Monthly Archives: June 2020

Supporting families with engagement strategies during COVID-19

By Carson Eckard June 18, 2020

To combat the toxic stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have created a list of activities to positively engage children during this time. The following list includes a description of what each activity is, what materials are needed (with an understanding that many families are under financial hardship) and the possible psychological benefits of the activity.

These activities are designed for entire families, including adults, to reduce stress and promote healing during the pandemic. Most of these activities can be done either inside or outside and can be tailored to individual interests, ages and ability levels.

 

Obstacle course

This activity will get the whole family moving. Use objects around the house to get the family involved. This could include climbing under or over chairs, throwing a bundle of socks into a laundry basket, spinning, using paper strips in place of lasers, and so on.

Inside, a slower pace can be taken to ensure that nothing gets broken and no one gets hurt. If you have access to an outdoor space or a sidewalk in front of your home, you can create an obstacle course out of chalk. Here’s an example.

This website includes a list of materials to use.

This slideshow has ideas for children in wheelchairs.

Materials: Whatever you have in the house

Ages: Toddlers and early elementary-age children

Psychological benefit: Obstacle courses can target many aspects of a child’s brain, including sensory input, motor planning, coordination, sequencing and problem-solving. They can also reduce psychological stress and anxiety. When more people participate, the teamwork and competition can provide some of the social interaction children have been missing from environments such as school.

 

Broadway play

This activity allows children to engage in imaginary play by creating plots to their own stories. When the story is written, have the child cast the characters in the story, find props (or imagine them) and direct the scene. If there aren’t enough family members to act out the scene, consider playing multiple parts at once or having the child draw the characters instead. Children may need direction and prompting, but allow them to be in control of constructing their own narrative. Activities that could be added include constructing sets and props and making movie posters.

Materials: Whatever you have in the house — paper, markers, drawing materials, prop-making materials and so on

Ages: Toddlers through early middle school age

Psychological benefit: During the pandemic, children may be struggling with an inability to control the situation. When they are able to control a scene and story in a healthy way, it can reduce their stress and promote individuality and resilience. Furthermore, creativity reduces anxiety and depression and can help children process toxic stress.

 

Board games and card games

When everyone is stuck at home, board games and card games are a great option for helping the entire family to connect. For younger kids, games such as Go Fish, Candy Land, and Guess Who? could be hits, whereas older kids may like Monopoly, Clue, and Sorry!

If you don’t have any board games at home, use paper or cardboard to create your own. WikiHow has information on steps to take when you’d like to create your own board game. Make sure your child is part of the creative process of creating the game if you choose to make your own.

For more information on why board games are good for a child’s mental health, as well as a breakdown of age-appropriate games, check this link from Manhattan Psychology Group.

Materials: Cardboard, paper, markers, small toys, etc.

Ages: Any

Psychological benefit: Playing fun games decreases anxiety and can increase confidence in children. Some games include aspects of problem-solving and can access the cortex for children who feel safe. Board games allow for healthy cognitive and social development for children.

Mazes and finger labyrinths

Mazes and finger labyrinths are easily made at home. They are a great brain teaser for kids and can also be extremely relaxing. Finger labyrinths are just like mazes, but instead of drawing a line to the exit, a finger is used to follow the path. When paired with deep breathing exercises, this can have a meditative quality.

For help on constructing labyrinths made out of materials such as rice, play dough, paperclips and more, go to this website.

The Labyrinth Society offers an online resource for downloadable and printable finger labyrinths.

The All Kids Network has many printable mazes for kids.

Materials: Paper, printer, something to write with

Ages: Whereas mazes are most engaging for children ages 3-6, finger labyrinths are a good mindfulness activity for children of all ages

Psychological benefit: Mazes offer many benefits to a child’s development, including problem-solving and motor control. Children will need patience and persistence to complete the puzzle and, once done, may experience a boost of confidence. Finger labyrinths originated in prayer but are also used as a grounding exercise.

 

Dance party

Turn up your favorite songs and get moving. Be sure to build a playlist the entire family can move to. Only upbeat jams! Spotify is a free service you can use to build playlists if you establish an account. Spotify playlists that might make for super fun dance parties can be found here. You may need to look around to find a playlist without explicit lyrics, but Spotify does offer an explicit content filter in its settings. Other free services include Amazon Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio and YouTube, but most have ads and can incorporate explicit lyrics, so be careful.

Materials: A phone, laptop, tablet or any device that plays music

Ages: Any

Psychological benefit: Dancing is both great exercise and a form of creative expression. Dancing keeps your heart healthy and muscles strong, improves coordination and balance, and provides an outlet for emotions. Music activates the cerebellum, stimulates the release of hormones that reduce stress, and improves self-esteem.

