Tragic events tend to mobilize local and national news reports with questions and concerns that relate directly to the work that we do as professional counselors. Shootings, disasters, immigration issues, and political fallout are just a few examples that come to mind at the time of this writing.
What is particularly troubling to me is the lack of counseling expertise represented in the news in response to these events. Instead, we often endure ad hoc theories from professionals with no counseling experience who errantly connect tragic events to mental health issues. These individuals may mean well, but they make broad statements that connect video games with shootings, promote mental health policy that is rooted in subjective ambivalent “right” versus “wrong” societal thinking (rather than empirical research), and engage in ignorant blaming or scapegoating that leads to even more conflict and mental strife for the general population. What better time for licensed professional counselors to provide empirical context for these issues and offer hope for healing when it is needed most?
At the same time, I think we can largely blame ourselves as counselors for this gap in the national consciousness. We have fantastic representation in our state and national counseling associations and plenty of empirical research on topics of interest, yet we are not insistent on providing that content to our communities. As counselors, we have been trained to advocate through appropriate channels that include citizen-driven activities to challenge federal and state legislation, yet we have not learned how to promote our profession in the times we are most needed. Alfred Adler and Carl Rogers both held a global vision for our profession that included change and advocacy for the community at large. So, where do we start?
As a whole, the general public would find it useful to know a little more about what we do as professional counselors. People need to know that we are trained to probe more deeply about family dynamics, to inquire about the presence of guns and the use of prescription or illegal drugs, and to listen for evidence of strained relationships that may need immediate attention. We need to share that we have expertise in evaluating suicidal thoughts and potential homicidal intentions and that we often determine neglect or abuse for mandated reporting. People often worry about the ramifications of going to a counselor; our presence in the news media can go a long way toward easing those concerns.
After a tragic event occurs, these basic counselor skills can be invaluable for parents worried about their teenagers, spouses concerned about the safety of their mate, and adult children fretting about the welfare of their elderly parents. We can provide confidentiality that may be just the ticket when social concerns, political stressors, and environmental issues seem to be ever-present. As professional counselors, we are qualified to share insights on what symptoms to look for in a troubled family member, what signs might be particularly worrisome when a child withdraws, and how to find help when a particular mental health issue is occurring. It is information such as this that often seems to be lacking when the larger community is hurting.
You may be asking: What can I do? Here are a few suggestions to get started.
First, take a moment to consider your particular skills and expertise. Do you work with people who struggle with depression? What information could you share publicly that might help others to cope, have hope, or seek help from a professional counselor? Alternatively, if your experience is with anxiety, what compassionate message might you share for people who are afraid to go to the mall or to the movies? If you work with people through illness or grief and loss, consider what messages you might be able to offer when the community at large is suffering with a particular loss. As a licensed professional counselor, you have knowledge, awareness and skills that would be tremendously useful in times of strife. It is just a matter of getting that content “out there” in the public.
Next, consider how you may want to advertise your availability to news outlets and the general public. One way to do this is to write an email or a letter to your local news station to identify yourself and the work that you do. Be brief in your communication, pointing to the specific issue or circumstance for which you may be most helpful. Include a business card or a link to a website if you have one. This is not the time to expound on your many research interests or on why you became a counselor. Be concise, clear and direct in describing what you specialize in so that news outlets can easily place you into a resource category.
It helps tremendously to have a professional Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn account that can connect your expertise to an active news media database or digital rolodex. Give some time and attention to this virtual representation to ensure that you are abiding by the ACA Code of Ethics. Consider locking down your settings to avoid inadvertent negligence on the part of potential clients who may try to direct message you. As stated in Standard H.6.a. in the ACA Code of Ethics, it is important to maintain a professional virtual presence that is separate from your personal presence online. It may be tempting to connect your professional site to your personal account, but resist this temptation.
Your professionally oriented social media sites should be designed to help local and national news media locate you should a specific need arise. Likewise, make it easy for the general public to find pertinent information on your credentials, expertise, and research interests. These details should clearly inform the general public about counseling and the specific work that you do, with special attention given to technology/social media competency (Standard H.1.a.) and your social media policy (Standard H.6.b.). Note how you may be of assistance to the community and the means for contacting you as a news source. Be sure to “friend” or “follow” all pertinent news outlets and local organizations that may need your help, and then take time to keep up with any interactions that occur with these entities.
Also, take a moment to consider what populations or groups in your area might especially appreciate a free workshop or presentation on the topic in which you specialize. Advocacy often begins in your local area, and people are more likely to ask questions about the counseling profession when they have the opportunity to get to know you better. Churches, synagogues and mosques tend to be places where disheartened and disenfranchised people go to get support. Offering to discuss your services in these places can open up new opportunities for the general public to understand what you do. Public clubs, parent groups, and schools may also grant you the opportunity to speak on a specific topic. Once these populations have the opportunity to learn about your work, they can also advocate for inclusion of a counseling perspective from their news sources.
If someone is searching for you in your area of practice, how will they find you? Psychology Today offers a “find a therapist” option that is helpful to the general public, but it incurs a monthly fee that some counselors may find distasteful. Another option to consider is starting a podcast, blog or streaming channel to bring your professional identity into the public eye. Although these options take time and energy, the results can include bringing your expertise to the consciousness of your immediate community. The creation of a website can also be useful as a less dynamic online platform where these other social media delivery systems can be “housed” in a central location. A unique domain for this purpose can be purchased and maintained with minimal cost and low effort. Community websites that provide free postings for mental health professionals at the county or city level can also be helpful. You may need to dig to find these, but they do exist.
Finally, don’t be shy about introducing yourself as a professional counselor when you are “off duty” and, if possible, take time to volunteer for an Advocacy Day sponsored by most state branches of the American Counseling Association. There are very helpful tips and tools located on the ACA website that provide direction on how to interact with local, state and national legislators, and steps for developing ethical social media sites. Another useful suggestion is to include a pertinent hashtag with your counselor postings (e.g., #CounselorsAdvocate) that can bring attention to that topic. Be creative in using hashtags that are specific to your knowledge, awareness and skills (e.g., #counselorforanger, #askacounselor, #counselinganxiety, #counselorgriefandloss). Connect with similarly named social media groups, and offer your availability in times of community tragedy.
In short, when tragic or troubling events occur, take a moment to think about your own skills, and then reach out to offer your perspective as a professional counselor to the news media. We often hear about the impact of public happenings in clients’ counseling sessions and may feel that we cannot act outside of that environment without sacrificing client trust. But there is a way to do this in an ethical manner. Remember, we don’t have to “take sides” on a controversial topic to provide much-needed positive messages to our communities. It may take courage for us to make this happen, but it is important for us to promote what we do as counselors when the people in our communities need it most.
Carol Z.A. McGinnis is a licensed clinical professional counselor, national certified counselor and board certified telemental health provider. She is associate professor and clinical mental health track coordinator for Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She is currently president-elect of the Maryland Counseling Association and specializes in research that focuses on anger processing (www.anger.works) and videogaming. Contact her 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.