After 30 years in the counseling profession, I have arrived at the conclusion that we counselors are sometimes our own worst enemies. When a unified voice could be the key to advancing our profession — such as with current efforts to expand reimbursement for counselors’ services under Medicare, initiatives to standardize our licensing standards and outreach to get more counselors hired to positions within the Department of Veterans Affairs — we at times seem to be fighting our own internal battles instead.
How, then, can the individual counselor do his or her part to advance the profession that we all love? In the spirit of helping the counseling profession achieve the status that 40 years of licensure would indicate, I’d like to offer six concrete, yet relatively simple, suggestions.
First, as my students would corroborate, I have a visceral resistance to using what I call the “t” word: therapist. Although probably well-meaning in most instances, when counselors use this word, they miss opportunities to use an even better one: counselor. The same principle exists for use of the word therapy when counseling could be used.
In our culture, most people do not know the differences between counselors, social workers, psychologists and even psychiatrists. Each time that we call ourselves by the correct name (counselor), we are taking advantage of an opportunity to educate the public about our profession — to help with our own branding, if you will. Similarly, each time that we use therapist or therapy, we are missing out on that same opportunity and in a small way contributing to the ongoing diminution of our professional identity. When referring to a multidisciplinary group of helping professionals, using therapy or therapists is, of course, appropriate.
A second concrete action that each of us can take is to refer to other counselors. Obviously, our primary obligation is to our clients, and if the appropriate and best referral is to a helping professional in one of our sister professions, then so be it. But in making referrals, we are afforded another opportunity to help our profession advance, so we should include professional counselors as often as possible when we refer.
In my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, several licensed professional counselors got together a few years ago and formed a loosely organized group. We meet monthly for informal support and discussion and engage in quarterly trainings together for required continuing education. But in addition, we have also established an active professional network that has allowed us to learn more about the expertise of local counselors, which has greatly enhanced our ability to make appropriate referrals. Rarely does a week go by without a member of our group posting a message to our distribution list asking for help in identifying a fellow counselor to work with a particular type of client. Referring to other counselors, when appropriate, is one of the best ways that each of us can support our profession.
My third suggestion relates to the electronic age in which we currently operate. We must not underestimate the power of the Internet. Unfortunately, many counselors in our community do not have websites, so the referral process I outlined above is often complicated by the fact that most clients want to read about the person they were referred to before pursuing services with that professional. Because of that, we may be forced to refer to a professional from another discipline who does maintain a website. Lest counselors be discouraged by expense, several low-cost or even free web-design templates are available (for example, see weebly.com, wix.com and web.com). Using these or other templates, the main cost involves purchasing the domain name and hosting the site, which is typically quite affordable (often less than $100 per year). In addition to generating referrals for your practice, having a website helps to solidify the presence of counselors on the Internet and further legitimizes our profession in the eyes of the public.
A fourth step in advocating for our profession induces fear in some counselors and may not be for everyone: talking to the media. Local newspapers, radio stations and television outlets are on a continuous quest for fresh content related to issues of the day. Some counselors routinely turn these requests down (I know, because they refer the media to me), missing another chance to educate the public about themselves and the profession.
Dealing with the media can be tricky, of course, but simply discussing what our profession does can be a valuable public service and an opportunity to teach about what counselors do. Commenting on particular cases or specific clients would be problematic and even potentially unethical, but participating in an interview on a particular issue, such as a counseling approach, what counselors do or a topic of interest to the local community, could be entirely appropriate and valuable. American Counseling Association staff members are available for consultation on talking to the media as well.
Getting to know your state and local legislators is a fifth way for counselors to engage in advocacy for the profession. State legislatures vary greatly, but most are composed of part-time legislators who spend much of their time in their local communities. These legislators are almost always extremely open to meeting with constituents (another word for voters!). Waiting until an issue is in front of the legislature to visit with your elected representative is often too late. By that time, whatever opposition exists may have already made its position known, meaning you may be up against a formidable adversary in a politically charged environment. A better approach is to proactively establish a relationship with local legislators. This can be done by inviting them to visit the program where you work, introducing them to other counselors, considering honoring them for work they may have done that is helpful to your clients or considering making a campaign contribution. Any or all of these steps can make a real difference when counselors in your state legitimately need the help of the legislator on a particular issue.
If you are uncomfortable or overwhelmed with the idea of visiting your local legislator, think about going as a group. Several counselors, perhaps with different specialties, can attend a meeting together, allowing the elected official to learn from multiple perspectives on a single visit and maximizing the effectiveness of your time. Remember, legislators are people just like us.
Finally, a sixth suggestion relates to the all-important governing bodies that oversee the practices of many of us: state licensure boards. Early in my career, my role in state professional associations led me to attend numerous meetings of our state board of counseling. Not only was this necessary and valuable as it related to the issues under consideration, but it also contributed to my interest in serving on the board and eventually resulted in my appointment to this position in my home state of Virginia. Before my appointment, while attending the meetings and advocating for things that weren’t necessarily in line with the board’s thinking at the time, I received a wonderful compliment when one of the board members said to me, “We don’t always agree with what you have to say, but we appreciate the way you conduct yourself.”
Opportunities to advocate for the profession frequently present themselves, and we need to take advantage of them, whether our audience is the general public or our fellow counselors. Attending a meeting of your state counseling board is an easy step; most boards must meet in open session, and their activities are matters of public record. Public comment is usually received at the beginning of each meeting, not just when controversial items are being debated. These are free, easy opportunities for counselors to speak in a public way about issues of importance to the profession. Serving on such a board is also a very valuable way to engage in advocacy on behalf of the profession.
Clearly, there are numerous ways for counselors to engage in advocacy. Each of us should be able to identify a few ways to get involved, either based on the suggestions in this article or by staying alert to other advocacy opportunities. Whether it involves the somewhat tongue-in-cheek avoidance of the “t” word or the more substantial activity of attending a state counseling board meeting, each counselor is presented with daily opportunities to engage in the activity of advocacy.
To this counselor at least, it seems that we earn the right to express our displeasure only when we actively engage in advocacy. Not doing so contributes to some of the obstacles we currently face in attaining the respect and consideration that the counseling profession both needs and deserves.
Kevin Doyle, a licensed professional counselor and licensed substance abuse treatment practitioner, is an assistant professor and co-coordinator of the counselor education program in the College of Education and Human Services at Longwood University in Virginia. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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