graduate School of Management, University of Phoenix and Northcentral University. Contact him at

A counselor battling cancer finds commonalities with clients battling addiction

Susan Brachna July 3, 2013


(Photo:Wikimedia Commons)

I am a cancer survivor and just completed my M.A. in mental health counseling in December 2012. By chance, I interviewed to do my internship at a residential treatment facility for individuals who are mandated by the courts to seek treatment for their drug or alcohol addictions. Most of my clients have several felonies and misdemeanors due to their addiction. My original thought was that if I could work with addicts, I would be able to counsel almost any kind of client. Little did I know how much in common I would have with my clients.

In December 2010, I was diagnosed with advanced endometrial cancer. At the time, my doctor gave me a poor prognosis and told me not to expect to live for long. I had surgery, did standard chemotherapy treatment for six months and then went into remission for another 10 months. The cancer came back in April 2012. I have been in treatment ever since.

What kept me going was finishing my degree and doing my internship. When I first started working in the residential treatment facility, my supervisor had me observe various groups. Two weeks later, I was running three groups: one on parenting, another on recovery awareness and a third therapeutic group called “Thinking for a Change.”

I had never run any groups before but quickly realized that the clients were anxious to share their stories and express their opinions. One group in particular, “Thinking for a Change,” follows a strict curriculum. Often, one or two clients want to dominate the conversation. Others talk about subjects unrelated to the curriculum. I need to intervene to give other group members a chance to speak, to redirect the conversation or to provide therapeutic feedback.

“Thinking for a Change” is a cognitive behavioral program developed by the federal government. Its objective is to help clients change their criminal thinking and behavior so they won’t end up in the criminal justice system as a result of their addictions. Clients learn to use a “thinking report,” in which they describe a particular situation, their thoughts and feelings, and their attitudes and beliefs about the situation. By changing their thoughts and feelings about a particular situation, clients find out they can turn negative outcomes into positive ones. To be successful, clients must literally change their lifestyle and even their personality. Part of an addict’s treatment is to find new housing, new friends and a sponsor from Alcoholics Anonymous.

What could I possibly have in common with my clients, and what could I learn from them? First of all, I learned to live one day at a time. People with addictions know that tomorrow may never come. The same is true for me. I don’t know when my treatments will stop working and when I will have to go into hospice. I try to make the most of each day. One can make plans for the future. Often, such plans do not come to fruition.

At the end of every group, we always say the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Before I had cancer, I was a Type A personality and was always in a whirlwind of activity. I didn’t know how to set boundaries. I let other people tell me how to run my life. I tolerated people I didn’t even like.

Clients with addictions must change “people, places and things.”  They are encouraged to throw away their old cell phones, which contain the names of drug dealers and using friends. Contact with such people almost always leads to using the drug again. Drugs are everywhere, in both poor and wealthy neighborhoods. Addicts often need to change their addresses and move into new neighborhoods. Some move across town or even to a new city. They learn to recognize the triggers that could lead them to use again, such as too much stress and boredom. Boredom is one of the biggest triggers because these clients often don’t have enough to keep them busy, such as a job.

I haven’t changed “places” and “things” in my life, but I certainly have changed “people.” Stress is not good for me because too much of it might weaken my immune system. Certain people from my past have been toxic. I have deleted their numbers from my cell phone. If I see their number on my phone, I don’t answer. Making the decision not to see such people has made my life more calm and peaceful. I am a happier person.

At the residential treatment center, possessing religious or spiritual belief is very important for recovery. Many clients come to treatment with no religious affiliation at all but leave with some kind of spiritual belief. I don’t believe a person battling addiction can make a full recovery without a spiritual orientation.

All my life, I have struggled with my religious beliefs. I have never been baptized but have attended a Methodist church for over 20 years. Previously, when I had a problem I could not solve, I would go to church to pray. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was mad at God. “Why me?” I asked. Neither the Orthodox Jewish rabbi nor the Presbyterian minister had an answer for me when I first asked this question during my stay in the hospital. Even the doctors could not provide me with an answer. But saying the serenity prayer after every group helped to enrich my spiritual life. I do not attend church every Sunday, but I do rely on prayer in times of need.

Unfortunately, many people with addictions return to their former lives right after treatment — the same “places, people and things”  — especially because they don’t have many non-using friends or family members. In other cases, family members and friends have given up on the client. The recovering addict needs support from family and friends. He or she also requires good medical care, therapeutic follow-up, an exercise plan, a daily schedule, a job, hobbies and so on. Treatment does not end when the addict leaves the residential facility. It is just beginning. I know that my clients who have support from family and friends and decent medical care have a better chance to abstain from drugs.