 

Karaoke party

On a similar note to a dance party, a karaoke party could be another viable option for the family. Because you want family members to sing, I recommend using YouTube and allowing each person to pick a song of their choice, unless you have a premium subscription for a music streaming service. As a finale, try singing a few songs that everyone knows together. For an added bonus, try creating a song by making your own lyrics and finding objects around the house to use as instruments.

Materials: A phone, laptop, tablet or any device that plays music; maybe a prop to use as a “microphone”

Ages: Any

Psychological benefit: Singing releases hormones that reduce stress and make us feel happy, improves mental alertness and helps us control our breath flow, which can help us regulate. Singing also helps children’s communication skills and self-esteem. Studies show that singing stimulates the vagus nerve responsible for our senses, motor function, digestion, respiration and heart rate. When stimulated, the vagus nerve reduces stress, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces inflammation.

 

Play teacher

Let your child become the expert and pretend to be a teacher of whatever they are passionate about. This can take a more “formal” approach by pretending to be in school, or it can be more informal, simply asking them questions about the things they are interested in. This helps children realize that adults don’t know everything and allows them to develop as individuals.

Materials: None

Ages: Elementary school age (Note: It is beneficial and important to ask children of any age what their interests are to strengthen your relationship with them)

Psychological benefit: Taking on a formal “school” scenario involves imaginative play. Imaginative play allows children to experiment with different interests and skills. Furthermore, children who engage in pretend play are understanding social relationships, expressing and understanding emotions, expressing themselves both verbally and nonverbally, and practicing problem-solving skills. If imaginative play isn’t your cup of tea, have conversations with your child about what they are passionate about or interested in. Having these kinds of conversations will help you and your child relate to each other more.

 

Yoga

Although it may be difficult to practice advanced yoga poses with younger kids, it is possible to find something appropriate for their level. One of the most important aspects of yoga is breathing. Try doing the yoga poses with your child. Model a positive attitude and a willingness to try new poses, and compliment the child when poses are attempted. Make sure the poses are not too advanced for children or they may become frustrated.

Here is a free YouTube video of yoga poses that you can do with children. If you do not have access to a video device or the child would not benefit from structured instructions found in a video, you can find printable yoga poses from Kids Yoga Stories. If you and the child are new to yoga, it is vitally important to follow a guide to ensure that you are not hurting yourself or the child.

Materials: A guide to follow (either pictures or a video)

Ages: Any

Psychological benefit: It is no secret that yoga has therapeutic qualities such as offering a sense of calmness and relaxation. Furthermore, yoga enhances children’s flexibility, strength, coordination and body awareness. Doing yoga can reduce muscle tension held in our bodies and is another activity that stimulates the vagus nerve, which reduces stress, lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces inflammation.

 

Indoor sports

This category can depend on whether there is space to move around and interact with each other, but there are options for small spaces too. Each activity is meant to allow children to have fun and can be created with multiple objects around the house.

The Fatherly website has many ideas, such as balloon tennis, for bigger spaces. Roll up some paper and make a ball or a puck to kick, throw or hit around the house. Use a balloon to play volleyball or keep-up. If you have a smaller space, perhaps finger football might suit your needs.

Materials: Anything you can find around the house

Ages: Early elementary to early middle school age

Psychological benefit: If your family doesn’t have much space to run around and play, even the simplest games such as finger football increase coordination. In addition, these sports need multiple participants, which assists in the social development of the child.

 

Video games

Many video games are not family friendly or age appropriate for children. However, many options are available for younger kids both online and offline. PBS Kids offers many educational games for young children. Older kids may benefit from playing games online with their friends. Among popular options are Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft, League of Legends and titles usually found on consoles, such as NBA 2K and Call of Duty. Many of these games are not free (some can be very expensive), and many are not appropriate for all kids. Have a conversation with the children in your life about what their friends are playing, and then set healthy boundaries around screen time.

There are also online video games that you can play with your family and friends. Popular options include Kahoot!, Jackbox Party Pack, digital board games through apps, Mario Kart Tour and others. Many of these games require only your phone or another device with internet access.

Materials: Games to play and something to play on

Ages: Any (as long as you monitor what games they are playing)

Psychological benefit: Your child is likely missing their friends from school and other environments. Allowing children to play video games with their friends online can help them stay connected and have fun. With all ages, video games offer an outlet for motor development, the release of stress relief hormones, social interaction, problem-solving, development of leadership skills, and increased alertness.

