In recent months and years, I’ve seen counseling and mental health move up the list of “hot topics.” Influential actors, leaders and even government officials have spoken up and drawn these areas into the light in a new and brilliant way. As a culture, we are talking about mental health now and reaching out for help more than ever. I find this inspiring and believe that all of this bold new conversation and outreach is changing lives for the better.
First lady Michelle Obama has spoken publicly about the importance of mental health and the need to end associated stigma. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, recorded a video message this year in support of Children’s Mental Health Week. Actor Jared Padalecki, of Supernatural fame, talked publicly about his own mental health struggles and launched the Always Keep Fighting charity T-shirt campaign (I regularly see clients sporting the clothing that is sold to support the cause). MTV has run news segments on celebrities working to shut down stigma related to mental health. Leonardo DiCaprio talked about his struggle with obsessive-compulsive symptoms after filming The Aviator. While filming the movie, he stopped trying to control his tendencies toward obsessive-compulsive disorder and ended up developing stronger symptoms that lasted long after filming had ended.
For these reasons, I thought at least a tiny bit of the battle was over. What battle? The battle for counseling to be taken seriously as a profession, the battle to get people to understand that mental health is as important as all other aspects of health and the battle to get help to those who need it. I believed these changes and new discussions meant that the control tower had cleared the runway and all we needed to do as a profession was fly in and land.
A bubble burst
I didn’t want to be like many of the mental health professionals — counselors, caseworkers and others — I met during my school-related practicum. I’d hear them speaking about red tape, see the cynicism in their expressions and sometimes even sense their disdain for my fresh-out-of-the-box, new counselor, can-do attitude. But they knew what I’m beginning to understand.
The battle isn’t over. It won’t ever be over. We can’t rest from this as a profession. We have to keep going, keep working and keep educating. When a chiropractor points out that his church shut down its free counseling program because “counseling is just talking and doesn’t really work,” we have to smile and use that as an opportunity to educate. When a woman in line at Starbucks sees the American Counseling Association gym bag we’re holding and assumes that we just help kids get into college, we can speak up about what we really do.
My bubble was burst a few months into my first real counseling position at a nonprofit agency serving children in Texas. Texas is a large and, for the most part, very rural state. Many of its small cities don’t have any licensed mental health professionals. In addition, there are many people without the money or insurance to pay for services despite the Affordable Care Act, and many others lacking the resources to travel half an hour or more to access counseling services. Most families have parents and caregivers who work. Taking a block of time out of their workday for counseling has a price attached, both in terms of money and stress.
In an effort to provide services to populations in these circumstances, the agency where I work allows counselors to set up satellite offices in neighboring communities. This helps when families can’t make the trip to the main office or can’t afford to take off work to make that trip. To take this a step further, we often gain permission from schools in these outlying areas to see children in the schools where they attend (with proper consent and releases). Because of other tasks that require their time and expertise, school counselors don’t typically have the time to provide in-depth mental health counseling to students in need.
I received a few calls from residents of a nearby town who wanted a counselor to come provide services to children in the community. Each of the referral calls came from families with children in the local school district, so I was surprised when I reached out to the school to offer counseling services and got a “no” in response. The school’s lead administrator informed me that I could use space on the campus one day per week, but students would be permitted to miss only music class.
This was bad news on a couple of levels. First, because the school is small, each grade level goes to music class together. In other words, I wouldn’t be able to have two clients in the same grade because my sessions are 45 minutes long and music class is 50 minutes. Second, it would be impossible to protect the privacy of my clients under those circumstances. It wouldn’t be long before every kid in the school knew that if a student left music class, he or she was going to counseling. Never mind the underlying message that music (the arts) is frivolous — just like counseling.
I responded to the stipulated offer by explaining the privacy concerns I had about the situation. I also reiterated that multiple families with students in the school had sought services and that I wouldn’t be able to see everyone during music classes. I mentioned that I always talk with parents and children about what time of day will work best for them based on the child’s performance in each class and when that class occurs. I reminded the school administrator that Texas permits children to miss school to attend counseling appointments, just like they are permitted to miss class to see a medical doctor.
