Monthly Archives: November 2018

Voice of Experience: Know everything

By Gregory K. Moffatt November 19, 2018

If you want to be a good counselor, know everything. Did I get your attention? I don’t really expect counselors to know everything, but I use this simple phrase to make a point.

Remember how exciting it was when you finished your graduate work? No more tests, no more papers and no more assignments. When I finished my Ph.D., I reveled in the liberation of being able to read something because it interested me as opposed to plodding through some article or book chapter and wondering what my professor was going to ask about on a test.

I see that excitement in my students as they approach graduation. Some of them even tell me how they will never be a student again. In other words, they’re done with formal education.

I loved graduate school, but I understand those who don’t enjoy the academic regimen. Nothing shameful there. However, there is something ethically problematic if a clinician thinks that learning ends with the awarding of the sheepskin at commencement or even receipt of a license to practice professionally.

I often hear a troubling tone from colleagues regarding their continuing education requirements. In Georgia where I practice, we are required a minimum of 35 hours every two years. Sometimes people speak of these hours as if they are boxes to check off as opposed to a process that helps us improve our skills.

Continuing education isn’t something that you have to do for your license. It is something you must do to remain competent.

Your required hours for license renewal are what your state has determined is a minimum. I don’t want to be minimal. In my previous license renewal cycle, I had almost 60 CEU hours — nearly double the required minimum. One of my colleagues had even more. She was audited a few years ago and had more than 200 hours of continuing education over her two-year cycle.

Learning must continue for multiple reasons. Our ethical responsibility and professionalism are just two.

My continuing education isn’t limited to CEU hours. I have a passion for reading. For many years, I have made it a practice to read at least 25 books per year. Along with books in the counseling field, I also read at least one biography, one history book, one book on mathematics or physics, one book on chemistry or medicine, and one or two just for entertainment (I’m a Stephen King fan, if you’re curious).

A few different times, I have committed to and succeeded at reading a book a week for the whole year. I also read all of the journals from my professional organizations, plus kept up on the news each day.

I have an amazing luxury as a college professor. I am surrounded by scholars — among the best in their academic fields. Our university offers dozens of majors, and I regularly go to my friends in other disciplines and ask, “What should I be reading in your area?” Whether it is literature, history, business, psychology, social work or some other area, I am never disappointed at their suggestions. In fact, I’m disappointed only if they don’t have any.

Reading helps me relate to varied fields of study, professions and pop culture. This reading habit probably sounds boring to some of you. Again, it is OK if you don’t like to read, but at a minimum, you must stay abreast of your field in some way.

But learning brings more than that. With every news story I follow, every volunteer experience I have, every foreign country I visit and, yes, every book I read, I become a better counselor. I even use social events to learn. Instead of talking about myself, I ask about others. What is your career? What is most exciting or interesting in your life experience? I’m always thinking, “What can you teach me?”

Knowing something about everything helps us understand our clients. Even our jobs can teach us. I’ve had so many jobs in my past that I can’t name them all, but to list a few, I’ve been a truck driver, a coal miner, a painter, a carpenter, an electrician, a telephone operator, a teacher, a radio host, a restaurant worker, a bulldozer driver, a landscaper, and the list goes on. These experiences help me to understand the worlds in which my clients live.

So, I encourage you to be a learner. Know everything, even if you don’t pursue it the way I do. You will be a better counselor for it.

 

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If you are interested in some of my favorite books, you can find a reading list organized by category on my website (click on “Resources”) at gregmoffatt.com.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

 

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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.

Counseling Connoisseur: Children and grief

By Cheryl Fisher November 13, 2018

Nicolas was just under 3 years old when he attended his grandfather’s funeral. He wandered through the sea of adults, holding tight to his mommy and daddy’s hands as he made his way to the front of the line where his grandfather lay peacefully in the casket. His grandmother picked him up as he tried to climb into the casket. “Sleeping?” he asked his grandmother. “No, sweetheart. Your grandfather died.” Nicolas paused looking at the man in the box and back at his grandmother, “Sleeping?” he tried again. “No, he has died. He is not sleeping”, the grandmother replied softly. Nicolas looked around and attempted to contort his face — mimicking the adults around him. “They are sad, honey. When someone dies, we can feel sad,” his grandmother attempted to explain. Nicolas just watched, trying to imitate the adults around him as the man in the box continued to sleep.

 

According to William Worden, psychologist and grief expert, all children grieve regardless of age and stage of development. However, each stage provides a different understanding of death and loss. Grief can be experienced in a variety of ways. A child may experience a physical manifestation such as shock, or somatic ailments. They may feel anxious, angry, depressed or withdrawn. The children may act out behaviorally, resulting in biting or hitting. Additionally, there are critical periods where adverse experiences impact the neurological development of children in more critical ways. Having an understanding of how developmental stages affect the manifestation of grief can help counselors provide more effective support for children who have experienced a loss.

Infants and preschoolers: Infants and preschool age children experience life through their senses. Object permanence doesn’t become established until approximately 28 months. Therefore, children at this age may experience grief as the annihilation of existence: now you see me, now you don’t. Challenges resulting from loss at this age include a desire to connect to others but not knowing how, which may cause either clingy or standoffish behavior. A child may also exhibit a decrease in impulse control and tolerance, an increase in uninhibited behavior and poor emotional regulation, and possibly difficulty with toilet training. This is a critical period, neurologically. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Therefore, losses at this age have a higher chance of impacting children in significant ways.