 

Call-and-response songs

If you’ve ever been to summer camp, call-and-response songs will be familiar to you. These songs are started by one person and imitated by another person or group. For children, particularly children with special needs, transitions between activities may be challenging. Side note: I worked at a summer camp with children with autism spectrum disorder, and mealtimes were one of the most stressful parts of the day for them. Singing a simple song such as “We put our foot up on the tree, we put our foot up on the tree, we put our feet up on the tree so that we can eat” makes these times less stressful for all.

Performing a quick redirect activity such as a call-and-response song can lighten the mood and offers a fun incentive for completing an activity. Although there are already call-and-response songs that you can utilize, you can also make your own (or change the words to an existing song) to suit the child’s needs. This activity could also be paired with dance moves or even a camp-themed day.

Go to Ultimate Camp Resource for a list of call-and-response songs. Design Improvised has a great list of themed summer camp ideas to use if you’d like to host a camp-themed day at home.

Materials: None

Ages: Toddler through elementary school age

Psychological benefit: Singing has profound mental health benefits. Singing forces a person to control their breathing. If someone is anxious and having trouble regulating their breathing, singing can help. Singing also improves mental alertness and confidence.

 

Grounding activities

The purpose of a grounding activity is to refocus on reality. It is particularly effective for children who suffer from anxiety, high levels of stress, trauma, dissociation, self-harm tendencies and suicidal thoughts. When children experience these events, they are more likely to enter a state of fight, flight or freeze because they feel they are in danger. Grounding techniques help move the brain from survival mechanisms to a calm state.

Although grounding activities are used in circumstances of higher emotion, they should be practiced often (and even when children are feeling happy) to ensure that children can perform them while in a dysregulated state of mind. You should take time out of the day for all family members to practice these skills together.

Sound search: Sit calmly in a comfortable position. The person lists the sounds they hear. Focusing on other senses helps bring the child back to safety and stabilization.

Coloring break: Although this is most effective for younger kids, it can be used for any age. Even if you do not have coloring pages, encourage the child to draw or color on a piece of paper. Support whatever they need to create in the moment. Crayola has printable coloring pages both for kids and adults.

Sensory bin: A sensory bin is a container filled with materials to stimulate the senses. You must know what types of sensations the child feels are soothing and what sensations may make the child excited. When used with soothing objects such as water or sand, a child may be able to focus on the container instead of overwhelming thoughts. The good thing about sensory bins is that they are easy to make and easy to store when needed. This technique is used mainly with younger kids, but a child of any age may appreciate a sensory bin if it is filled with the appropriate objects. Go to Your Kids Table for a list of ideas on what to put inside a sensory bin.

Positive affirmations: Building a mantra, based on a child’s strengths, that the child can repeat when they are feeling overwhelmed may be beneficial. The idea of having a child repeat a positive mantra when overwhelmed is to help the brain focus not only on the words they are saying but also on the breath needed to form the words. Whenever a family member or friends see the child becoming overwhelmed, they can support the child by guiding the child through the mantra.

Breathing techniques: You can teach children to utilize many different breathing techniques. Breathing exercises calm the brain’s reactions to threats by getting more oxygen. The adult should make sure the child has no anxiety about breath retention and that the child is slow and intentional instead of hyperventilating. If the child is hyperventilating, try to get them to exhale longer than they inhale. Model the techniques for them. Repeat the technique for as long as it takes the child to calm down. Breathing techniques take many forms, such as:

  • Sniff the Flower, Blow Out the Candle: The child imagines holding a flower in one hand and a candle in the other. The child must focus on breathing in through their nose while bringing the “flower” to their face, as if sniffing it, and then exhaling out the mouth while bringing the “candle” to their face.
  • 4-7-8 breathing: The child should breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, hold their breath for 7 seconds, and exhale out their mouth for 8 seconds.
  • One-nostril breath: The child should place their finger over one nostril and breathe in deeply. The child should then switch to the other nostril and breathe out.

 

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Carson Eckard is a rising second-year graduate student in the community and trauma counseling program at Thomas Jefferson University. He graduated with his B.S. in psychology from Thomas Jefferson University in December 2019. He is passionate about advocating for clients, particularly LGBTQ+ youth. Contact him at Carson.Eckard@jefferson.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.

For such a time as this: A plan of action for couples and individuals

By Esther Scott June 15, 2020

[Editor’s note: This is the second of four articles in a series on action plans for different areas of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The remaining articles will be posted on subsequent Mondays in June.]

The new normal that the coronavirus has introduced can create some real tension, particularly for couples who think they are losing “that loving feeling” as a result of the shelter-in-place mandate meant to contain the spread of COVID-19. Every marriage has its natural ups and downs, but research studies suggest that the way we relate to each other can have profound effects not only on our mental health, but on our biological health as well, “for better or for worse.”

