In the United States, 1 in 6 adults has a prescription for a psychiatric drug. That ratio only increases among individuals who walk into counselors’ offices, leaving many counselors feeling that they must perform a special type of tightrope act to talk about medications with their clients. Given that licensed professional counselors don’t possess prescription privileges, some counselors feel that they lack the training to carry on such discussions. Other counselors fear letting their own beliefs and biases show. Regardless of the reason, some counselors are quick to refer clients back to their doctors or psychiatrists rather than engaging clients in a thorough conversation about medication management themselves.
Because primary care physicians write almost 70 percent of antidepressant prescriptions, counselors may find that new counseling clients who are on medication have yet to have an extended conversation about medication management and their overall mental health. These clients may not have given much consideration to how long they want to stay on medication, or they may be uninformed about the possible risk of growing dependent on sedatives, anxiolytics and other medications.
Several counselor educators are taking up the charge of encouraging more informed and comfortable conversations in the counseling room about client medications. American Counseling Association member Dixie Meyer presented with colleagues at the association’s 2016 conference in Montréal on adjunctive antidepressant pharmacotherapy in counseling. Meyer dedicated her dissertation research to the sexual side effects of antidepressants and their effects on romantic couples. As her research expanded, she grew more and more fascinated with exploring the relationship between psychopharmacology and counseling.
Today, as an associate professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at St. Louis University, Meyer educates many primary care physician residents, and she notes that counselors sometimes forget that they have a unique ability to conceptualize clients. “Primary care physicians are expected to be able to know pretty much anything, but they do not have the same level of depth in their mental health training,” she says. “Counselors need to really think about what kind of information they can share with a primary care physician, and the answer is, a lot.”
Meyer explains that counselors may have a greater understanding of the impetus for the client’s condition, the specific symptoms the client has experienced, which of a medication’s potential side effects might be more of a challenge for the client and what additional resources the client may need to maintain medication adherence.
Biases and fears
Professional counselors carry their own biases and values related to psychiatric medications, often based on their individual experiences and training. It is easy to see how the counseling profession as a whole might feel threatened by the statistics, however. For example, nearly $5 billion is spent every year on TV ads for prescription drugs. Then there is the fact that more than half of all outpatient mental health visits involve medication only and no psychotherapy.
A physician assistant with a second master’s degree in counseling, ACA member Deanna Bridge Najera is frequently invited to talk to counselors about improving dialogue between medication prescribers and counseling professionals. She gave a presentation at the ACA 2017 Conference in San Francisco titled, “Medicine Is From Mars and Counseling Is From Venus: How to Make It Work for Everyone.”
Najera has heard skeptical counselors make many statements about psychopharmacology, including that such medications turn people into “zombies,” alter their personalities or simply produce placebo responses. As a master’s counseling student, she also heard many comments from fellow students about their negative relationship with medication or their family members’ negative experiences.
“We have to make sure that we have these conversations out loud,” Najera says. “We have to ask counselors what their concerns are. The way I explain it, the medicine is supposed to allow you to be who you’re supposed to be. It doesn’t change who you are; it just makes it more manageable to learn and grow.”
Although there is still no clear winner in the medication versus therapy debate, researchers are learning more about who might respond to one treatment better than the other. For example, a 2013 study in JAMA Psychiatry found that patients with major depression with low activity in a part of the brain known as the anterior insula responded well to cognitive behavior therapy and poorly to Lexapro. Those patients with high activity in the same region did better with medication and poorly with the therapy. Researchers have also concluded that patients who are depressed and have a history of childhood trauma do better with combined therapy and medication than with either treatment alone.
“We chose our profession because we believe in our profession,” Meyer says, “but the research is going to report no differences between counseling and medication. I do see a lot of bias, and one of my concerns is that our No. 1 goal should be to help the client. So whatever the client’s perspective is, whatever the client thinks is going to help them is probably what will help. They are the experts on their own life.”
Erika Cameron, an associate professor of counseling at the University of San Diego and an ACA member, presented with Meyer in Montréal. When they were enrolled in the same doctoral program, Cameron found herself sharing Meyer’s interest in psychopharmacology and considering how she could respond to the general wariness of school counselors around the topic of medication.