School-age children: As children continue in their development, they are able to recognize attachment relationships, and they may experience loss as abandonment. School-age children may become preoccupied with death, which may become demonized during this stage, and children may experience anxiety related to the idea of mutilation. For example, children in this age group may talk of “blood and guts” and the Grim Reaper when referring to death. Children during this age are capable of conceptualizing loss as permanent and experience magical thinking. Grief may manifest as hyperactivity, emotional eating and/or somatic complaints. Children may withdraw or become argumentative and demanding. They may have difficulty concentrating and demonstrate a decrease in academic performance. Additionally, they may identify with the deceased by exhibiting similar behavior or experiencing symptoms of a loved one’s terminal illness. For example, Tony, an 8-year-old client came to me experiencing pain in his chest. A full pediatric work-up did not find a physiological etiology to his discomfort. However, in his intake, Tony stated that his grandfather had just died. When I asked his parents about Tony’s grandfather’s death, they indicated that he had died of lung cancer. Tony’s chest pain appeared to be a somatic manifestation connected to his grandfather, and after a few months in play therapy, Tony was able to work through his grief in a way that allowed him to find other ways to remember his grandfather.

Adolescents: Adolescents are capable of abstract thinking and struggle with the concepts of being versus non-being. While teens may feel immortal, they have increased awareness of the permanence of death. They may begin to think about death in terms of their own mortality. Teens may have experienced a variety of losses by now, and are better able to differentiate between types. The death of a distant elderly relative may feel different than the loss of a close friend.

Grief may manifest in a variety of ways including survivor’s guilt, a reduced sense of spontaneity, self-medicating (food, drugs, sex, etc.), social isolation and cyber mourning. Thanatechnology, or the use of media and technology to mourn, may be a way to seek comfort and connection through mourning sites, grief blogs and music playlists. However, it may also be a venue to glamorize loss in an unhealthy manner.

For example, I was working with a 16-year old girl who was devastated by the sudden death of her classmate by drug overdose. In addition to experiencing survivor’s guilt, she began engaging in high-risk behavior such as getting intoxicated at parties and offering sexual favors. This was a complicated situation as the client was not only grieving her classmate but also struggling with her own identity and self-worth. “Why should I live and she die?” We used an online memorial site to create a digital scrapbook of her friend’s favorite music, poems and pictures of special places they had gone together. I watched my client (and, with her permission, the memorial they had created) carefully. I started to get concerned as it remained a dark space for several months with little construction of hopeful meaning in sight. One day while the client was lamenting this loss, I asked, “Where would you have liked to go with your friend?” This led to a discussion about how the client and her friend had talked about hiking the Appalachian Trail when they graduated from high school. I grinned and said, “What a lovely tribute to your friendship to keep that promise.” By the next session, she had begun adding pictures and maps of the Appalachian Trail, marking the route she planned to take in a post-graduation trip to honor her friend.

 

Grief Work

It’s important to acknowledge that the deaths of family members or friends are not the only losses which can cause grief in children. For example, the death of a beloved pet, the divorce or separation of parents or a move to another school are all events that can evoke a significant sense of loss. It is vital to honor and understand these losses and ensure that children are allowed to express the accompanying grief.

Recognizing the varied symptoms of grief in children is essential as it may be masked in a variety of behaviors resulting in misdiagnosis and treatment. Even the most well-intentioned clinician or educator may misread and pathologize a child’s lack of concentration, fidgeting and restless behavior. This was the case for 5-year-old Andrew whose grandmother died suddenly from a heart attack. Andrew was very close to his grandmother, and even though his parents provided him with age-appropriate information around her death, Andrew began eliciting restless and inattentive behavior at school. Even though [his teacher was] aware of the death, notes were still sent home daily indicating that Andrew was disruptive in class. On the last day of the week, and the day before Andrew’s grandmother’s memorial service, the teacher’s note read, “Andrew is exhibiting signs of ADHD.” Andrew had not previously experienced difficulty in class. This is an example of a misdiagnosis. Andrew did not need medication or treatment for attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), but support during his grieving process.

After all, the goal of grief work, according to Worden, is to emotionally relocate the deceased loved one in a way that allows the child to move forward. In this way, children discover ways to remember the loved one in a healthy way. This involves helping children create connection to self, to others and to the sacred.

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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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.

Moving through trauma

By Jessica Smith November 7, 2018

I am a wounded healer. I remember a professor in graduate school telling our class that most counselors are wounded healers. As human beings, we gravitate toward what we know. As counselors, many of us are attracted to this work because of our difficult life experiences. These events in our lives often include trauma.

Trauma is woven into the tapestry of my life. My hope in sharing my story is to continue the discussion around personal and vicarious trauma for counselors to remind others that they are not alone. I also wish to provide tools and strategies to assist counselors and their clients in moving through and releasing the trauma that is stored in their bodies and hearts.

My story

At age 17, I was sexually assaulted at a New Year’s Eve party. My life and my perception of the world instantly altered in that moment. Before the assault, I was the captain of my varsity field hockey team and was taking Advanced Placement courses to pursue my dream of going to an Ivy League school. My primary focus at the time was finding a date to the senior prom, but after that night, I lost all direction and shut down.