This unplanned for and prolonged time to stay at home may bring discomfort for many of us, but we can come out the other side with new skills. Having a plan of action can help protect your relationship during these changing times and may even help reignite the spark that brought you together in the first place.

Here is an action plan to follow to help you reclaim your “happily ever after” even during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

1) Bring back that loving feeling. Be more proactive.

Early in relationships, we prioritize our one-on-one moments, but eventually we begin to sideline, just when we may need to connect the most. To “bring back that loving feeling,” research shows that couples should engage in meaningful activities to stay connected with each other. It could be as simple as trying a new weekly schedule that includes a night for reading or listening to music, a night for TV, a night for conversation and so on.

One exercise we recommend to the couples who come to see us is to put a big fluffy pillow in the middle of their living room or bedroom floor, grab their favorite drink (e.g., a bottle of wine, sparkling apple cider, tea), turn off cell phones and TVs, turn the lights down low, play soft music in the background, and simply talk to one another for 45 minutes. We recommend they do this at least once a week.

No one enters a relationship with the expectation that it will be boring or unhappy. Boredom signals that our relationship needs to be refueled. Just as the fuel light on your car indicates when you are running low on gas, boredom and unhappiness mean that your relationship needs to be refilled. You wouldn’t think of abandoning your car when the fuel light comes on; you would think of refilling it. The same goes for relationships.

Boredom and “unhappiness” do not mean that a relationship does not work — it just means that it needs some attention. Early in the relationship, everything is new and exciting. We talk for hours, text countless times and spend every second we can together. Then, somewhere along the way, we believe we have shared all there is to share and know all there is to know about each other and we stop connecting, which can lead to a sense of boredom and unhappiness. We need to continue cultivating those opportunities that helped our relationship to grow in the first place. This, in turn, will help bring back that loving feeling.

2) Focus on supporting each other.

Can I depend on you when I need help, feel scared, worry about dying or don’t feel well? Am I willing to be that source of comfort and stability when you need me? These are questions the subconscious mind has kept in storage from the moment you decided to join your lives together.

No matter how long you have been together, the current pandemic has revealed the need for much more mutual dependency. Now is the time to give reassurance that your partner can count on you to protect them by protecting yourself. Now is the time to provide empathetic listening when they are feeling scared about their future or frustrated with the new changes and losses experienced. Now is the time to support each other.

3) Talk to connect. Connect through agreement.

Instead of talking about what is not working, have a conversation about the needs you both have and how to satisfy each other within your relationship. Try focusing on what is good about your relationship, what you admire and what you feel grateful for. Once you show appreciation for each other, it is likely that both of you will have a change in attitude.

Research shows that if you focus on the ways your partner is supportive, both you and your partner will feel better about the relationship. Connecting this way increases your chances of standing strong through the storm. Use this crisis as a call to action.

We continue to change and grow every day. The problem is that we have stopped sharing. Talk to connect! Ask questions: “How do you think the world has changed since COVID-19?” “What is something you truly enjoyed doing that you have not done in years?” “What is the best way for me to encourage you and support you?” There is still plenty to discover about each other.

 

Note for dating couples

Adversity can sometimes make a relationship stronger. COVID-19 may have intensified your relationship more quickly than it would have otherwise. Use this opportunity to examine your partner’s character during this crisis.

Character is the first thing to inspect before marrying someone. Your potential spouse can have good career and a strong personality or be fun loving and good looking, but if there is a character problem, these other qualities will not matter. Your character determines your commitment to the relationship, and commitment is the essential ingredient that will help you build a lifetime of enjoying one another.

The following questions can help you identify potential character issues that will need to be addressed to keep your relationship healthy. Most of these questions can be answered simply by watching a person’s behavior around family and on social media.

  • How do they handle stress or crisis situations?
  • Are they teachable?
  • How well do they set healthy boundaries in their life?
  • How do they handle money?
  • Are they angry or hot-tempered?
  • Do they follow through on commitments?
  • Do they demonstrate respect for others?
  • Are they entitled?

 

Plan of action for individuals

If you are going through COVID-19 alone, the lack of social connections and the disruption in routine can impose additional stress that can lead to depression. These feelings of association and loneliness are flexible and change with context. In fact, things may get worse before they get better. What felt manageable yesterday may not feel manageable tomorrow. Here is a plan of action for you.

1) Change your perspective.

You may find yourself riding this wave “alone,” but it is important to remember that you do not have to feel lonely. This is a global pandemic. We are all in this together, even if we are physically apart.

