Simone Lambert recently completed her term as the American Counseling Association’s 67th president, handing over the reins to new ACA President Heather Trepal on July 1. Shortly before leaving office, Lambert agreed to answer a series of questions from Counseling Today reflecting on her experience as ACA’s top elected leader. Her answers give context to some of the major happenings and challenges within the association and the counseling profession as a whole and provide insights into possible future directions.
When you look back on your past year as president of the American Counseling Association, what are you most proud of?
Without any hesitation, the single area I am most proud of is our advancement toward national portability. The ACA Governing Council prioritized the strategic initiative of “1.1 Working to advance and ensure that licensed professional counselors enjoy seamless portability of their licenses when: moving to other states; practicing across state lines; and engaging in tele-counseling” for this year and next.
In October 2018, after careful deliberation, Governing Council unanimously approved funding for the development of a professional occupational interstate compact for professional counselors. We thoroughly vetted and contracted with the National Center for Interstate Compacts, an arm of the Council of State Governments. The ACA Portability Task Force provided invaluable expertise and asked critical questions. ACA leaders and staff do not spend membership dues lightly. Thus, the contract was meticulously reviewed and revised to ensure optimal outcome.
While national portability will be a multiyear process, ACA is making a massive investment that likely will improve counselor workforce retention, including for military spouses, and increase access to mental health services. The interstate compact is a policy vehicle that furthers the work that began years ago with the Building Blocks to Portability Project of the 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling initiative and the adoption of the ACA licensure portability model.
In which specific areas do you feel like the association as a whole is gaining positive momentum?
Under the guidance of CEO Rich Yep and the executive team, the association has been transforming into a modern association looking ahead at how best to meet the needs of current and future ACA members. The internal, behind-the-scenes transformation has been extensive. We, as members, see snippets of this with such activities as being able to access the Journal of Counseling & Development and Counseling Today on our phones and being able to readily search and find clinical resources on our website.
As leaders, we see the revolutionary impact of our robust strategic framework that Governing Council approved in April 2018. Implementation of the strategic framework has had widespread impact on the association, including how staff workplans are developed, what staff and leaders prioritize across the association, and how we evaluate the organizational performance. Leaders also revamped our Governing Council agenda to include time for generative, strategic and operational discussions. The combination of the revised agenda format and the strategic framework has allowed Governing Council to move forward in collective thought leadership.
What issues took up most of your time or received a substantial amount of focus from you this year? Why were these issues so important?
The ACA president is a spokesperson for the association. I wholeheartedly jumped into this role as a way to advocate for the counseling profession and those we serve. Another priority initiative this year and next is “3.2 Raising awareness among the public and consumers about the benefits provided by the counseling profession.” In addition to providing keynotes and attending ACA branch and division conferences, I presented at the Mental Health America and the Time to Thrive conferences. I also had the privilege of advocating and interfacing with staff from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, the Department of Education, and national and state legislators. These efforts were important to increase knowledge of our profession among decision-makers.
Often this year, I found myself to be the only licensed professional counselor in the room. I gleaned a few things from that experience. First, Shirley Chisholm’s guidance of “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair” resonates more than ever. If we want clients and students to receive psychoeducational materials that are developed from a strength-based wellness perspective, we need to be at the table. If we want to be included in federal grants and Medicare reimbursements, we need to invite ourselves to the table.
Second, just like the Whos in Horton Hears a Who! we need a megaphone to collectively say, “We are here!” The American Counseling Association, including staff, leaders and members, is that megaphone. To raise awareness with the public and policymakers, we proactively need to state that we are part of the solution to the mental health workforce shortage. To obtain parity of status with other professions, we need to increase our visibility among federal and community partners.
In addition to meeting with our sister counseling organizations throughout the year, I met with representatives from the American Psychological Association (Division 17), the American Art Therapy Association, the World Health Organization, the United Nations (U.N.) Department of Public Information and nongovernmental organizations, as well as the Human Rights Campaign, the Born This Way Foundation and many other community agencies.
In addition to Skyping into doctoral counselor education classes and attending a residency with master’s-level interns from all over the world, I was honored to speak on behalf of the profession to those in the media, including venues such as NPR, Brit + Co, Time magazine, The Deseret News, USA Today and MEA Worldwide. I was interviewed on the Sirius XM Radio station Doctor Radio with host Dr. Michael Aronoff. With the guidance of the Promoting Mental Health and Averting Addiction Through Prevention Strategies Task Force and the expertise of ACA staff, I even did a video for ACA’s Instagram and a Twitter chat during National Prevention Week of Mental Health Awareness Month.