From that point on, I went to school and then went straight home each afternoon. I started avoiding my family and friends because I feared the questions they would ask and the suffering my responses would reveal. I slept a lot and found myself drifting off in the majority of my classes. Sleep was one of the few activities that allowed me to escape my thoughts and emotions, so I found refuge in the silence as often as possible. I isolated myself by spending most of my time alone in my bedroom, which was one of the only places where I felt physically and emotionally safe.

When sleep wasn’t enough, I turned to alcohol to numb the pain. Substance use issues run in my family, so drinking was modeled for me at a young age as a way to release and relax. When I was crumbling on the inside, drinking allowed me to appear stronger on the outside. In social situations, drinking helped replace my anxiety and insecurity with confidence and courage. I was aware that drinking offered only a short-term fix, but at the time, it was the only way I knew to cope with my discomfort and pain.

I managed to finish my senior year of high school and go off to college. I thought I would reinvent myself in college and leave behind my past experiences, but the drinking and my desire to numb myself followed me to this next stage of life. I would stay up late drinking with friends and subsequently miss most of my morning classes, even though attendance counted for a large portion of the grade.

I thought I was doing well, but in reality I was barely keeping my head above water. My grades suffered, and I ended my first semester of college with a C average. School had always been a grounding force in my life when everything else felt like it was floating away, so I knew that something had to change.

As a high school athlete, I had used sports and exercise to move through and release difficult emotions, so I once again began exercising and taking longer walks on an almost daily basis. Still, I felt that something was missing. My college was located in a rural town in southwest Virginia, but I managed to find a yoga studio to try out the practice, telling myself that it would serve as a beneficial cross-training exercise to my running. The prospect of cross-training was what brought me to my mat, but it was not what kept me there.

I still remember my first class. It was a hot yoga series with a set sequence of 26 standing and seated poses in a room heated to 92 degrees. I recall the teacher saying that if we needed to take breaks during the class, we could sit on our mats in Hero pose. Hero pose (see photos in Counseling Today‘s print magazine) is a kneeling pose, which also makes it a vulnerable posture. Although it is a grounding and surrendering pose, it is also a strengthening and activating pose.

About halfway through that first class, I felt dizzy and nauseated from the heat and the movements. I had believed I was in good shape at the time, but yoga challenged both my mind and my body in ways that I wasn’t accustomed to. My pride told me to continue to stand and attempt the series of poses, but my heart told me to sit down and take a break. I decided to listen to my heart instead of my mind for one of the first times since my childhood. I knelt down in Hero pose, stared at myself in the mirror and began to cry. I had been avoiding the metaphorical mirrors in my life for so long after the assault that I did not recognize the person looking back at me.

In that moment, I allowed myself to feel the pain I had been avoiding for the past year. I felt safe and comforted on my mat in that space. The class continued to go on around me while I closed my eyes and breathed in the pose. “I’m here for you,” I said silently to myself. “I’m not going anywhere. You’re safe now.”

Initially, I attended yoga once a week, but that eventually turned into two and three times a week. Each time I stepped on my mat, I felt a little piece of myself coming back and healing where it had been broken apart. Gradually, my heart also began to open again. I was able to begin getting out of my head and into my heart, which had been a struggle for me much of my life. At first, I gravitated toward yoga for the physical practice, but what kept me coming back was the spiritual and heart connection that it continually fostered.

Breathing in

In college, I began learning and experimenting with pranayama, or breathwork, practices in yoga to try to manage my overwhelming emotions with something other than alcohol. My connection to my mind was powerful and familiar, but my connection to my body and breath felt feeble and foreign.

I knew it would take time to nurture this new relationship with my breath. I kept going to yoga even when I wanted to give up and choose the quick fix. I continued to show up to experience the sporadic moments of quiet I achieved each time in my practice. Even if that happened for only 10 seconds at a time, those 10 seconds were more of a reprieve from my thoughts than I had experienced at any other point in my life.

I soon discovered that feelings influence breath and breath influences feelings. I used breathwork to move through a variety of emotions in college, including stress, anxiety, frustration and exhaustion. Prana is translated as “life force,” and yama is translated as “control,” so pranayama means to control the life force within. When I felt like so many things were out of control in my life, it was empowering to have one area in which I could temporarily regain my sense of power and control. With each breath I took in yoga, I felt like I was coming back to life again.

My breathwork practice started with basic diaphragmatic breathing, in which you place one hand over your heart and one hand over your stomach while breathing deeply into the belly. Diaphragmatic breathing is still a touchstone in my practice when I am struggling to connect with my breath.

Early on, I also learned kapalabhati, or “breath of fire,” in which you place one or both hands on your stomach and use forced exhalations through your nose to move your stomach and increase fire or energy in your body. Through practice, I discovered I could use breath to activate or energize myself (kapalabhati), and I could also use breath to deactivate and calm myself (diaphragmatic breathing).

Sitting down

My interest in breathwork eventually evolved into a meditation practice. I attended a mindfulness-based stress reduction intensive in graduate school to strengthen my meditation practice. I remember learning about walking meditation and practicing this form of grounding for an hour outside in nature. I had moved from 10 seconds of stillness in my mind to minutes of stillness during this walking practice.

I began to use walking meditation while moving around campus during my internship. I noticed that I felt more present, relaxed and grounded in sessions with students. When I was in a rush and forgot about my meditation practice, I felt irritable, worried and distracted in meetings.

My meditation practice has changed over time, but I always come back to walking meditation and the basic breathing techniques I learned in college and graduate school. I typically meditate for at least 20 minutes each day during the evening. This allows me to quiet my mind before bed and to release anything I am holding on to from the day that is no longer serving me.

