Monthly Archives: January 2017

Irvin Yalom to welcome questions at ACA Conference

By Bethany Bray January 31, 2017

Attendees of the American Counseling Association 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco will have an opportunity to direct their questions to a living legend in the field of mental health.

Irvin Yalom, noted psychiatrist, author and scholar, will deliver the opening keynote speech on March 17 at the ACA Conference. He plans to format his talk as a live interview, fielding questions from the audience. Afterward, he will sign books and take photos with attendees.

“Dr. Yalom has influenced my personal and professional life for many years; his books have often brought a light to my thought process and a shine to my heart,” says Catherine B. Roland, ACA president and chair of the counseling program at the Washington, D.C., campus of the

Dr. Irvin Yalom, pictured at ACA’s 2012 Conference & Expo in San Francisco.

Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “He is the perfect person to speak, given his gentle direction forward — always forward, with hope.”

ACA’s 2017 conference will run March 16-19 at the Moscone West Convention Center
in San Francisco. Jessica Pettitt will give the Saturday keynote address on March 18.

An existential psychiatrist, Yalom is professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University and author of more than a dozen books, both nonfiction and fiction. He also delivered the keynote address the last time that ACA held its conference in San Francisco, in 2012.

Yalom lives with his wife, Marilyn, in California, where he writes and sees clients at his private practice. His latest title, a memoir, is in the editing process and will be published by Basic Books.


CT Online sent Yalom some questions to learn more and get his thoughts on speaking at the upcoming ACA Conference.



What motivated you to accept this speaking engagement to address thousands of professional counselors?

I am devoted to our field of helping others in need, and I am honored to be invited to address such a large and important group of therapists.


What can American Counseling Association members expect from your keynote? What might you talk about?

The format is an interview, and I’m open to discussing my personal history and the development of my particular interests in the field. Namely, group therapy, individual therapy with an emphasis on existential factors and the use of the relationship, and my use of narrative in teaching psychotherapy.


Many counselors consider you a professional influence and inspiration. What would you want them to know about your experiences and career path?

[In my keynote, I’ll be] glad to discuss my own development in the field and how I’ve reacted toward psychoanalysis and interpersonal approaches, group approaches and groups for learning interpersonal skills and for inpatient and outpatient psychotherapy.


What advice would you give professional counselors, particularly those who may be early in their careers?

Learn as much as possible about all the various approaches, but don’t forget that it is the intensity, the depth and the genuineness of the therapist-client relationship that really is the instrument of change. Also get yourself into therapy — and I advise [seeing a therapist] more than once and with individuals from varying schools [therapy methods]. And leap at the opportunity to be in a group with peers.





Dr. Irvin Yalom will speak Friday, March 17, at the 2017 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco and sign books afterward. His keynote will also be live-streamed online. Find out more at


Find out more about his work and his books at





Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at


Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at






Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.


The Counseling Connoisseur: Winter wonderland: Lessons in patience and perspective

By Cheryl Fisher January 30, 2017

I listen to the howling of the wind as it whips the snowdrifts about our modest rambler. Branches dangle from their fragile joints, and birds huddle beneath boxwoods and holly. The birdseed scattered just moments earlier is now covered with a new layer of snow. In the warm glow of our fire, the scent of tomato, garlic and onion from the bubbling pot of chili drifts throughout our home. The dogs lie at our feet gnawing on their bones, and we huddle in the family room, surfing through Netflix … as we brace for the storm.

Just days before, we were collecting supplies to ready for the blizzard. Flashlights were recharged, shovels and ecofriendly salt positioned by the doors, fresh treats and toys gathered to entertain our dogs, ingredients for soups and stews and favorite comfort foods purchased and stored. Cars fully gassed and parked, we were ready … almost delighting in the idea of a weekend of snowshoeing, book reading, movie watching and family time.

The first 24 hours were beautiful to witness as the white blanket began to cover the brown and drab of January. The contrast of cardinals on snowy limbs resembled holiday greeting cards, now discarded for the season. Social media ignited with pictures of snowy backyards and decks, while friends and family in more temperate climates were not denied their contribution of palm trees and sunny skies.

“Wish you were here!” read the captioned picture of a friend lying on the beach with a fruity umbrella drink.

“Right back atcha!” replied another as she sat in her steaming hot tub, snow falling all around, enjoying aged brandy.

There was a time I would have joined the ranks of “winter haters.” I had been in the tropics in my early teen years, and seeing Santa in anything other than Bermuda shorts just seemed wrong! Winter in Maryland was cold — and boring. So I grumbled and grunted the months away, counting the days to spring.