“There can be a bias that that’s not part of their role. They are not diagnosing or prescribing, so they don’t need to know about medication,” says Cameron, who once worked as a school counselor. “But by not talking about it, we might be harming the client. Or if you don’t know that a student is on a medication, then you don’t know what behavior sitting in front of you is normal or atypical for that particular student.”
Another common trepidation among counselors is the fear of stepping outside their lane when it comes to talking about psychiatric medication. Clients often ask for advice about certain medications or when starting any type of drug, but there is a temptation among some counselors to avoid the subject or simply to refer all questions in that vein to a psychiatrist or doctor.
Franc Hudspeth, associate dean of the counseling program at Southern New Hampshire University and also a licensed pharmacist, says that counselors should serve as educators and advocates when it comes to client medications. “We should never cross that line of telling a client what to do with that medication,” he says. “We have to refer back to the foundation of our profession. We help individuals overcome problems, and we don’t give them the solutions. It’s saying to the client, ‘If you have concerns, we can present this to your prescribing physician, and I will support you in any way, but I’m not going to tell you how to do it or what to do with the medication.’ I wouldn’t even do that as a pharmacist. We have to help people make the best decisions based on the best information.”
Hudspeth also says that he observes more of a general hesitancy at work than a fear of liability among counselors. “If someone advocates for their client and their voice gets squashed by a physician or a psychiatrist, there may be some hesitancy to get involved. But it never hurts to voice concerns and to be the advocate for your client,” he says. “[Still], I do think that some counselors fear the repercussions of helping a client speak up.”
Having the conversation
How exactly should counselors respond when clients want to talk about psychiatric medications? In an effort to provide effective psychoeducation, Meyer says, counselors shouldn’t be shy about asking thorough questions upfront concerning clients’ beliefs and ideas related to medication. She suggests asking questions such as, “How do you know that you want to be on a medication?” and “Are you likely to have another depressive episode?” Questions such as these can provide valuable insight into the client’s knowledge (and knowledge deficits) about medication. For example, a client who wants to take an antidepressant might not realize that half of all individuals with depression will not experience another episode.
Najera also encourages counselors to ask clients where they obtained their knowledge about particular medications. “Many people have the idea that newer is always better, which study after study has shown is not true,” she says. “A client might see a commercial for a new medication and ask if it will work. I’d rather them not break the bank for a new medication when there’s a $4 medication at the local pharmacy that’s just as effective.”
Hudspeth suggests that counselors do a medication check-in with clients at every session. He says the best question counselors can ask clients who are already on medication is, “How is your medication treating you?” This kind of general question can help counselors gather information without overeducating clients in a way that predisposes them to having side effects, Hudspeth explains.
Cameron agrees that the simplest approach is often the most empowering for clients. “Sometimes [it’s simply] asking, ‘Did you read the really long paper that came in the bag with your pills? What is the medication really treating? What are its side effects? What would be considered not normal for you?’ [It’s] educating clients to be critical consumers of their medication,” she says.
Cameron also encourages counselors to role-play conversations that clients could have with their prescribing doctors. Counselors can assist their clients with compiling a list of questions to ask and also encourage them to track their symptoms, thoughts and feelings while on a particular medication. Data can be a powerful tool for holding doctors accountable for connecting clients with the best medication options, but sometimes clients need to learn what to observe while on their medications, Cameron says.
Counselors may also need to have conversations with clients about the impact that their physical health can have on their mental status. Meyer encourages counselors to take time to consider how nutrition, physical illnesses, medications and other substances could potentially influence the mental health of their clients. Anything from high blood pressure medication to birth control pills to low iron could be a culprit, and Meyer worries that individuals who don’t provide their doctors with detailed information about their health are at risk of being prescribed medications that don’t fit their particular symptoms.
“If a client has not had a physical in a long time, then you do not know if there are cardiovascular concerns, hormonal concerns, cancer symptoms or one of the many other disorders that can have depressive side effects or present as depression,” Meyer points out.
Counselors are also charged to have open and honest conversations with parents who are worried about putting their children on psychiatric medications. When Hudspeth worked as a pharmacist in the early 1990s, he began noticing that many children were being medicated without solid reasoning to back it up. Thinking there might be a better approach, he went back to school to become a counselor and later a counselor educator. In his counseling work with children, he has fielded many questions from parents about whether their child should be evaluated for the need to take psychiatric medication.