Recently, I started beginning my meditation practice with a mantra statement. Mantra is translated as a “mind tool.” A mantra I use often in my practice is “Ham-sah,” which is Sanskrit for “I am that.” I am divine. I am light. I am love. I breathe in “ham” and breathe out “sah.” I use a mala, a string of 108 beads, to recite the mantra. The mind is like a puppy; the mantra serves as a toy for the puppy to play with and explore while settling into your meditation practice.

I also use mudras, which I call yoga for the hands. We have thousands of nerve endings in our fingers that are linked to various organs and other parts of our bodies. When we place our hands in specific positions, this activates certain sensations in the mind and body.

One of my favorite mudras to teach to clients and students is Auspicious mudra, in which you place one hand over your heart and then the other hand, while intentionally sending your breath to the space around and through your heart. I use this mudra to nurture and show compassion to my heart and body.

Standing up

After the assault, I blamed my body for what had happened, and I wanted to punish it. Because of this, I disconnected from my body through alcohol and other means. Yoga helped me come back to my body and feel safe in my body again. It allowed me to reclaim my relationship with my body that I had severed a connection with out of fear and shame. The poses and postures reduced the negative thoughts I carried about my body and encouraged me to open up to the beauty and wonder it had to show me.

One definition of yoga is a practice to “calm the thought waves.” Yoga asks us to move out of our heads and gently into our bodies. Yoga encourages us to push ourselves to our edges and sit with the sensations but to back off when we experience pain. Yoga reminds us that we can be uncomfortable in a moment but that, eventually, the discomfort will pass. Yoga connects us to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies. Yoga invites us to play, explore and discover the magic of our minds, bodies and souls.

As with my breathwork and meditation practices, my yoga practice has evolved over time. My movement usually reflects what is going on with me internally. When I need calm and peace in my life, I turn to restorative or yin postures, which are cooling and relaxing. When I need strength and power in my life, I seek out vinyasa or hatha poses, which are heating and energizing. 

One pose that I return to each day in my practice, both personally and professionally, is Tree pose. Tree pose is a balancing pose. Balancing poses are particularly helpful in bringing ourselves into the present moment rather than focusing on the past or the future. It is difficult to stand tall and securely in a balancing posture when our minds are wandering or drifting out of the present moment. To not fall in a balance pose, we have to be fully in the here and now.

To begin, stand in Tadasana, or Mountain pose, with your shoulders stacked over your hips, knees and ankles. Inhale to lengthen up through the spine and the crown of the head, and exhale to ground and release into the feet. Feet are hips-width distance apart and parallel. Arms can gently rest by the sides with the palms facing up.

With an inhale, bring the right foot to rest on the left ankle or calf like a kickstand. Exhale to root into the left foot and then move the gaze to a wall or object 3 to 6 feet in front of the eyes. Inhale and bring the hands to heart center in Anjali mudra, or Prayer pose. Exhale to release the shoulders down the back. Inhale to lengthen in the pose, and exhale to settle in the pose. Remain in Tree pose for five additional breaths, then switch sides and repeat. 

Flowing through

I am a survivor. At one point in my life, I was only surviving, just trying to get through each minute and hour of the day. Now I can confidently say that I am truly thriving.

We deserve to thrive rather than just merely survive in our lives. Yoga, breathwork and meditation have helped me to survive and also thrive in my life. The yoga text, the Bhagavad Gita, reads, “Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” When I lost my way, breath and movement led me back home to my true self.

 

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Jessica Smith is a licensed professional counselor, licensed addiction counselor, yoga teacher and owner of Radiance Counseling in Denver. She believes self-care is an act of self-love, and she is passionate about spreading this message to her fellow healers and clients. She is currently writing a collaborative memoir with a former client in the justice system and a memoir on healing from burnout. Contact her at jsmith@radiancecounseling.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Key considerations for counselor community engagement

By Matt Glowiak, Nicole A. Stargell and Devon E. Romero November 5, 2018

If you are reading this article, it is likely because you have a strong interest in counseling. We might even be able to go a step further in saying that you probably love counseling, right? As members of the Chi Sigma Iota (CSI) Counselor Community Engagement Committee, we agree — we love counseling. We also love using components of our professional skills to directly serve the community in ways that go beyond traditional counseling.

We invite you to take a moment to close your eyes and think back: What was it that influenced your choice to become a counseling professional? Was it your love and compassion for humanity? Was it due to a struggle experienced by someone you love or care about? Was it due to some great injustice that you couldn’t stand any longer? Or was it a talent with which you were born and were fortunate enough to harness through the progression of your life? If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, we are in a similar situation.

People who come to this field do so because they want to be that change they wish to see in the world. Counselors embody the foundational qualities of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard in their everyday lives. Counselors engage with the community in positive ways on a daily basis. Other times, counselors channel more intentional counseling skills in the community when they want to make a difference, and they are willing to make sacrifices if necessary. As individuals who have taken the initiative to earn professional degrees, it is apparent that we possess a desire to make the world a better place. Why else would we spend countless hours and make significant sacrifices to get into a better position to help others?

At its core, the role of a counselor is as a helper. That is, our mission is to create a better society, person by person, population by population. As professional counselors, we join with our clients in a relationship to support them toward their mental health and wellness goals.