Then, somewhere along the way, I realized that I was complaining for a full quarter of my life, wishing the months would vaporize into warmer days. I was missing out on opportunities to witness beauty and joy that could be experienced even on snowy, bleak winter days. So, I decided to learn to love winter.



Viktor Frankl, in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, suggested that the one thing that can never be taken from a person is her perspective of her situation. Therefore, according to Frankl, we have the opportunity to view any circumstance in a beneficial — even transcendent — manner. It is with this intention that I offer to you a few of the tricks that helped me transcend my wintertime bah-humbug blues:

1) Enjoy comfort foods. What are your favorite cold-weather foods? Let’s face it … soups and stews, ciders and hot cocoa (aged scotch or brandy, for that matter) just taste better when it’s cold outside. I could appreciate winter food and drink with little effort.

2) Get involved in winter sports. I made a list of activities that could be experienced only in snowy weather. This list included ice skating, snow skiing, snow tubing, snowshoeing, and making snow people and snow angels. As I’ve mentioned, my childhood did not include weekends at the slopes, so I invested in lessons. I learned to ice skate at a local arena and took ski lessons any chance I could get. Although I never acquired a passion for either, I found that I really loved sitting by the warm fire in the ski lodge with a hot beverage in my hand and enjoyed the glow that physical fatigue offers after a day on the slopes or ice.

I also discovered that I loved snow tubing. After all, if you are going to end up on your bum … why not begin there? I later obtained snowshoes and now thoroughly enjoy romping in freshly fallen mounds on a quiet evening. If you are more of a spectator of sports, remember there is always the Super Bowl, March Madness and the Winter Olympics (every four years).

3) Dress appropriately. Winter is cold, and I learned quickly that my jeans and bubble jacket didn’t offer enough warmth as part of my new quest to appreciate winter. So, I invested in the real deal — insulated, wicking pants and jacket, along with matching headwear and gloves. What a difference appropriate winter clothing makes. Trust me!

4) Huddle in community. I live in the best neighborhood ever. In addition to keeping an active email blitz going to check on our aging neighbors and helping out with an occasional malfunctioning heater, we arranged a snowperson contest followed by a potluck feast. It is such fun mounding snow with intention and in community. Laughter and silliness permeated the wet gathering. Then we peeled off our snowy gear, warmed ourselves by a fire and enjoyed a table spread with each neighbor’s favorite idea of comfort food. Yum!

5) Relish the silence. I am inherently an introvert. Although I thoroughly enjoy my practice as a counselor and my academic career as a counselor educator, I recognize my need for quiet. I always have a book or two (or three) on my nightstand waiting for me to openly indulge in literary wisdom or adventure. Snowy, wintry days are perfect for lounging in your favorite snuggle-wear and reading away the hours guilt-free.

6) Appreciate the beauty. It is no secret that I swoon to the beauty of nature regardless of season. The birds feast at the feeders on suet and seed. The squirrels run along the branches, dodging snowdrifts that randomly plop down from the tree limbs. The red berries come to life against the green holly bushes, framed by winter’s white. If you are fortunate to live near a forest, you may spy a family of deer out for a moonlit walk. Winter offers a variety of natural beauty that is unique to the season … if only we open our eyes.

7) Realize that it is temporary. For those who, after exhausting all possible avenues to appreciate the winter months, still crave the warmer weather, I remind you … it is a mere few months that will be over before you can say “Easter Bunny” (especially if the occasional tropical vacation is sprinkled in).

Yes, winter is all about perspective and (for some of us) patience.




Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices that speaks to nature-based wisdom. Contact her at









Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Comic books as a bridge to healing

By Lauren Calhoun January 26, 2017

Comic books such as Batman, Superman and The Avengers have become a common language in our culture. People have been drawn to superheroes since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the world to Superman — the first hero to go beyond normal human abilities — in Action Comics #1 in 1938. In 1939 in Detective Comics #27, we were introduced to Batman, a man shrouded in shadow and tragedy.

Characters such as Batman, Superman, Captain America, the Flash and many others were created when the world was enveloped in war. Japan had invaded China and, not long thereafter, Germany invaded Poland. These characters stood as symbols of hope and freedom during this time.

Today their names are known to almost everyone. With both DC (Detective Comics) Entertainment and Marvel Cinematic Universe releasing more and more movies every year, superheroes and the villains they battle have become an integral part of our culture. As reported by Comichron, comic book sales have grown consistently over the past four years, with 2015 seeing almost $2 billion in sales.

At one time, comic book stores were associated with children and stereotypical “nerds/geeks,” but that is no longer the case. Today if you visit a comic book store, you will see people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. Comic books have become more diverse and applicable to a wider range of individuals, meaning almost anyone can find a character or story that they relate to, as well as meaning attached to that character or story.