Seizing on opportunities to say “we are here!” in ways that promote the counseling profession as a resource is critical to not only increase awareness, but also to join with partners to decrease stigma and increase access to counseling services.
Were there any issues that you developed a new appreciation for or that you gained a substantial amount of new knowledge about throughout the year?
In addition to trauma-informed care, I have a whole new appreciation for intersectionality. People are complicated and multifaceted. Attending events like the launching of Project Thrive and the SAMHSA Voice Awards, I heard amazing stories of resiliency related to people who had a mental health or substance use disorder, physical health issues or were from marginalized communities. Approaching counseling practice and advocacy with lenses of trauma-informed care and intersectionality within this sociocultural political climate is challenging and requires strong coalitions of professional associations, community agencies and government partnerships where possible. To assist our champion legislators, we as a profession need to produce more large-scale research studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of professional counselors.
Internally, we need to follow other professions in setting safeguards to assist counselors who have relapsed with their own substance use disorders or who are having mental health challenges. The ACA Code of Ethics discusses gatekeeping and counselor impairment, but we as an association have just begun to have conversations about policies related to member impairment as a larger issue. Other professional associations have resources to monitor members who are unwell or whose behavior is harming the profession. Counselors are not immune to mental health struggles, and we can actively address the issue for the betterment of our members and profession.
As ACA president, you spent a significant amount of time traveling and meeting with other counseling professionals and counselors-in-training. What did you learn from those conversations? Did a particular concern or question get voiced repeatedly?
Counselors have a strong professional identity, yet we still struggle with recognition of our profession within the mental health workforce. Beyond raising awareness, the third strategic initiative priority for this year and next is “1.2 Working to ensure equitable, consistent and adequate reimbursement for appropriately educated, trained and licensed professional counselors in all practice settings.”
After navigating undergraduate and graduate degrees, undergoing extensive post-master’s degree supervision, and passing credentialing exams, professional counselors across settings want to make a livable wage. They worry about competing with life coaches, who have less training but charge more. The Counselor Compensation Task Force found much variability in reimbursement rates, and counselors hope to have parity of status with other mental health professionals to have comparable reimbursement rates. Counselors also want to work in interdisciplinary teams, but they need other professions such as medical doctors, psychiatrists and clinical psychologist to recognize the value added when including professional counselors across settings to the treatment team.
Another huge challenge for counselors is student loan debt, which impacts counselors’ ability to afford to stay in the profession, especially through those prelicensure years. Engaging in professional association membership and participating in professional development on top of licensure application fees, supervision expenses and liability insurance coverage is challenging for those with higher student loan debt, which is often women, a large percentage of our counseling profession.
How did your own perspective change in the year you served as president? Is there anything that surprised you?
Having met with all of our sister organizations, my bird’s-eye view of the profession has informed my perspective about how our profession is in the midst of a major transition. Over the past few years, we have seen turnover of long-serving staff at the helm of Chi Sigma Iota (CSI), NBCC, CACREP and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision. Even our own David Kaplan, ACA’s chief professional officer, retired this spring after 15 years.
We have seen CACREP and the Council on Rehabilitation Education merge and alternative accreditation proposed by other associations. The American Association of State Counseling Boards has transitioned from an independent organization to being managed by the Center for Credentialing & Education, an affiliate of NBCC. In addition, two large ACA divisions, the American School Counselor Association and the American Mental Health Counselors Association, decided to disaffiliate from ACA. Change is difficult for all of us, yet with change comes opportunity. For instance, ACA can now fully serve and strongly advocate for professional counselors who work in schools and community agencies. ACA continues to maintain collaborative relationships with our sister organizations. The concerted wraparound response to the closure of Argosy University is an excellent example of how ACA, CACREP, CSI and NBCC each addressed the part of the crisis within their purview.
This year, I attended two International Association for Counselling (IAC) conferences. I was incredibly surprised to learn how many countries look up to ACA as a model professional association. We are leaders in the international community. Likewise, there is much to learn from other counseling professional organizations that have dealt with similar issues. Interestingly, there seems to be a developmental curve for counseling organizations whereby we are one of the older counseling organizations. Then there are countries such as Uruguay, which is developing its first counseling degree program. None of the countries I met with had as complicated of a licensure situation as we do. We are unique with our unique licensure laws in 50 states plus U.S. territories.
After attending global conferences of the U.N., IAC and NIMH, a few startling themes stood out. First, there are not enough of us. There is a national and international mental health workforce shortage. We need to work to reduce barriers and obstacles to “scale up.” Second, there are forces beyond our control, such as climate change, that will increase the need for counselors to assist with issues related to migration and loss of livelihood as lands, resources and industries are subsumed. Third, there will be dramatic shifts in the workplace as technological advances and artificial intelligence necessitate retraining many people. School and career counselors will play an instrumental role in readying the next generation for jobs that have not yet been created. Finally, we will see increased telehealth and integrative approaches to mental health.