Although we spend the majority of our working hours in session with clients, our professional identities transcend the professional setting. The way we show up in the community is a representation of the counseling profession. We can use our unique skills to support the community in ways that extend beyond the core role of counselor. These roles might include, but are not limited to, advocate, author, community member, educator, gatekeeper, philanthropist, public speaker, researcher and student. The opportunities we have to make the world a better place are seemingly limitless.

Those familiar with CSI may be aware of our mission “to promote scholarship, research, professionalism, leadership, advocacy and excellence in counseling, and to recognize high attainment in the pursuit of academic and clinical excellence in the profession of counseling” (csi-net.org).

To fulfill a portion of this mission, the CSI Counselor Community Engagement (CCE) Committee uses the “Ten Key Considerations for Chapter CCE” to intentionally “plan and implement activities that are collaborative, have measurable goals, advocate for a specific need, make a quantifiable difference in the community and are intentionally evaluated. Many CCE activities include elements of fundraising, professional development and/or advocacy; however, CCE incorporates a unique practical application component in collaboration with a community partner.”

As individuals who love professional counseling, we spend time showing the world how professional counselors make a positive difference in the professional and community settings.

Why is counselor community engagement important?

Sometimes it can be difficult to remain optimistic when we live in a world where tragedy occurs daily. With our eyes and ears open, we cannot hide from it. From one side of the world to the other, people are negatively affected by racial oppression, sexual inequality, homophobia, homicide, genocide, school shootings, suicide, war, civil unrest, political divide, poverty, homelessness, starvation, slavery, human trafficking, drug trafficking, natural disasters, human-caused disasters and personal relationship difficulties.

As we think back on our lives, each of us can recall situations in which we, or someone close to us, were personally affected by incidents that really struck a chord with us — incidents that seemed not right, unfair or downright horrific. But what can be done?

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

The decision to respond or not to respond is one that involves several considerations. After all, as counselors, we spend our working hours helping others, and we do need some time off from work. However, people often choose not to respond because they think they cannot possibly make a difference. “How can I, as one person, stop racial oppression?” Sometimes, the decision to not respond comes from a lack of resources. “I don’t have the time.” “I don’t have the money.” “I don’t have the education or skills.” Sometimes, we don’t respond because we worry what others will think of us. “If I speak out on behalf of the LGBTQ population, will other people think that I’m gay?” Other times, the decision is in line with the phenomenon of the bystander effect. “Other people are already there who will help.” Sometimes, it comes down to us not seeing something as being our personal responsibility or business. “Well, nothing bad is happening in my neighborhood, but if it did, I would certainly intervene then.” Although the reasons not to respond are many, a lack of response always leads to the same result: continued injustice.

Then there are those who, for whatever reason, choose to respond. Whether personally affected, vicariously impacted or just wanting to do what is right for humankind, these individuals intervene to help in whatever way possible, regardless of how big or small. If you can find a small amount of energy to devote to something you view as important, you will make the world a better place.

As William Faulkner said, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world … would do this, it would change the earth.”

As professional counselors, it is our ethical duty and obligation to respond to the American Counseling Association’s call in the Advocacy Competencies (2003) in the areas of client/student empowerment, client/student advocacy, community collaboration, systems advocacy, public information and social/political advocacy.

Accordingly, it is the purpose of counselor community engagement to serve those populations that need our help, even if that help extends beyond the core role of professional counselors and into those additional roles as advocates, educators, fundraisers and public speakers. After all, we possess the transferable skills, resources and desire to help. So, we should do just that when we can.

How to engage

The question is where do we begin? We start with an idea. But what use is a great idea if it remains unpursued? The truth is that it is of no use. Sometimes, a fair idea with solid implementation is what can make all the difference in the world. The difference, then, is in the execution.

As David Bornstein explains in How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, “An idea is like a play. It needs a good producer and a good promoter even if it is a masterpiece. Otherwise the play may never open; or it may open but, for a lack of an audience, close after a week. Similarly, an idea will not move from the fringes to the mainstream simply because it is good; it must be skillfully marketed before it will actually shift people’s perceptions and behavior.”

After an idea is conceived, professional counselors should move on to complete a more intentional needs assessment surrounding the idea. As described on CSI-net.org, “Connecting with the community of interest, particularly leaders and stakeholders, necessitates a needs assessment both in formal (e.g., instruments, surveys, interviews) and informal methods. Once the needs are identified, [organizations] can begin creating an action plan to focus on steps to address each need specifically. Implementing the action plan provides direct service to the community. After the CCE activity is complete, [organizations] will benefit from an evaluation process. This evaluation connects with the community by taking their input through a variety of assessment tools (e.g., interviews, surveys) and identifies new needs to build upon for future endeavors.”

With this general progression of needs assessment, action plan, direct service, evaluation process and identification of new needs, CSI has devised a 10-step method to counselor community engagement that any organization can easily follow.

 

1) Working together: How can I or my organization work with others to promote meaningful counselor community engagement?

Counselors intentionally approach community engagement of all forms in the spirit of cooperation and service. Counselors assume a servant leadership role when out in the community and especially when engaging in a specific community engagement activity.

Working together is a crucial element of community engagement activities, and it is important to mention on its own as a foundational attitude for the other considerations. Cooperation and collaboration provide a foundation for conducting initial needs assessments and promoting change within communities. We can work with others by leading, partnering or joining. Simply by reaching out, we may receive the assistance we need to take what was once an idea and turn it into something successful.

