One of my favorite things about graduate school was doing literature reviews. I enjoyed finding the perfect articles to support my positions, gaining really useful insights and simply being amazed at some of the things that we have learned about being human.
A thought frequently ran through my mind as I was doing literature reviews: I wish more of this very important information would find its way into the awareness of the general public. The truth is, some academics do a really great job of passing very useful information back and forth to one another, but I am not sure that the public always benefits from what we are learning.
I decided I would try to do something about that in my own practice as a counselor. I started a personal blog with the intention of writing about social justice issues through the lens of a counselor. I wanted to write in a style that was easy to understand, despite much of the information being based on research literature.
I firmly believed then, as I do now, that if people became more aware and educated about social justice issues, then they would feel compelled to act on these issues.
Shortly after starting my blog, I also became a contributing writer for the online magazine Everyday Feminism. This platform has permitted me to write several articles pertaining to mental health and social justice work that have been shared thousands of times on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter by people all over the world.
We have some extraordinarily intelligent people around us, but not all of them are counselors, social scientists or researchers who have the time to pore over hundreds of articles to get accurate information about the many social justice issues that are out there. And I think that it is partly our responsibility as counselors to offer this information.
So, I encourage individual counselors to be actively looking for ways to get involved, in a very public way, with social justice work.
I think that taking up this position helps the counseling profession in many ways. For one thing, I think that it is a great way to earn public trust. It certainly isn’t a secret that people have a real distrust of mental health professionals. And they may not have a clue that social justice work is even something that we are supposed to be doing.
Why would they? The only image of us is the traditional counselor sitting in the office counseling a client who is relaxing on a psychoanalysis couch.
If we make an effort to get more involved with social justice issues, then hopefully the people for whom we advocate and provide our expertise can see that we are interested in helping to improve social conditions for them. I can’t think of a better way to increase the public confidence in our profession.
Every week I read the comments that Everyday Feminism, various mental health blogs and other sources receive on their social media sites regarding various social justice issues. It seems to me that people really want solid information. But in the absence of accurate information, myths abound.
While I give praise to the American Counseling Association and other mental health organizations for taking very public stands on critical social justice issues, I don’t think that individual counselors should be satisfied with leaving social justice work up to our professional organizations alone. There are simply too many things out there that we can play an instrumental role in improving if we look for more opportunities.
I serve on the board of directors for the nonprofit organization Lesbian Health Initiative (LHI) in Houston. The mission is to help eliminate health disparities in the LGBTQ communities — a clearly marginalized group. I have used my experiences in behavioral health in medical settings, writing articles and nonprofit work to do what I can to help with this social justice endeavor.
Counselors possess a unique purpose and specialized training that make us perfect for serving in social justice movements. The issues that we help people with in the counseling setting are often the result of the issues that play out in our society. Unequal treatment, violence, trauma and poverty are just a few of the issues we know our clients are dealing with. Many of us are survivors ourselves.
Ultimately, if we really want our clients’ lives to improve, then we must change the circumstances that aid in their psychological distress. And it makes sense that some of the best-equipped people to help make these changes are the individuals who study these issues.
From a purely selfish perspective, I know that a better society benefits me too. I will never really know all of the ways that social justice advocates throughout history have created opportunities for me. What I do know is that I want part of their legacy to be mine — that when my time has passed, someone can say that I left opportunities behind for others.
My heart becomes full when I read about counselors who are not only responding to change and crisis but who also station themselves right in the middle while it is occurring around them. They are right there to influence things for the better.
For example, the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) counseling department staff and students have been very involved in the highly volatile situation that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown. Those counselors and students realized that their community was hurting and headed right toward it. Their efforts were highlighted in a CT Online article.
They did not just offer crisis counseling and support, although that may have been good enough. They also spoke out about the long history of racial inequality in that community and recognized that it was a major reason why the people of Ferguson began their movement.
The students and staff of UMSL made an effort to understand the issue. They have comforted the hurting and have been beside them while they demand social justice.
That is exactly where we belong.
I should probably point out that social justice work takes a certain amount of courage. Not everyone wants social justice, believe it or not. There are some people who benefit from the status quo. Putting yourself out there as a person who does social justice work means that you may not always receive a warm welcome. I have certainly been on the receiving end of some not-so-friendly tweets.
When this happens, we have to trust the information that we have gathered. We have to believe in ourselves and our cause. We have to remind ourselves that we don’t stand alone; rather, there are thousands of us.
The next thing I plan to do is become a member of the Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA. I will continue to look for social justice opportunities in my own community and beyond.
I believe that all counselors should be looking for their social justice niche and make their voices heard on behalf of the clients they serve.
The keyboard is one medium that I use to promote social justice. I get to combine my love of writing and hunting down information and use it for a good purpose.
What will you do?
Robin J. Landwehr is a licensed professional counselor in North Dakota and a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. She is also a national certified counselor. Contact her through her blog at thehippieinmeblog.com.