Comic books can also help communities to heal. For example, the comic book Love is Love, a joint venture between DC Comics and IDW Publishing, benefits the victims of the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. Marc Andreyko, a comic book writer, organized the project, with all proceeds going to survivors and the victims’ families.


The impact of stories

Comic books can have a profound impact on those who read them, offering more than just an escape from our lives. Jonathan Gottschall, author of the book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, states that stories change us at the emotional, behavioral and psychological level.

The superheroes found in comic books are our personification; they are who we strive to be. Like us, superheroes are complex and have a broad range of emotions. They go through challenges and obstacles, just like we do.

Comic books also tackle difficult issues such as racism and bigotry, war, envy, friendship and the individual’s sense of responsibility. Characters such as the X-Men are feared and hated for being born “different.” They are forced to register and are even hunted. Such issues can be applied to many minority members of our society, especially in today’s political climate.

Comic books have become more diverse, with African American male superheroes such as Sam Wilson (Falcon), Luke Cage and T’Challa (the Black Panther), as well as Miles Morales (Spider-Man), a male of black and Latino descent. Comics are also becoming more female driven. The new “Iron Man” is actually a 15-year-old African American female, Riri Williams, who is a genius. The new Thor, wielding the hammer Mjölnir, is also a woman, Jane Foster. This comic book was controversial because Foster is not called “Lady Thor” or some other female version of the name. Instead, she is Thor, and she is worthy of the mantle.

Marvel Now: Ms. Marvel introduces a new Ms. Marvel — Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American teenager girl from Jersey City. It is a typical origin story but also deals with the challenges of a Muslim girl who is struggling with acculturation, wanting to be a “typical” Western girl and being in a traditional home. Kamala’s story applies to those who may feel different, not belonging to either culture, and may help those going through the process of acculturation.

Comic books have also become more inclusive in the portrayal of LGBTQ characters: Batwoman, Green Lantern (Alan Scott) and Iceman identify as gay; Catwoman, Harley Quinn and John Constantine identify as bisexual; Lord Fanny identifies as transgender; and Mystique from X-Men identifies as sexually fluid and gender-fluid. With so many diverse characters available in comic books, counselors can find meaningful characters for their clients.

Characters such as Batman and Superman serve as our modern-day folktales and myths. Batman is a human being just like us. He goes through adversity and challenges, he bleeds and can be broken, but he chooses to rise above those challenges to fight the darkness and the villains. He inspires by declaring that we have a choice in how we respond to tragedy. Batman (Bruce Wayne) lost his parents at a young age when they were murdered in front of him. Instead of letting that event destroy him, or simply wasting his inheritance, he makes a choice to overcome and vows to stop the monsters.

Like Batman, Batgirl possesses no superhuman powers. Unlike Batman, she is from a modest home. In New 52 Batgirl by Gail Simone, Batgirl has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She was shot in the spine by the Joker and was paralyzed, but she overcame this trauma and continued to help people even when she was hurt. She continues to fight her PTSD and fight for good.

As Gotham Chopra, co-author of The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, states in the documentary Legends of the Knight, characters such as Batman are archetypal aspirations that we have pursued throughout time. Comic books are stories that can help our clients reach new insights about themselves and their challenges. Although we may not wear capes, we all have the capacity to choose, to overcome and to help our communities. Superheroes provide us with the ability to see that we can make a positive impact and strive toward being better versions of ourselves.


Applications in counseling

Comic books can help clients who are uncomfortable with counseling to become more comfortable with the process. Comic books can also provide a “safe” way for clients who have difficulty talking about themselves (especially younger clients) to discuss their lives. Comic book characters can aid in self-awareness and provide a connection to the self.

The use of comics in counseling does not need to be limited to working with children. With the help of Comicspedia, created by psychology professor Patrick O’Connor, those new to the comic book world can find comic books that deal with specific issues from grief and loss to LGBTQ issues. Certain clients may already have an interest in a particular character; the Comicspedia website can aid counselors in finding books to apply.

I believe that comic books can be implemented into counseling in multiple ways and multiple settings, from individual therapy to group therapy. Comic books can be used as bibliotherapy. Comic books are stories, and stories have the power to affect us on a deep level. They have the power to become a part of us.

Bibliotherapy can be applied by assigning specific issues for the client to read and reflect on. The stories can be then processed in the counseling session. Comics can give clients the ability to read about themes that they connect to and can help them open up in ways that they didn’t think possible. The stories in comic books can also demonstrate the application of moral courage and resiliency and choosing to make a positive change. When connected to our clients’ stories, this can help them feel that they also possess the ability to make positive changes.