2) Level of counselor community engagement outreach: At what level of outreach should I or my organization engage our community?

On the organizational level, it is quite natural to get stuck thinking on the microsystem level: “What can we do to help this organization?” With that logic, all thoughts and actions focus only on what the organization and its members can do within the organization to sustain it. However, by moving beyond the microsystem and working with and for others, much more work can be done than was ever thought possible. Levels of counselor community engagement outreach might include local programs, national outreach and international outreach.

Reaching out is much easier than one might think. A simple email or phone call or attendance at a meeting might create the spark for a meaningful networking opportunity. Even in terms of national and international outreach, opportunities are much less intimidating and more practical than they may at first seem. At these levels, emails and phone calls still work, but taking the time to attend a larger national or international conference allows for face-to-face, personal connection.

3) Issue areas: What community areas or issues should I or my organization focus on?

Every community is different. Each community is composed of varied demographics in varied locations with varied needs. The bottom line is that every community, regardless of how functional, has some type of need. To maximize the benefits that your organization can offer, it is important to first match your organization’s output to the needs of the community. Therefore, it is critical to begin with some type of needs assessment. This might include asking:

  • What does our community need?
  • Is there a certain social injustice I have noticed?
  • What issues are a concern to our community and larger world?
  • How do we benefit the most people?

Considerations such as these are important for beginning any type of effort. As we look around us — watching the news on TV, reading updates online, listening to the radio — we will see more and more need for our assistance.

4) Populations served: With whom should I or my organization engage?

This question varies significantly from one organization to the next. Those you engage will depend on the need you are attempting to fulfill, the population you intend to serve and the resources you have available, among other factors.

Within our communities are numerous individuals and groups we wish to serve through a variety of activities. These individuals and groups may include:

  • After-school programs
  • Boys & Girls Clubs
  • Foster children and agencies
  • Individuals who are homeless
  • Homeless shelters
  • Nonprofit agencies
  • Individuals who are oppressed
  • Populations experiencing poverty
  • Populations who have experienced a natural disaster
  • Sober homes/halfway houses
  • Vocational programs for youth and adults

Many people could benefit from the caring efforts of a citizen who also happens to be a professional counselor. Think outside the box and remember that every individual experiences his or her own unique struggles. Anyone who is open to help might benefit from counselor community engagement.

5) Community partners: Who else might be an important partner in my or my organization’s counselor community engagement efforts?

A partner may be defined as “a person who takes part in an undertaking with another or others.” A partnership can be something that is either temporary or long term. Collaborating with various organizations can maximize the effectiveness of counselor community engagement efforts. Those of you who attended the American Counseling Association Conference & Expo in Montréal in 2016 witnessed a partnership between ACA and the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. Through this partnership, the two associations were able to merge the talents of counselors from multiple countries to further strengthen the diversity and quality of presentations, networking opportunities and other efforts.

Within our communities are numerous individuals and groups with which we might work to promote meaningful counselor community engagement. These individuals and groups may include:

  • Businesses (local and national)
  • Community boards
  • Elected officials
  • Government officials
  • Hospitals
  • Media outlets (traditional and online)
  • Mental health professionals
  • Organization members
  • Organization leaders
  • Other helping professionals
  • Primary and secondary schools
  • Professional associations
  • Registered charities
  • Religious organizations
  • Universities and colleges

Each of these entities alone or in combination may provide the necessary resources to assist in your counselor community engagement endeavor or
may significantly benefit from that endeavor themselves.

Forming partnerships is much simpler than you might think, but it always requires the first action step of reaching out. At this point, readers have likely noticed a similar theme among several of the key considerations for counselor community engagement: working with others to foster positive community change. Many individuals wish to make the world a better place. So, take a step back, think about the bigger picture, and connect with people who might wish to promote a similar mission.

6) Activities: What kinds of activities could I or my organization take part in to engage our community?

To this point, we have discussed the importance of needs assessments and collaborating with others. Depending on what is needed and who and what we have to work with, there are any number of activities in which we may engage. The main activity categories include:

  • Charitable donations and fundraising
  • Counseling and related services
  • Education
  • Other volunteer activities

These activities may include providing or organizing presentations, workshops, keynotes, continuing education, exam preparation, donations, fundraisers, sporting events, benefits, food drives, blood drives, scholarships, awareness events, conferences, free or low-cost counseling, group counseling, psychoeducational groups, awareness presentations, advocacy events, grant writing, tutoring or mentorship. Other engagement activities could involve planting trees, picking up waste, making meals, working at a food bank and so on.

Counselor community engagement activities come in all sizes and shapes. The benefits of producing one giant event will not necessarily outweigh the benefits of holding multiple smaller events throughout the year. It is important to consider the weight that “meaning” carries with every event in which your organization engages. Meaning will differ from one organization to the next. Whereas one organization might find raising $500 a relatively modest accomplishment, it could hold significant meaning for another organization. For example, it might represent the first major fundraiser the organization has ever undertaken and successfully accomplished. Or perhaps meaning is not based on the amount of money raised at all but rather on the purpose for which it was raised. In this respect, meaning might be tied strongly to a sense of accomplishment, advocacy, an increase of awareness, the building of morale, the strengthening of membership or some other factor.

7) Advocacy: What might it mean for me or my organization to advocate?