Now is the time for a change in perspective. Remember, perception is reality to those who perceive it. Your world is built from the inside out, from your brain. If you perceive your time alone as lonely time, then you will feel lonely. But being alone is not the same as being lonely. On the other hand, you can be in a relationship or surrounded by people and still feel unsupported and lonely. Use your situation as time of reflection. Solitude can be a season for us to reconsider what is important in our lives.

2) Reach out and connect.

Now is the time to reach out to friends and family and connect with them in a more meaningful way. Let people know how much you care about them. A phone call, involving a real voice instead of a text message, is better, and a video chat instead of just a phone call is best. Humans were created to be social beings, and hearing a real voice and seeing the faces of those we care about is exactly what we need in times of crisis.

Talking about your feelings with someone when you are stressed or upset may or may not resolve your problem, but it can help you to feel better and less alone. If, on the other hand, you are on the receiving end of the call, be the support that person needs. Listen and convey that you understand their feelings. This act of one person sharing something vulnerable and the other responding with understanding and care is what we call empathetic listening.

3) Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Avoiding unhealthy coping mechanisms such as pornography, alcohol or drug use can prevent long-term complications. The spread of the coronavirus and the necessary physical distancing measures put in place have led to increased feelings of loneliness and stress, which can help explain the reported increase in pornography use. Some claim that pornography does not present a problem for those who use it. However, a number of research studies show links between pornography use and potential concerning outcomes, including lower levels of sexual satisfaction for men.

Alcohol and substance use are also popular coping mechanisms among those looking to reduce feelings of stress, loneliness and boredom. However, alcohol and substance use could do more harm than good and could lead to a possible spike in addiction disorders for years to come. Health experts warn that an increase in alcohol and drug use could have both short- and long-term impacts on health and safety.

To avoid the potential harm of relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms, we recommend using humor and creativity to reduce stress and boredom. Using humor does not mean that we are trivializing the challenges brought to us by the coronavirus; it means we are trying to cope with them in a healthy way. Laughter is the best medicine, and humor can improve our mood and increase our resilience.

The movie Groundhog Day offers a great example of how many of us may be feeling. Every day seems to be a repeat of the last. But remember, even though it was the same day over and over again, the main character in the movie had the opportunity to learn something new every day. You may be alone, but you do not have to feel lonely. We are in this together with our friends, family members and even the entire global community.

 

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Esther Scott, LPC

Esther Scott is a licensed professional counselor in Arlington, Texas. She is a solution-focused therapist. Her specialties include grief, depression, teaching coping skills and couples counseling. Contact her through her website at positiveactionsinternational.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.

For such a time as this: A plan of action for general anxiety and depression

By Esther Scott June 8, 2020

[Editor’s note: This is the first of four articles in a series on action plans for different areas of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The next three articles will be posted on subsequent Mondays in June.]

With the coronavirus pandemic, everything has changed, from the hygiene habits of washing our hands more frequently to the physical distancing that we must now maintain. For many, the financial stress and rapid changes brought about by the pandemic can be just as scary as the virus itself. Business closures, income reduction and the uncertainty of what might be ahead once we return to “normalcy” has increased stress levels for all of us, and many people are even experiencing symptoms of depression. Understanding what is happening in our brains and having a plan of action can help us manage these new challenges in the different areas of our lives.

Through this four-part series, we will look at a plan of action that can help the rational brain feel in control again and view the new challenges we now face as opportunities to develop our resilience.

Let’s start with a plan of action to help reduce anxiety and prevent depression symptoms.

1) Write down specific worries.

The first step to solving a problem is understanding what is happening. Why are we so stressed out? Perceived lack of control.

Uncertainty produces hypervigilance in the brain. Our brains are on high alert, increasing our levels of stress. Stress is an automatic defense mechanism that prepares us to face a threat, whether hypothetical or real. It is regulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland (in the brain) and the adrenal gland (above the kidneys).

In the face of danger (uncertainty), the hypothalamus activates the alert system (increased heart rate, respiratory rate and muscle tone) and produces cortisol — the stress hormone — secreted by the adrenals, which maintains this physiological alert as long as necessary. If it is perpetuated too long, stress can become a health problem that leads to increased risk of anxiety, depression, substance use and other maladaptive behaviors.

The brain likes organization and predictability. That is why we organize information in categories known as bias or stereotypical organization. Therefore, the first step to overcoming anxiety and depression is making a list of the worries you have about how the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted your life. Examine your worries, aiming to be realistic in your assessment of the actual concern and your ability to cope. Try not to catastrophize; instead, focus on what you can do. Your life is going to be different for a while, but identifying what worries you have and focusing on what you can control will make the difference.