Where do you see things heading with ACA and with the counseling profession as a whole? What are some of the major issues or challenges that the association and profession will need to address in the coming years?
A major challenge of the profession is diversification of our workforce. Another item in our strategic framework is “3.1 Building a diverse, inclusive and engaged pipeline of counselors who will serve well into the 21st century.”
I attended a screening of Personal Statement, which followed three high school students who were from marginalized and underrepresented populations. The additional obstacles that these students faced were seemingly insurmountable. If we are going to have a more diversified counseling profession, we need to start advocating for people of color and diverse cultural backgrounds much earlier in their academic career paths. As these students make it to counseling graduate programs and leadership positions, we need to provide mentoring and support to increase retention and ensure that their voices are at the table when policies are being made. The message of “nothing for us without us” was mentioned to me in multiple venues this year, and I strongly believe that those with privilege need to listen to and advocate with those from diverse backgrounds.
Having diversity within the counseling profession is critical so that clients have the option to see counselors who are representative of their own backgrounds. In addition, there are societal stressors impacting clients that may impede on therapeutic progress. For instance, poverty, income inequality, education and other systemic issues could be barriers to accessing services. While counselors have the ethical responsibility to advocate, we cannot solve all of the world’s problems on our own. We need to work with other professions and stakeholders, including those outside of mental health, to tackle issues that prevent clients from seeking counseling services.
To further the ideas of breaking down silos, viewing the client from an intersectional perspective, and working across specialty areas, the structure of ACA in some ways restricts such collaboration. There are many entities within the ACA structure, including regions, divisions, branches, task forces, committees, interest networks and ACA Connect communities. Some of these entities are autonomous, such as divisions and most state branches. Other entities fully consist of ACA members, yet members may not know how their entities’ charges are related to another entity. Thus, the structure of ACA could become streamlined to increase efficiency in operational costs and content development. We have had many conversations, and I anticipate there will be many conversations to come.
Ultimately, we need some guidance from an association architect to reconfigure our professional house built in 1952. It’s time for serious structural renovations to help us be more productive as a whole. Imagine a professional home where subject matter experts have a structure to pool together best practices and evidence-based strategies for ACA members to address intersectionality in session and advocate on related legislation.
Looking back with all of the experience and information that you have now, is there anything you might do or approach differently if given a second chance?
If I had a do-over, I would have spent more time with our ACA committees, which are the workhorses of our association. In every meeting I attended and every email I read, it was apparent that our committees and task forces consist of incredibly dedicated and passionate volunteer leaders. For instance, the Human Rights Committee has recently developed advocacy statements about gun violence, climate change, transgender and nonbinary issues, indigenous people’s rights and concerns, and judicial and punitive disparity.
In hindsight, there could have been additional bridging and connecting of the committees with other committees/task forces and other ACA entities. One example was the leadership campaign that took place at the ACA Conference in New Orleans, whereby the Branch Development Committee and the region chairs worked to identify potential counseling leaders. Special thanks goes to the region leaders, CSI and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development for allowing recruitment of potential volunteers to take place at their venues.
Any words of advice or guidance for new ACA President Heather Trepal?
My hope is that President Trepal stays focused on our mission: “Promote the professional development of counselors, advocate for the profession, and ensure ethical, culturally inclusive practices that protect those using counseling services.”
Our counseling association is unique from all others. We include 18 divisions that represent specialties and settings across the profession. When ACA makes decisions, we do so understanding our responsibilities to all of our members. President Trepal is well-supported by an incredibly talented staff and deeply committed group of leaders. She is not in this by herself. Based on my lessons learned, I encourage her to ask and accept help as needed, listen and learn, share her expertise, and strengthen ACA by collaborating with internal entities of ACA and external partners.
In what ways will your time as ACA president influence your work as a counselor educator or clinician moving forward?
The amount of hardship and pain that I heard about throughout the year could be very disheartening, especially in our polarized times. However, I am optimistic from seeing the work of so many counselors, allies, researchers, advocates, policymakers, staff and leaders who are working in the trenches to promote mental health.
As a counselor educator and mentor, I want to assist learners and emerging leaders to identify tables where their voices need to be heard. As a professional counselor, I want to focus my energies on decreasing stigma, increasing access to care, encouraging wellness, and helping clients and policymakers hear us say, “We are here!”
Jonathan Rollins is the editor-in-chief of Counseling Today. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.