Counselors might wish to promote the welfare of an individual or group by explaining to others why the issue is important and how others can help. Counselors advocate for themselves, for the profession and for others. Advocacy can be performed at three levels:

  • Client- or population-specific advocacy
  • General community advocacy
  • Professional advocacy

Advocacy can be used to promote observable change, and it might be used to raise awareness that systematically influences decisions and circumstances across time. It is important to ask the questions, “What might it mean for my organization to advocate? How can we use our power as counselors and our privilege as citizens to speak up for what is right?”

8) Frequency: How often should I or my organization take part in counselor community engagement activities?

Although the knee-jerk response is to say the more, the merrier, it is important to consider what is practical. As we all know, an activity that is well thought out is much more productive and meaningful than something that is put together haphazardly. Determining how often you or your organization take part in community engagement should depend on
the following:

  • Needs of the community or organization
  • Availability of time
  • Funding
  • Availability of personnel
  • Availability of location (e.g., brick-and-mortar, online)
  • Motivation of stakeholders

As with any other key consideration, it is important to be strategic when planning the frequency of counselor community engagement activities. For example, an organization might consider hosting a one-time service event to raise money for families affected by the tragedy of a school shooting. Another organization might consider organizing ongoing counselor community engagement events to educate the public on topics such as bullying, gun laws, screening and peaceful intervention. In either case, the effort expended would be significant, so organizations are encouraged to take strategic action toward engagement activities that they believe will be most purposeful.

9) Action planning/program development: How might I or my organization plan and develop counselor community engagement activities?

Adequate planning and preparation will include meeting with stakeholders and setting goals with measurable objectives. For instance, multiple hurricanes tend to impact various regions of the United States each year. Action planning entails first reaching out to impacted areas and seeing how we may assist. Once needs are assessed, we can then meet with those stakeholders to develop an action plan around the goals we hope to accomplish. These goals might include performing community outreach, donating time, fundraising and so on.

10) Evaluation: How did the counselor community engagement activity impact the community and those who engaged in the project?

To answer this question, some type of evaluation must be conducted. This may be done using a simple survey, soliciting feedback, asking questions or via other means. What are the benefits of a comprehensive evaluation? According to Kieron Kirkland, former development research manager at Nominet Trust, which is a grant maker in the field of socially motivated technology, performing an evaluation helps organizations to:

  • Know whether an activity or project is working
  • Know how things are working
  • Understand why things are working
  • Be more adaptable
  • Be aware of unintended outcomes
  • Better communicate the value of their work
  • Focus their work
  • Help look after the people with whom they are working
  • Build organizational resilience

Many factors contribute to the success or failure of a counselor community engagement activity. Without investigating the various components of the activity, it is difficult to gauge whether it is worth conducting again or whether improvements are needed. To increase efficacy, there needs to be some indication of what works. Otherwise, organizations may continue spending resources on something that is fruitless or even harmful. Therefore, it is essential to always conduct some type of evaluation after each counselor community engagement activity.

 

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It is our hope that you have found this article helpful for planning, implementing, maintaining and evaluating your counselor community engagement activities. With a bit of effort and intention, we can achieve much more together, thus fulfilling the mission of ACA, CSI and the counseling profession as a whole. Now it is time for you to help change the world.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Matt Glowiak is core clinical faculty at Southern New Hampshire University as well as co-clinical director and co-founder of counseling speaks in Chicago, Park Ridge and Lake Forest, Illinois. He currently chairs the Chi Sigma Iota (CSI) International Counselor Community Engagement Committee. Contact him at m.glowiak@snhu.edu.

Nicole A. Stargell is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where she serves as the clinical mental health counseling field placement coordinator and the counseling programs testing coordinator. She is also the chapter faculty adviser of the Phi Sigma Chapter of CSI. Contact her at nastargell@gmail.com.

Devon E. Romero is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Contact her at devon.romero@utsa.edu.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

A different approach to recording sessions for counselors-in-training

By Helen M. Garinger

In six different graduate programs, I have taught students who were training to become either clinical mental health counselors or school counselors. During my first years in counselor education, students practiced their counseling skills by recording themselves as therapists with acquaintances of friends who served as clients. These sessions occurred outside of class. The students’ recordings were then brought to class, and we would listen to the most important parts of the sessions. Together, we critiqued what we heard. This continued for eight sessions and seemed to work quite well.

As time passed, however, and the programs where I taught changed, situations became more complicated. My students had increasing difficulty finding practice clients. Finding someone to volunteer became challenging and potentially risky. Random advertising to recruit volunteer clients on Craigslist or other sites would not work. I placed a stipulation on students that their volunteer clients were not to be in ongoing therapy or on psychiatric medication. To minimize issues, I also said that client problems needed to be related to work or relationships.

Allowing these counselors-in-training to rely on their fellow classmates as clients was a poor alternative. Either a student client would disclose too much information and leave the student therapist overwhelmed, or the student client was closely guarded and would not share enough. Student clients who were already in therapy were having issues for obvious reasons, and this raised other hurdles. First, clients do not see two therapists concurrently and, second, the student therapists were not equipped to handle real psychological problems because they did not yet have the proper skills.

This was not a productive learning situation. How far could a vulnerable student be pushed before disaster happened? My concern has always been for the safety and mental health of all students. I needed a new technique that would allow graduate students to acquire and practice counseling skills without being encumbered by their own personal issues or those of their classmates who were serving as practice clients.

 

My method

Essentially, the task remains the same: Record eight or more practice sessions throughout a semester. However, I now ask graduate counseling students to serve as both the client and the therapist for a fellow classmate.