2) Make a list of possible solutions.

Think of all possible options. This is the all-familiar “brainstorming” technique. Include whatever possibilities come to mind that could help you get by, even if it is not your ideal option. The goal is to focus on concrete things that you can problem-solve or change. A solution-focused approach will help you focus on your strengths instead of your weaknesses.

Think about how you have been able to cope with difficulties in the past by asking yourself questions such as “How have I managed to carry on?” or “How have I managed to prevent things from becoming worse?” After you have evaluated your options, accept your new reality and develop a plan.

Remember, anxiety comes from not knowing what will happen, and depression comes from believing there is nothing we can do to change it. Having a plan will move you from paralyzing anxiety to action. Practicing physical distancing, getting enough sleep and doing other activities to support your immune system are examples of positive actions that you can take immediately. Put your attention on your strengths and abilities, and imagine yourself coping and adapting.

3) Know your emotional triggers.

Pinpoint what your emotional triggers are and how you react to them. It is natural to feel stressed about what may happen if our income does not cover our obligations, or if someone we love gets sick, or if we must quarantine longer. In fact, feeling down from time to time is a normal reaction to life’s stressors. But when hopelessness and despair enter the picture or take hold and just will not go away, then we need to pay closer attention because it may be a sign of depression.

Depression is more than just sadness in response to struggles or setbacks. Depression changes your perception and the way you feel, bringing you feelings of emptiness and doom. It impacts your ability to sleep, work, eat, and enjoy your life.

It is also important to remember that the feelings of hopelessness or helplessness we may experience are symptoms of depression, not the reality of the situation. There is hope. There is a solution. Even if we cannot see it right now.

4) Conduct a strength inventory.

Resilience is the ability to withstand, recover and bounce back in the midst of stress, chaos and ever-changing situations. It is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, the courage to come back.

Conducting a strength inventory can help you feel stronger and more resourceful. Identify what negative thought you struggle with. Replace or reframe how you are viewing your challenges. The situation you are facing is hard, but is there something you can learn from it or some other silver lining? If you have been through difficult situations in the past — and most of us have been through those at some point in our lives — identify what got you through them, and use it to your advantage.

5) Practice kindness.

Studies have shown that people who consistently help others experience less depression, greater calm and fewer pains. Kind people create joy and satisfaction through helping others. People who can give and accept support in a tough situation tend to feel less depressed.

Kindness toward others can translate into kindness to you. Seek support from your family and friends or a professional mental health provider if you need it. It can help you deal better with hard times.

 

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Esther Scott, LPC

Esther Scott is a licensed professional counselor in Arlington, Texas. She is a solution-focused therapist. Her specialties include grief, depression, teaching coping skills and couples counseling. Contact her through her website at positiveactionsinternational.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.

School vaping cultures: Acknowledging the impact of COVID-19

By Zachary Short and Nicole Baliszewski June 4, 2020

This past January, global tobacco conglomerate Altria saw a major drop in its stock value on the New York Stock Exchange, depreciating at a value of almost 40% versus its record-breaking highs in 2017. What caused this sudden dip in one of the biggest-rebounding industries of the 21st century? It would be fair to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused some major complications for both the traditional and electronic cigarette corporations located across the United States.

As a respiratory-based infectious disease, COVID-19 poses an unparalleled threat to the health and safety of individuals across the age spectrum with significant histories of vaping or smoking. In fact, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Chinese patients with a history of smoking were twice as likely to suffer from severe infections associated with diseases such as COVID-19 in comparison with those without any smoking history.

Having always opposed the youth vaping/smoking culture, counselors and community advocates across the nation are currently working to answer a significant question: What actions can we be taking to protect our communities from the combined threat of COVID-19 and recent vaping trends?

The truth is, now is the prime time for considering how we can influence our communities to create better post-quarantine schools for our students.

The loss and revitalization of the smoking industry

Only five years ago, health specialists with the Truth Initiative anti-smoking campaign speculated that the tobacco industry and most of the nation’s smoking addictions would expire with the Generation Z demographic. But vaping, the process of inhaling prepackaged aerosols (also known as vapor), has led to the resurgence of nicotine products within school systems.

Through a combination of peer pressure and social media campaigns, students from all backgrounds have found themselves under the influence of Altria’s newest partner, Juul Labs, maker of the Juul electronic cigarette. Largely as the result of the popularization of this flavored electronic smoking device, the number of high school students who use nicotine products has increased from 3.6 million to 5.4 million in the span of only one year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

How significant it would be to know that schools were free of the harmful aftereffects of adolescent smoking, leaving school counselors and clinicians available to attend to the important mental health developments that are so essential in our school systems right now. Instead, we find ourselves dealing with another truly concerning issue: According to the Truth Initiative, 1 in every 4 high school students now uses e-cigarettes.