Comics can also be used as a form of narrative therapy by having clients create their own comic or even adding panels to existing books.


A group approach

Comics can be used in individual and group counseling. I created a group titled (for billing purposes) “self-exploration of values and beliefs through narrative therapy.” In this group, we explored not only personal values and beliefs but also issues that clients were having with their diagnoses, problems with grief and loss, and issues of feeling different. Group members explored their stories in the creation of their comic books.

The group was made up of adults ages 18 years and older in a mental health community setting. The clients had been diagnosed with long-term mental disorders ranging from major depressive disorder and borderline personality disorder to schizophrenia.

In the group, I utilized comic books such as Batman and Robin: Requiem for Damian by Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray and John Kalisz. This remarkable book depicts the journey of grief and loss. With the death of his son Damian, Bruce Wayne/Batman grieves. This book features no dialogue — only illustrations — and is incredibly impactful.

In a counseling setting, clients used this comic book to identify the different “stages” of grief and loss and process when they had experienced something similar. In conjunction with narrative therapy, clients then added a page in which they talked to Bruce Wayne or Batman about the loss. This activity allowed the clients to step outside of themselves. Many shared “advice” with Bruce/Batman; they were truly giving advice to themselves.

Near the end of the group sessions, the participants created their own comic books. They were free to choose any issue or problem they were facing and create a narrative around it. One client turned her mental illness into an actual being — a villain — that she was battling and highlighted the messages she hears about her disorder. This client found the activity empowering, allowing her to turn something that she struggled with internally into something external that she could then “fight.”

Another client dealt with his grief and loss of loved ones in his comic. A third client used her comic to address past trauma by confronting her abusers. The comic book format allowed her to do this in a safe way that provided meaning for her.

There is little research on comic books and even less on their application in a counseling setting. However, I believe them to be a potentially rich resource that counselors should consider.





Lauren Calhoun is a doctoral student in counselor education and supervision at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Chicago Campus. She has a master’s in counseling psychology and currently works as a crisis counselor at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois’ Project Impact and Welcoming Center. Contact her at




Related reading from the Counseling Today archives: “Geek therapy: Connecting with clients through comics, video games and other ‘geeky’ pursuits




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.



Facing the realities of racism

By Laurie Meyers January 25, 2017

When Barack Obama was elected the first African American president of the United States in 2008, some optimistic observers thought that American society had finally reached a post-racial age. As the past two-plus years have highlighted vividly, however, the significance of race and the influence of racism on the American story are far from over.

“Electing a black man and then re-electing a black man for eight years was not going to undo almost 300 years of dysfunction,” says Courtland Lee, a past president of the American Counseling Association who has written extensively about multicultural, racial and social justice issues. “The presidency, unfortunately, plays right into how racism works in the country.”

Indeed, President Obama’s election spurred increased activity among white supremacists. However, white “backlash” was not limited to the far-right fringes of society.

“The [Obama] presidency was earth shattering in many ways. [It] tapped into many people’s deepest darkest fears about this country, the status quo and the fundamental way they thought the country should be,” Lee says. “Their worldview is that people like Obama shouldn’t be in power, which is why [Donald Trump’s campaign slogan] ‘Make American Great Again’ resonated.” Lee and other experts on race relations believe the underlying message of the campaign slogan was “Make America White Again.”

“There was a culmination of white reaction to the changing demographics in this country,” says Lee, a professor in the counselor educator program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s Washington, D.C., campus. He points out that the United States continues to grow more racially diverse and is moving toward a time when whites will be in the minority.

Lee and other experts believe that the fear of this shift is one of the main reasons that anti-immigrant and racist viewpoints have become more publicly prevalent and acceptable, reaching a fever pitch during the 2016 presidential campaign. In the 10 days following the 2016 presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal organization that uses legal action, education and advocacy to fight racism and bigotry, received almost 900 reports of bias-related incidents of harassment and intimidation as part of what it termed a “national outbreak of hate.”

“I think we have an environment where people feel comfortable with stereotypes,” says Lee, the author of Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity. “People feel they have a license to act and speak out in very intolerant ways.”

In an atmosphere characterized by intolerance and strained race relations, what is a counselor’s responsibility? How can counselors help their clients and society at large cope with and fight against hatred and ignorance?

Uncovering implicit bias

Counselors should start by looking within, says Lance Smith, an ACA member whose research focus includes racial bias within the counseling profession. Despite the emphasis on diversity that is part of most counselors’ training, societal bias can still influence counselors, he notes.