Caring for cancer patients properly is expensive. They need an integrative approach, which includes medical treatment, individual and family counseling, an exercise plan, nutritional advice and even career planning. Treatment does not end when the cancer patient goes into remission. It is ongoing. Many cancer patients experience other side effects from chemotherapy and radiation, such as osteoporosis, neuropathy, heart problems, depression and anxiety.

Most people with addictions also have serious medical problems, including hepatitis C, malnutrition, chronic pain, arthritis, asthma, depression, anxiety or other conditions. As a group, people with addictions are very unhealthy. During treatment, most of them rely on coffee and cigarettes to keep going. Not only does a counselor provide individual counseling but also tries to ensure that the client will have suitable medical, family and social networks when he or she leaves residential treatment. Often, the clients’ friends and family have deserted them, and they find themselves all alone in the world. Without outside support, they will often find their way back to old people, places and drugs.

Studies have shown that people who have had heart attacks and have strong family and social networks recover more quickly and live longer. I am convinced that the same is true for cancer patients. Social networks give people hope and a reason to survive. Without the support of my family and friends, I would probably not be here.

Last of all, death is something that both cancer patients and clients with addiction face on a daily basis. “Can I have just one more drink?” the addict asks. The answer, of course, is “no.” The cancer patient never knows when his or her illness will recur or whether another treatment will be available to kill malignant cells. In any case, both cancer and addiction end lives. The disease takes over. Doctors and family members stand by helplessly as they watch the patient slip away into a deep, eternal sleep.

I am passionate about my clients. They don’t know that I have cancer. They have no idea that my private life is not so different from theirs. Will I be here tomorrow, a month from now or next year? My clients have taught me to live just for today, to set my boundaries and to rid myself of unhealthy relationships. I am grateful for my family and friends, who have supported me through my two-and-a-half-year struggle with cancer.

The treatment of both clients with addictions and cancer patients is expensive. It includes the knowledge and professional experience of doctors, nurses, counselors, psychiatrists, physical therapists, nutritionists and more. People with addictions go to Alcoholics Anonymous for support. Family members find consolation in Al-anon and therapeutic groups. Addiction affects the entire family and community. A diagnosis of cancer is devastating for family members and close friends. Family members often need some kind of therapy to deal with the nature of the illness. When the addict or cancer patient finishes initial treatment, he or she will need continuing services over the course of a lifetime. Neither the addict nor the cancer patient can recover without the help of professionals, family and friends. By accident, I found a population for which I am passionate. I understand them because, actually, I am walking in similar shoes. I just have a different diagnosis.

Susan Brachna graduated with a counseling degree from John Carroll University in Cleveland and acquired her PC license in March.

Domestic violence in the world of immigration

Patricia Timerman July 2, 2013


(Photos/Flickr: Alaskan Dude)

In the field of mental health practice, domestic violence is an issue of much significance. As mental health practitioners, we learn early on that domestic violence is about the abuser’s power over his or her victim, be it emotional or physical. We learn to take into consideration the victim’s cultural background and ethnicity. We study different modalities and familiarize ourselves with resources available to best serve and empower these victims. However, there is a major deterring factor most mental health practitioners fail to take into account: the victim’s immigration status.

Immigration status is an undeniably powerful source of control to the abuser. As emphasized in Margaret E. Adams and Jacquelyn Campbell’s 2012 study published in Women’s Health and Urban Life as well as Michael S. Liao’s 2006 article in Women & Therapy, abusers actively take advantage of their immigrant victims’ socioeconomic dependence, lack of knowledge of the legal system and resources, language barriers and especially the victims’ unfamiliarity with immigration laws. These factors afford abusers leverage to threaten their victims with deportation if they do not comply with their demands.

In their article “Being Undocumented & Intimate Partner Violence (IPV): Multiple Vulnerabilities Through the Lens of Feminist Intersectionality,” Adams and Campbell write that “living as an immigrant without legal documentation dramatically exacerbates both that dependence on the partner and the extremely limited access to safety-securing resources.” Liao’s article, “Domestic Violence Among Asian Indian Immigrant Women: Risk Factors, Acculturation, and Intervention,” states that “the ‘Green Card Factor,’ or a fear of deportation, is cited as a significant deterrence for battered Asian Indian women to leave abusive marriages (Abraham, 1995; Abraham, 1998; Sharma, 2000).”

What is our role as mental health practitioners in the issue of domestic violence in the world of immigration? Know, Inform, Advocate!