These concerning statistics represent a call for preventative action in middle schools across the nation. A number of schools and organizations have taken such counteractions to trends in vaping by launching interventions such as confiscation, disciplinary action, and even educational programming. But the culture of vaping continues to persist as a significant concern for parents and educators.

The most terrifying thing about the Juul product so far is that it appears to come off as being innocuous to many people. Most students and parents recognize it as the small USB-shaped device that produces fruit-flavored smoke. Very few seem to grasp the long-term consequences of vaping habits. That being said, those consequences might already be here.

The individuals at risk

Based on data collected by the CDC in early March, evidence suggests that COVID-19 poses a serious threat to all individuals ages 65 and older. Fortunately for students under the age of 18, the percentage of those infected and harmed has been relatively low by comparison.

While most parents find some comfort in hearing that the student demographic is the least impacted by the pandemic, the statistics can change drastically if students are part of the vaping culture that is rampant among youth. According to data provided by the CDC for China’s mainland population facing COVID-19, individuals with respiratory issues predominantly associated with even a small history of smoking or vaping have a 6.3% case fatality rate, in contrast to 2.3% overall. Recognizing how exposure to vaping increases a person’s health concerns, imagine the increased risks that our students could face should their still-developing physiques come in contact with both nicotine products and a respiratory infection.

“What they say is about 80% of people feel the flu, but they will be OK. Where we are getting into trouble is that it can lead to severe pulmonary distress,” says Anna Song, an associate professor of health psychology and leader of the Health Behaviors Research Lab at the University of California Merced. “Smoking is a risk factor for having this disease progress, be incredibly severe, and lead to mortality.”

As we know, COVID-19 has posed widespread challenges to the health and lifestyles of the global population. Societal and educational norms have begun to deteriorate, and everyday tasks and responsibilities now come with an unprecedented health risk to individuals and their families. Of great concern to us is that the unattended trends and cultures of our school systems could be having a negative impact on our students right now. To allow these trends to persist beyond this pandemic is to continue putting our students at risk unnecessarily.

A unique opportunity for change

What makes now such an ideal time to invest in removing the harmful vape cultures that continue to linger in our school systems? Students are largely being required to undertake remote learning during this time, and that may continue for many students even as a new school year begins. The changes and circumstances that come with students’ remote learning actually promote our greatest opportunity for the development of an anti-smoking culture.

Society is recognizing that our plans, policies and preparation were inadequate to succeed in the face of an unanticipated global pandemic. Thus, things are beginning to change. Legislation is developing to create preventative actions around practices deemed unhealthy by medical specialists, and educational policy is constantly being reformed to reflect the needs and issues present in our impromptu teaching conditions. If there was ever a time to acknowledge the statistics that point to the harm that nicotine products pose to our adolescents and to advocate for the safety of our children, it is now.

Large systemic changes are challenging and often are out of our hands, but educators and parents currently have the opportunity to make a notable difference in students’ environments. During this time of partial quarantine, most families are now all in one location — the home. Our students currently find themselves in a setting where they are under the watchful eyes of their families and where smoking purchases and practices are essentially impossible.

In addition to that, they are also in a potential learning atmosphere. Through the joint efforts of educators and parents, our youth can be exposed to real educational and intimate conversations regarding the dangerous practices of smoking. These conversations can mean the world to students who currently feel that their futures and health might be dictated by vaping culture.

COVID-19 has had a harsh and unpredictable influence on our way of life, but it also presents us with a rare opportunity to support our students through one of the greatest health issues of their generation. So, making use of the present, it is time that we as a supportive community of counselors consider what we should be doing to help facilitate and emphasize this process of growth for students’ mental and physical health.

Our responsibility to intervene

As of early April, individuals within Rowan University’s Department of Psychology have been conducting their own research to confront the vaping culture that remains prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their research takes an interesting approach to behavioral analysis with younger age groups, including the development of interesting activities such as mobile- and video game-based interventions that promote smoking abstinence.

Fortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the collective efforts of universities to combat vaping trends in student populations. Even educational institutions outside of higher education are recognizing the statistically supported danger that vaping is putting our students in when facing the current health pandemic. As a community, it is our collaborative responsibility to provide education and to take the necessary precautions to protect our students’ health. We are just beginning to understand the proper steps to take when working from a remote distance.