“I think there’s a bit of hubris in the counseling profession that because we’re so well-trained in matters of personalization and we explore countertransference so rigorously that [racial bias isn’t] something that we have to worry about,” says Smith, an associate professor and school counseling coordinator within the University of Vermont counseling program.

Each year, Smith has all of the students in his classes take the Implicit Association Test on race, and he says that most exhibit an automatic bias in favor of white people. This doesn’t mean that most of his students — and most counselors in general — are not well-intentioned individuals who genuinely want to help others, he emphasizes. “Unfortunately, for most of us” — counselors and noncounselors alike — “white dominance has been downloaded into our software without our permission,” Smith says.

To overcome internal racial bias, counselors need to understand the “false binary” of racism, Smith says. “There’s this powerful notion in society that one is either racist — an ignorant, mean-spirited, Confederate flag-waving, card-carrying member of the KKK — or a good person. And, of course, most counselors know that they are good, moral, kind, beneficent people, so it follows that, by definition, they cannot be racist. Therefore,” he explains, “not only are they likely to fail to interrogate the ways in which they more subtly harm and microaggress their clients and students of color, but they are also likely to ignore, deny and therefore inadvertently support institutional forms of racism such as the school-to-prison pipeline and anti-affirmative action.”

“But racism, and all isms for that matter, are more complex,” Smith continues. “For most of us, it’s not a matter of if I’m racist, but rather how much. How many racist stereotypes do I subconsciously hold? How much do I unknowingly contribute to institutional racism? What are the microaggressions that I am more prone to commit? How much do I ignore white dominance? How much work do I need to do to break free from my segregated social bubble in order to develop authentic and genuine relationships with folks from targeted groups?”

Counselor and psychologist Derald Wing Sue, the author of such books as Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence and Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, agrees that counselors — and society at large — need to talk about race and racism more openly. “The first step in being able to talk freely about race is understanding that no one is immune from … racial bias,” he says. The bias may very well be subconscious, he adds, but counselors and others need to be willing to admit the existence of that bias and be willing to make mistakes, even if that includes accidentally offending someone, to talk openly about racial issues.

Unfortunately, bias and racism in the counseling profession — conscious or unconscious — can have more tangible effects than simply stifling conversations. Smith was co-primary investigator of a study in the November 2016 issue of The Counseling Psychologist, “Is Allison More Likely Than Lakisha to Receive a Callback From Counseling Professionals? A Racism Audit Study,” that examined whether potential clients’ perceived racial backgrounds affected whether they received a callback after leaving a voice message requesting counseling services. For the study, an actor using fictitious and stereotypically African American or stereotypically white names left messages with counselors and psychologists inquiring about therapeutic services. Although the perceived racial background of the caller didn’t appear to significantly affect the callback rate, the study authors found that it did affect whether the counselor’s or psychologist’s callback tended to encourage the potential client to seek services. Potential clients named “Allison” were invited to have a phone conversation with the practitioner (an indication of encouragement to seek services) 63 percent of the time, whereas potential clients named “Lakisha” received a similar invitation only 51 percent of the time.

“The primary reason we did the study is that we’ve seen a disparity in mental health services for decades between African American populations and white populations,” Smith says. “But the dominant narrative in counseling has always been, ‘What’s going on with this help-seeking behavior? What is it about the African American community? Why do they not feel safe with us? Maybe it’s economics. Maybe they lack insurance. Maybe they don’t have access because there aren’t counselors in their neighborhood. Maybe African Americans prefer more direct styles of helping.’”

“There was all this discussion about the help-seeker behavior, but we didn’t turn the lens on ourselves,” he explains. “We [the study authors] were asking what are we potentially doing, as a field that is predominantly white, in terms of help-provider behavior that is contributing to the racial disparity in mental health services? I think turning that lens away from blaming the victim and toward ourselves as a field is a significant step that … we’re just starting to take, which also speaks to another element of systemic racism in the field.”

Educational bias

Bias in the counseling field begins in counselor education programs, asserts Cirecie West-Olatunji. She says that when she was serving as the president of ACA in 2013-2014, she was frequently approached at state counseling association conferences by students and counselor educators of color who felt “shut out.”

“I was meeting a lot of early career professionals, doctoral students, students who were nontraditional in any kind of way, who came to me and many times were in tears because they didn’t have anyone to talk to within their system [academic program],” she says. “They didn’t feel safe talking to their supervisors or doctoral chairs about a lot of microaggressions they had experienced with peers. They were having a really marginalized experience that was affecting their careers.”

West-Olatunji, an expert on traumatic stress, says that students and counselor educators of color can feel excluded from the academic community in numerous ways. For example, not being invited by their peers to collaborate on publications, not being assigned mentors and even not being invited to go out socially with colleagues or fellow students to lunch.