Knowledge is power

The U.S. immigration laws grant a petition designed to assist immigrant victims of domestic violence: the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), established in 1994. Its purpose, as it relates to immigration, is to provide immigrant victims of domestic violence with a path toward safety and independence from their abuser (

VAWA petition is judiciously sensitive and acutely aware of the difficulties encountered by immigrant victims of domestic violence. It accounts for the fact that abuse is not only physical, but also verbal and emotional. It further takes into consideration the victim’s potential struggles in gathering the required information about the abuser (for instance, the abuser’s proof of citizenship or residency). Most significantly, because VAWA is a self-petition, it breaks one of the biggest barriers to seeking help – that of confidentiality.

Confidentiality is of the utmost importance for VAWA. Contrary to most immigration petitions, VAWA does not require the abusive qualifying relative (U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, parent or child) to apply on behalf of the victim. Instead, it allows the victims to petition on their own behalf. The VAWA petition’s main purpose it to protect the victims, not catch the abusers. Thus, the abusers are not contacted nor arrested for the claims made against them in the petition. Moreover, to guarantee confidentiality, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) designated a unit solely for these cases, called the VAWA Unit. These factors make it impossible for anyone who is not the victim or the victim’s attorney to have access to the filed VAWA petition.

Inform and empower

As mental health practitioners, it is imperative that we know about such immigration reliefs in order to empower the victims. This includes being aware of the myths and barriers deterring victims from seeking help, as well as the requirements and eligibility to file for this petition. For example, many people do not know that, contrary to its name, VAWA is applicable to both male and female victims. In addition, different from most immigrant applications, the VAWA petition is free for the immigrant victims.

Providing such information to an immigrant victim of domestic violence affords them the tools to rewrite their stories. In 2011, while working as a legal assistant in an immigration law firm, I was assigned to a VAWA case. After a couple of months working in the case, the client received her Green Card. Her abusive husband, who used her immigration status as a source of control, was blissfully unaware of her immigration endeavors. Upon receiving her Green Card, the client reported she did not leave her husband because she still loved him. Yet, when her husband became violent toward her, she called the office to inform us that she fended for herself because she no longer was in a “powerless” position. It was then that I realized the legal and emotional impact of VAWA — it afforded “empowerment.” This event alludes to the ideology of narrative therapy, because the client rewrote her story. She was no longer a powerless victim of violence and oppression, but a strong survivor and an independent wife.

In another case from the same law firm, a client in deportation proceedings was able to reopen her case in immigration court after filing under VAWA. The attorney was able to close her case with immigration court in her favor and proceed with the VAWA petition. This client was emotionally, physically and verbally abused, as well as actively isolated by her abuser. Her abuser threatened her not only with deportation, but also by claiming that if deported, she would have to leave their son in the United States. I left the firm while her case was still pending, but this past May, we ran into each other. I noticed that for the first time, she had her hair down. I also noticed that she had nice clothes on, which alluded to her new self-image, and a smile on her face. She reported to me with tears in her eyes that she was in the process of receiving her Green Card, had left her now ex-husband and was now happily engaged. I was in shock at how different she looked. As with the previous client I mentioned, she had rewritten her and her son’s story. She was no longer a fearful victim who was surviving for her son but a gratified survivor who was living for herself and her family. These cases illustrate that by becoming informed about VAWA, clients become empowered to rewrite their life stories.


It is important to know our role not only as informants, but also as advocates on behalf of our clients at both the individual and social levels. At the individual level, a counselor’s clinical evaluation is a powerful supporting document that strengthens the victim’s case for the VAWA petition. At the social level, it is essential that we become knowledgeable about and help work toward keeping these doors open for our clients.

On Feb. 12, with much scrutiny and struggle, the Senate approved the VAWA reauthorization and expanded it to also protect the LGBTQ population as well as Native American victims of domestic violence. On Feb. 28, the House of Representative passed this bill, and on March 7, President Obama signed it into law for the next five years. Because immigration law is at the federal level and same-sex marriage wasn’t recognized under federal law, the LGBTQ addition did not apply to the VAWA immigration petition. However, on June 26, the Supreme Court struck down the key portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples. These are groundbreaking legislative steps in the fight for human rights. Now it is our turn to keep up the good work and become informed.

Aside from VAWA, there are other immigrant petitions/visas available to assists immigrant victims of violence, such as the U Visa, which provides victims of certain crimes (for instance, domestic/sexual violence) with temporary legal status ( For more information, training and consultation on domestic violence in the world of immigration, please contact me at Advocate2Create LLC (

Patricia Timerman is a national certified counselor, a registered mental health counselor intern and a registered marriage and family therapist intern who provides training and consultation through her firm Advocate2Create LLC.