“My perspective is that the evaluation isn’t going to hurt anything,” Hudspeth says. “I tell parents that they don’t have to make the decision to choose medication, but if the child is medicated, he or she will also do better if they’re in therapy. The two treatments are synergistic, and our goal as a team is to find the [right] balance of different components.”
Cameron adds that school counselors are presented with the complex task of advocating for developing kids who are on medication. “Because there’s so much hormonal change and physical growth, medication may need to be adjusted more frequently,” she says. “School counselors have the ability to see these students on a daily basis, and if we’re not paying attention to these changes, there could be a downward spiral before something
Psychopharmacology in counseling classrooms
Counselor educators are tasked with preparing their students for the increased use of psychiatric medication among their clients. The 2016 CACREP Standards require clinical mental health counseling students to be educated about the “classifications, indications and contraindications of commonly prescribed psychopharmacological medications for appropriate medical referral and consultation.” Similarly, the CACREP Standards say that counselor education programs with a specialty area in school counseling should cover “common medications that affect learning, behavior and mood in children and adolescents.”
Hudspeth is of the belief that every master’s program in counseling should require a psychopharmacology course. “When 50 percent of our clients are on medication, we should have a basic foundation for understanding psychopharmacology,” he says. “New practitioners need to be better prepared for what they’re going to face in internship or post-master’s work, so they should be familiar with what medications are used for what disorders and what kind of side effects pop up.”
A 2015 article in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health by Cassandra A. Storlie and others explored the practice of infusing ethical considerations into a psychopharmacology course for future counselors. The authors argue that counselor educators should engage students in talking about how their own values and perceptions about medication use could potentially affect the quality of counseling service they provide. The authors tracked the success of one psychopharmacology course that asked students to complete a variety of creative assignments, including reporting on a legal or ethical issue in the field of psychopharmacology, interviewing an individual who takes a psychotropic medication and discussing fictional client scenarios. At the end of the course, students reported greater confidence in how they understood their role related to discussing medication with clients.
Cameron agrees with the benefits of offering a psychopharmacology course to counseling students. She also sees value in inserting medication conversations into her supervision work with students. When her students bring in case conceptualizations during their internship work, she asks them to list what medications the client is taking. She then asks them to educate their peers about what each medication is treating, what the dosage is and any typical side effects.
“I have to model being comfortable bringing up the topic of medication so that my students get more comfortable,” Cameron says. “Often they don’t talk about medication because they feel that they don’t know it all. They don’t want to give bad information. But they can learn to take a proactive role by sitting with a client and saying, ‘Hey, let’s look this up. Let me get this resource guide or a consult on this.’ There’s this fear, especially with student counselors, that you have to know everything to be able to be helpful.”
Areas for growth
Of course the work of medication education doesn’t end with graduate school. New medications are steadily being introduced, and over time researchers will learn more about the long-term effects of popular ones. Cameron recommends that counselors keep a copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference, a compilation of information on prescription drugs, in their office. “They update it pretty regularly, so when you have clients come in, you can open the book and figure out what’s going on,” she says.
Hudspeth says counselors should stay informed but also avoid the subtle ways in which they might give advice about any medication, including over-the-counter ones. “A client may come in and say, ‘I’m having difficulty sleeping,’ and a counselor says, ‘Have you tried melatonin?’ They just stepped over that line,” Hudspeth says. “Just because you can buy it at Target or Walmart doesn’t mean you should be asking those questions.”
Meyer suggests that counselors who feel overwhelmed with the breadth of information on medications begin with the client population they serve most frequently. “What information can help your particular clients?” she asks. “Start there and seek out information, depending on who’s coming in and how you can treat them to the best of your ability.”
Above all, Meyer recommends that counselors never forget to take the topic of medication seriously in their work and training. “When you are choosing to take a medication, you may be choosing to have potential side effects. You are choosing that you will alter your neurochemistry. That is not a decision that should be taken lightly. It is not an easy decision,” she says. “When a client makes a choice about whether to take a medication, they need to make it from a place where they are well-informed.”
Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and writer in Washington, D.C. She is the author of The Fangirl Life: A Guide to All the Feels and Learning How to Deal. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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