I communicated this all very professionally and from a place of love and advocacy for my would-be clients, my profession and my agency. In response, I got another “no” that included an explanation of how and why academics are the focus of this particular school. This school’s administration either doesn’t understand the way that mental and emotional health (which counseling supports and develops) affect academic performance, or they do and choose to ignore it. I’ll never know. I did my best to provide a basis for conversation and education about counseling. It didn’t work, and I was frustrated. A school — the place where so many issues are first identified — was refusing to help its students.
Months prior to this disappointing outreach, I had volunteered to present at a local high school career day. After the rejection of my services by the other school, I was hesitant to follow through on this career presentation. How would I possibly line up next to police officers, doctors and teachers as a career option? Had anyone even signed up for my presentation on mental health counseling as a career? Would the cynicism building up inside of me because of others’ rejection and resistance to mental health progress dull my eyes, spirit and voice as I talked to potential future counselors?
When the day arrived, more than 120 students had signed up to hear my presentation on mental health counseling. They asked great questions. For instance, a freshman asked, “How does working with others and their problems affect you as a counselor?” A ninth-grader asking about vicarious traumatization! They were listening! And interested! I opened up about what it is like for me to be a counselor.
Getting to ‘yes’
In a nonprofit agency, we often wear many hats. Sometimes we are counselor, case manager, outreach coordinator, guest speaker, educator and secretary. Sometimes we are all those things and more within a single hour of the day. We are advocates for our clients and would-be clients. I advocated for potential clients with the area school in hopes of making services available and easily accessible and to require less time out of class. I failed, but I tried. Sometimes we’re disappointed that others — professionals affected by our work — don’t understand its importance or take it seriously. But on some days, we get through. Some days we get a “yes.” That “yes” means the world to the people we work to serve.
It is vitally important that as a profession, we continue to advocate and communicate with professions that touch ours. Medical professionals, teachers and many others have contact with our clients. Their perspective on counseling can have an effect on how our clients view counseling — on whether or not they seek and receive the services they need. In the face of frustration, it is important to remember to talk openly and to stay educated about the research that supports our field and the interventions we use. The next time you’re brave enough to speak up, you may get a “yes” that changes minds and outcomes for better down the road.
The disconnect I’ve experienced across professions is often a result of my desire to avoid perceived conflict by not speaking up and telling someone how fantastic my research-supported profession is. Talk about our profession. Talk about it anytime you’re given a chance like I was at my chiropractor’s office. When you’re in line at Starbucks, talk about it with the woman who comments on your ACA bag. Talk about it on social media. Speak up about what we do and the research that supports it, and be ready to power through the possible frustrations of a “no” or disagreement.
We don’t just expect children to learn algebra “naturally.” We educate them from their first day of school until their last, which prepares them to do algebra in real-world settings. Yet the attitude of public educators is at best “refer for counseling”; at worst, “kids can do that away from ‘education’ time.”
The “yes” I hope to witness someday is a big one. In my head, every school in my state — in the United States — will welcome vetted agencies to enter schools and provide in-depth services on campus when they’re needed and with appropriate consent from guardians. I envision a time when I’ll call or visit a school campus that welcomes me and my bag of counseling goodies every time (it does happen!). I close my eyes and see schools with life skills courses — entire courses devoted to bettering the whole person in which kids can learn about emotions, coping skills, communication and healthy relationships.
My vision of counseling science as a cornerstone of health and education is a big one. Imagine! Sending kids into a classroom to learn how to communicate effectively with one another. Producing high school graduates with all the tools to truly live life to their fullest, most successful potential. This vision may seem very far away, but there was a time when children weren’t educated about math beyond what they might learn at home. In my moments of frustration, I close my eyes and see these things and remember to speak up for my profession, my colleagues and my clients.
Recently, Prince Harry, who has long been outspoken on mental health issues related to veterans of war, spoke with Good Morning America. He stated, “Psychological illnesses can be fixed if sorted out early. … We’ve got to keep the issue at the forefront of people’s minds. … Just talking about it makes all the difference.” The counseling profession must continue that battle, talking not just about mental health but about what we are able to do to help.
Whitney N. White holds a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. She is a national certified counselor and a licensed professional counselor intern in Texas, where she is employed in the nonprofit sector working with youth. Some of her passions are working with youth struggling with self-injury; using yoga to connect body, breath and mind; and spending time with her family. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.