Each week, the client and the therapist work on an issue that is stated as the presenting problem during the first session. At a designated time — using approximately 30- to 45-minute sessions — the roles are reversed. (My preference is for a longer amount of time, 45 minutes, but that depends on whether recording is being done during a three-hour class session or outside of class). As follow-up assignments, the therapist submits DAP (data, assessment and plan) notes after the session, and the client submits a reaction statement. During class time, we discuss approaches the therapist can take as we dissect the client’s responses.

I assume that each graduate student possesses some familiarity with various forms of psychological problems and mental illnesses. I first ask directed questions to initiate the process of creating a persona. This is a learning opportunity. For example, are they apprehensive about working with a specific population, such as:

  • A client who is elderly
  • A client who is suicidal
  • A client who just lost a job
  • A client who is transitioning gender
  • A client who has a substance abuse problem
  • A client who has an eating disorder
  • A client who is suffering from schizophrenia

This enables students to select a persona that they might want to adopt for their recording sessions.

The next step is to thoughtfully create a profile of an individual: Adopt a name, a gender, an age, a race, a profession and an education level. I also ask students to consider whether the support of specific family members and friends might have contributed to their character being more or less resilient. In other words, I guide them to create a character with a history, a family and a social constellation. Finally, as their new persona, I ask them to state their problem: Why do they want counseling at this time?

To adopt their persona, students need to know more about their character and the character’s problem. The students research various aspects of their persona so they can become a credible client in therapy. They develop their persona from journal articles, book chapters and additional media sources (as noted in the bibliography of their final paper).

The final paper for this assignment summarizes the experience. I require students to provide answers to specific topics:

1) Biopsychosocial information

2) Reason for selecting the persona

3) Effect of therapy

4) Specific techniques that may assist in the future

5) What they gained from this experience

6) Critique of the experience

In some situations, students are working at practicum sites, so another point is to share “application to practicum experience.”

In one final paper, a student wrote that she chose her persona because she wanted to experience a reality so far from her own that it would be a complex, yet interesting, challenge. In another situation, a student based her persona on a character from the film Prayers for Bobby, which involved the suicide of a younger sibling who was struggling with gender identification. Other students simply created their own persona. For example, a female student created a biracial, Hispanic and black 16-year-old male who was dealing with issues about his sexuality. The research enabled the student to learn more about specific issues, including being biracial, being a male, the acceptance of homosexuality in Latino and black cultures, and problems dealing with parents’ reactions to coming out.

Another student shared her objective of getting a deeper emotional understanding of what it means to be gay and discovering the challenges that these clients face. Her research and the creation of her persona helped her acquire that knowledge. “I found the process of creating and developing this character to be extremely useful for my professional and academic growth.” (Ellen)

A male student decided to be a female persona with marital issues. She was struggling with her husband’s domineering role in their marriage. She was also wrestling with notions of divorce, all from a female perspective.

 

Discussion

The results of this method were consistently favorable. The students not only learned about specific populations and disorders but also gained insights into mental health problems. They practiced skills and became aware of which skills seemed more effective under various circumstances. The students reported that open class discussion reduced their tension levels and feelings of stress about serving as therapists. They freely critiqued one another and offered suggestions about how to best proceed with specific clients.

“The sessions helped me raise valuable questions about how I would choose techniques to help my clients. This experience also helped me become more aware of how I listen to clients and gather information. I found this experience to be valuable because it made me think about how I would respond to certain comments and questions from a client. It has also made me think about the research I would like to do on techniques to help clients.” (Sabrina)

Another student wrote that she believed helping clients learn to face their problems in positive ways would be extremely important in their recovery. “Overall, I found this experience to be beneficial in many ways. The most important part of these sessions though was when we were able to discuss them in class and learn from each other’s experiences. The in-class discussions greatly helped me when dealing with my own client, as well as giving me tips in how to think out of the box when it came to being the client myself. There were multiple types of therapy methods discussed, which were a great help when it comes to what type of things I may face in my future prospects as a counselor. It was also great that we were able to pick our own characters, which gave promise to there being a very diverse population of clients and proceeding mental health issues. I really enjoyed and learned a lot from this assignment.” (Kaleigh)

Chris shared that the counselor didn’t always need to have all the answers. He acknowledged that having an empathic listener lessened the stress he had placed on himself. He reported that he was able to relax more and allow conversations to come naturally.

I firmly believe the didactic implementation of creating a persona for recording practice counseling sessions uses counseling skills while raising awareness of students’ potential as counselors. Having students research and develop a persona expands their knowledge base while helping them to acquire empathy. It’s one thing to hear about a problem; it’s another to adopt that issue as your own and seek counseling to help resolve issues.

I strongly believe my method works for all students on several levels. As students learn basic counseling skills, using those skills in sessions with practice clients is essential. One advantage of my method is that each student gains knowledge and no students suffer. Most important, this method psychologically protects the individual student while enhancing fundamental skills practice, broadening knowledge and influencing future mental health counselors.

As educators, we want to prepare confident and effective mental health professionals.

 

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Helen M. Garinger is a licensed professional counselor, a licensed mental health counselor and a national certified counselor. After 13 years as a full-time professor, she is currently an adjunct professor at New York University, University of Connecticut and Norwalk Community College. She wishes to thank her graduate students for their great work and contributions. Contact her at hmg3@nyu.edu.

 

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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.