Academic bias also affects dissertation topics, contends West-Olatunji, an associate professor at Xavier University of Louisiana and director of the Center for Traumatic Stress Research. “[Doctoral students] want to investigate what is relative to their own experience. [If] they’re black, they want to write about the black experience,” she says. “Oftentimes, the faculty [member] is white and doesn’t relate or doesn’t believe the phenomenon” of the day-to-day experience of being a person of color.

Doctoral students of color are often left to decide whether to potentially alienate their doctoral advisers by insisting that their topics and personal experiences are valid, West-Olatunji says. Faced with the skepticism of experienced faculty members, doctoral students may even begin to doubt their own experiences, she adds. But even if doctoral students of color can convince their advisers to accept their dissertation topics, the question becomes whether advisers can help the students to research something effectively if the advisers don’t really believe in it in the first place, West-Olatunji says.

As a result, doctoral students may end up writing in a pejorative manner about their own experiences or even decide to set aside their chosen topics and tell themselves that they just want to learn how to conduct research, West-Olatunji says. And once these students of color have earned their doctorates and gone on to become professors, West-Olatunji says, they still encounter statements such as, “You won’t get tenure if you write about black people that way.” As a result, she says, they are discouraged from writing about topics that are personally relevant to them. This in turn affects the quality and quantity of research available that addresses the experiences of people of color, she explains.

Experiences such as those West-Olatunji describes may also be influencing the racial gap in the counseling profession. This is something that Smith has researched in the past.

“We were looking at the disparity in white-identified therapists in the field and people of color as counselors in the field,” Smith says of a study that he co-authored in 2011. “We looked at disparities amongst white faculty in CACREP [Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs] programs and people of color in CACREP programs. Of course we weren’t surprised to find that there was a significant racial disparity in terms of the population of African Americans in society and the population of people of color who were moving through counseling programs.”

This reality is potentially harmful for people of color who might be more comfortable seeking services from counselors of color, Smith points out. “And yet, we’re not doing our jobs in higher education to recruit, train and graduate counselors of color,” he says.

Fear factors

The backlash that Lee spoke about is engendering a significant level of fear in communities across the country. There is a sense among people of color, Sue adds, that the equality they have fought for and the progress they have made in the past 50 years is at risk of being taken away. As a result, many feel unsafe, depressed, angry and powerless, he says.

Patricia Arredondo, a former president of ACA, agrees. Currently a visiting professor of counseling and counseling psychology at Arizona State University, she says that everywhere she goes, people are talking to her about their fears post-election. “Everyone is very aware that if you are Latino or Latina, you are targeted, regardless of birthplace — people who are undocumented or documented,” she says. “The discussion about [building] the border wall is something that affects all of us.”

There is a hypersensitivity and a sense of high anxiety in the Latino community, particularly among families who fear being separated by deportation, Arredondo continues. “Children are afraid that their parents are going to be deported. Counselors have to recognize that this is a real experience for kids and families, not abstract,” she emphasizes.

This increased sense of fear compounds the pre-existing trauma that many people of color live with. “People feel unsafe in the current political climate, not because of one political view but because there has been an increase in hate crimes,” West-Olatunji says. “This is on top of ongoing trauma. It causes problems thinking — thinking is jumbled, we have a hard time making decisions and problems with concentration and focusing. We are constantly managing emotions instead of attending to business at hand.”

Counselors may look at this witches’ brew of problems — a climate of intolerance, hate incidents, increased fear among targeted populations, and lifelong and intergenerational trauma among people of color — and wonder how they can possibly make a difference. Lee says it starts first and foremost with the client. That involves treating the trauma that marginalized clients experience but also getting out into the community and talking to people about the challenges they face and how counselors can help them cope.

“There is a disconnect between academia and what’s really happening in the real world — a disconnect between what counselors learn and what’s happening,” he says.

For instance, Lee says, academia has done a good job of putting together multicultural competencies that serve as guidelines for what it means to be a “culturally competent” counselor. But the competencies aren’t very useful in the field, he says, and practitioners need more than academic standards of cultural competence. They need to understand the trauma that results from police brutality and living in oppressed neighborhoods or what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck and work multiple jobs simply to get by, he says. This returns to counselors getting out of the office and into the community to talk with people — not just “clients” — about real-world issues.

Arredondo, co-author of Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latinas/os agrees. “I tell my students that book knowledge is limited. You have to read the papers. You have to know what the policies are in the state or city you are in that have an effect on the well-being of clients. [This is] knowledge that you may need to support your clients,” she says.

For instance, Arredondo explains, counselors who are working with Latino populations should know stress reduction techniques that they can share with these clients, but they should also be aware of any community resources that these clients might need, such as Latino community organizations or immigration lawyers for undocumented clients.

Being a part of the community

Beyond doing direct work with clients, counselors can also help their larger communities to address issues of race and racial tensions, Lee says. For example, counselors could make themselves available to facilitate dialogue between civilians and the local police force, he says. “There is a lot of miscommunication between citizens and the police force. I think it would be wonderful if ACA had a training initiative for police forces on not only cultural competency, but just helping police to develop communication and helping skills.” (For a related story, see “Bridging the divide between police and the public,” December 2016.)

Smith also envisions a larger societal role for counselors when it comes to addressing issues of race and racism. “School counselors need to be at the school board advocating for anti-racism curriculum in their schools,” he says. “Clinical mental health counselors need to be on state boards of mental health to ensure that their state licensure includes these robust competencies about anti-racism. Counselors who have research skills need to be engaged with the sheriff’s department and the local police department, helping them to gather data on racial disparities in the community.”

As a whole, counselors need to get out of their offices and into their communities to fight the forces of intolerance because those injustices are part of what is driving clients to their doors, Smith says. “Individual one-on-one traditional counseling is not sufficient to interrupt these systemic biases,” he asserts. “In this age of emerging intolerance where it’s now once again socially and publicly accepted to be an overt bigot, we need to raise our game as counselors.”

Sue, a member of ACA, says that individual counselors need not fear going it alone. “Get a support group — other counselors and co-workers who feel similarly,” he says. “The issue is really to begin to empower yourself. Have meetings where you invite various speakers, educate yourself, build a support group and then begin to talk about strategies.”

“Say you work in a school system that has systems or policies that are unfair to people of color,” Sue continues. “Doing it [making a change] by yourself is impossible. Identify people in the school who may share your beliefs and then make a group presentation to the principal or faculty. There really is an out-of-office strategy. It’s viewing the client not so much as the students who come in to you for help, but the client is now the school system or school district. It is the school system that is causing harm. You are being proactive. When you do counseling, it’s primarily reacting and fixing damage, but if you are proactive and take action against the system, you have won a big victory.”

West-Olatunji views the recent U.S. presidential election as a wake-up call to racial issues in America. “Counselors need to be speaking out about truths. We need to talk about a lot of things,” she says. “There is an argument about whether or not counselors should engage [in political debate]. Put that to rest. People are being harmed, and we don’t have to wait until they come into our offices” to help them.




Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (

Practice briefs (

  • “Racial Microaggressions” by Cirleen DeBlaere, Terrence A. Jordan II & David G. Zelaya

Books & DVDs (

  • Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice: Integration, Theory and Application, fourth edition, by Manivong J. Ratts and Paul B. Pedersen
  • Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity, fourth edition, by Courtland C. Lee
  • Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latinas/os by Patricia Arredondo, Maritza Gallardo-Cooper, Edward A. Delgado-Romero and Angela L. Zapata
  • Experiential Activities for Teaching Multicultural Competence in Counseling, edited by Mark Pope, Joseph S. Pangelinan and Angela D. Coker
  • Latino Worldviews in Counseling (DVD in Spanish with English subtitles), hosted by Patricia Arredondo and Jon Carlson

Webinars (

  • “Why does culture matter? Isn’t counseling just counseling regardless?” with Courtland C. Lee

Podcasts (

  • “Counseling African American Males Post Ferguson” with Tony Spann
  • “Understanding the Ferguson, MO Crisis: A Counselor’s Perspective” with
    Ken Oliver
  • “Multiculturalism and Diversity: What is the Difference? Is Not Counseling … Counseling? Why Does It Matter?” with Courtland C. Lee

ACA divisions

Competencies (

  • Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies




Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

Letters to the editor:




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Powerful conversations, with a side of laughs

By Bethany Bray January 23, 2017

Consider yourself warned: The keynote address on Saturday, March 18 at the American Counseling Association 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco will cover some uncomfortable topics.

The speaker, Jessica Pettitt, has a gift for diving into things that are tough to talk about. At the same time, she brings a warmth and humor to the conversation. Pettitt is a stand-up comic in addition to her work as a professional speaker, trainer and author.

Jessica Pettitt

“Jessica Pettitt — educator, student affairs professional, comedian and talented storyteller, will be with us in San Francisco, helping us spread the joy and discover the humor within the crucial sociopolitical scene right now in our world,” says Catherine B. Roland, ACA president and chair of the counseling program at the Washington, D.C., campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “We will go on a journey of politics, theory, advocacy, current events and narrative. And, we will laugh!”

Pettitt specializes in conversations about diversity, LGBTQ issues and other topics. According to her website, her talks “weave together politics, theory, current events and storytelling with large doses of humor reminiscent of Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Wanda Sykes and Paula Poundstone.”

ACA’s 2017 conference will run March 16 – 19 at the Moscone West Convention Center
in San Francisco. Dr. Irvin Yalom will provide the opening keynote on Friday, March 17.

Pettit lives in Eureka, California, with Loren, a philosophy professor, and their two dogs. They will be making a family trip to San Francisco in March to attend ACA’s conference and the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.

CT Online sent Pettitt some questions to learn more about her work and her thoughts on speaking at the upcoming ACA Conference.


You specialize in speaking about diversity. How did you get into this area? How does it fit your personality and your passion?

I have always been that voice in the room. In sixth grade, my first research paper was on the hypocrisy of sodomy laws. I grew up in Texas, and that [research paper] was more controversial than most might expect. I also competed in our state speech tournament on eugenics, electroshock therapies and mandated birth control [coverage] for low-income women.

I have always needed to give voice to the injustices around me. I stumbled into this being a career as I worked in higher education for the past 15 years, both on campuses and now as a professional speaker and trainer. My personality isn’t just rooting for the underdog, but using my privileges, earned and accidental, to right hypocrisy. I think my own work in a counselor’s office has helped me come to peace with my Jedi skill of finding patterns and naming the missteps in a way that allows everyone to feel welcome to the conversation. A good dose of humor doesn’t hurt either.


What do you want professional counselors to know or keep in mind about this topic — especially when so many issues regarding diversity have made headlines over the past year?

It’s hard. It’s been hard. It will be hard. That is why you are often underpaid and overworked. It is important to remember that even though we all (including me) have job security, we must work toward our unemployment. The day no one needs our services means we have healed the planet. Until then, we have to remember to pack our lunch and get to work. This has been the same no matter who is president, whether or not we are at war and no matter our age or generation. Same work. Same tools. This matters.


Your bio mentions that an understanding of yourself and others as “differently right” is important in advocacy. Can you elaborate on that?

The concept of “differently right” is the backbone of being good enough now. When striving for perfection and excellence, we tend to get frustrated with and by others. Moreover, we frustrate others. To be good enough, right now, to keep trying to try, we have to take responsibility for how we show up, consciously and unconsciously, and hold a space for whatever is frustrating to be powerful in a way that we aren’t. I am not going down a moral relativism route here – holding a space for someone else to be powerful or “differently right” for 30 seconds allows your space to listen and hear the other person. Once we can more genuinely connect with someone else, we can often uncover patterns of what is missing in ourselves and collaborate together better. And, yes – you, and others, can be wrong.


From your perspective, how does your focus dovetail with mental health and counseling?

What doesn’t? Communication, diversity, business, innovation, creativity — I can keep going but these elements are [all] connected to human interaction, on or off the couch. Mental health providers are three-dimensional community members who need to be cared for too as much as their patients when they are at work. We must work to bridge the “on the clock” and “off the clock” realities together for no other reason than keeping them apart hasn’t really been successful.


What made you accept this speaking engagement to address thousands of professional counselors?

Continuing education credits. Just kidding! My job is to host powerful conversations that allow folks to heal and continue their good work. Doing this allows me to continue my good work. This is why I speak anywhere I can, as often as I can.

I really only have two skills: 1) giving voice to things that are really hard to talk about and 2) folding fitted sheets.

Oddly, it is number two that gets folks immediately excited. If you want a copy of my folding fitted sheets video, drop me an email at and I will send it along. Your shelves will thank you and then we can get back to the topic at hand.

Honestly, with all that is going on in the world right now, I am honored to be of service as your closing keynote speaker.


What can attendees of the American Counseling Association Conference expect from your keynote? What might you talk about?

I don’t want to ruin the surprise, plus anticipation is a good thing, so I will say this: You [will] need a piece of paper and a pen. You will also need to prepare ahead by bringing a full and complicated life history with you to the keynote.

Those of you who think you are boring, that is complicated enough, so just show up. We will map out together how to deal with the most frustrating people, topics and situations, and ACA members will develop a plan right there on one sheet of paper how to keep trying to try. If it goes as planned, you will laugh as much as you learn.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

People feel very vulnerable right now, and some of those people are counselors and mental health workers. Together our work matters, and you are really on the front lines. Thank you for your time, energy and commitment to conversations that matter.






Jessica Pettitt

Jessica Pettitt will speak Saturday, March 18, at the 2017 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco. Her address will also be live-streamed online. Find out more at


Find out more about Pettitt and her work at











Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at


Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at






Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.