Educating the community: Providing knowledge of the increased risks and hazards of smoking behaviors is the first step to reducing nicotine consumption within our school systems. Given the myriad resources available on the consequences of vaping from the CDC, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and even university websites such as Johns Hopkins Medicine, it is the obligation of school counselors and other school personnel to appropriately share this information with our local communities. It is important to remember that this information needs to be given not only to the students we support, but also to our educational partners and to the families who are acting as our immediate support systems in homes at this time.

Promoting real conversations: With the knowledge and statistics being supplied to our students’ homes, it is more important now than ever that school systems promote real conversations with students regarding the present vaping cultures. Whether it is school counselor-to-student or parent-to-student conversations, we need to understand what the student perspectives are when they see products such as Juul in the media while also witnessing terrifying statistics regarding the spread of a global virus.

With those who are currently smoking, it is vital that we understand their concerns and interests so that we can provide them the appropriate support they need. These conversations are the optimal opportunity to promote and communicate resiliency, empathy and community support to our students. And with those who have never touched a vaping device, communicating this information and the associated risks is the best possible preventative action at this time.

Advocating for policies: To reiterate, now is a turbulent time when leaders are reflecting on educational preparations and policy and how they might be applied for future incidents. In addition to redesigning our school’s remote learning policies, we need to be working as a professional community to advocate for anti-vaping policies within our schools. It is essential that school counselors reflect on school policies regarding smoking tolerance, as well as preventative actions to take, so that they can create real opportunities to support student health.

Fortunately, states and health institutions are rallying to create a number of anti-vaping models that can be implemented or referenced by school counselors looking to better their schools. One such model is the Make Smoking History campaign, conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, to reduce the percentage of vaping disciplinary actions taken in middle school settings. This is the time to ask for and support the voices of the education community to find out what should be done for the development of our educational systems — not just on a school-by-school basis, but from a legislative perspective.

Forming support groups: Finally, acknowledging that this is a difficult time for individuals who have a dependency on smoking tools to which they no longer have easy access, we need to prepare and create remote counseling groups to support them through potential issues such as withdrawal or rehabilitation. A number of counselors may struggle with the concept of remote group counseling, but these students still need emotional and mental health support to cope with their new distancing from vaping. Counselors should utilize the medical resources and personnel within their school districts to support students in their transition to healthier living. Ultimately, it is groups such as these that we should be planning to implement more frequently in our later return to school.

The truth is that in the midst of a global health crisis, most individuals view the issue of vaping in school systems as relatively small. But the fact is that vaping is a real health issue for our youth, and in combination with the threat of COVID-19, it puts our newest generation of students at exceptional risk for loss. In a moment in history when many counselors are at home and wondering what they should be doing to support their students, imagine what significant change could occur if we all directed a portion of our efforts to acknowledging and countering the present vaping culture.

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives: “Pushing through the vape cloud

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Zachary Short is a master’s counseling in educational settings student at Rowan University. He currently works as a clinical research intern in a high school setting, where his research in student behavioral outcomes is being supported through the Mental Health Grant Demonstration Program. Contact him through LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/shortzachary/.

Nicole Baliszewski is a master’s counseling in educational settings student at Rowan University. She currently works as a clinical intern in a middle school setting, where she seeks to provide trauma and mental health support to the special education student population. Contact her through LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/nbaliszewski/.

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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.

Professional advocacy: A call to the profession

By the ACA Advocacy Task Force June 3, 2020

This past year, American Counseling Association President Heather Trepal commissioned a task force to focus on the topic of professional advocacy. This article is part of our response to that charge.

In this article, we discuss professional advocacy and its importance; ways that counselors can advocate; how ACA has advocated for the profession; what all counseling associations can do to support an advocacy agenda; what individual counselors can do to be advocates; and the important role that a clear, unified counselor identity plays in furthering a professional advocacy agenda.

Professional advocacy and its importance

Professional counselor advocacy involves taking action to promote the profession, with an emphasis on removing or minimizing barriers to counselors’ ability to provide services. Although advocacy as a whole has become increasingly relevant over the past two decades, efforts related to professional advocacy have received less attention and therefore made little headway in comparison with client and social issues advocacy.

Counseling is a mission-based profession, meaning that we each had a reason for choosing this career. There was someone we wanted to serve, or some setting or client population for which we wanted to make a difference. All counselors have felt called to be agents of change. In fact, our ethics codes and professional competencies mandate that we advocate for and alongside our clients.

That being said, when we consider advocacy, we do not often think about our mission for our profession. Concerns such as parity (being reimbursed at the same rate as other mental health professionals with comparable training), public recognition, accurate representation of our profession, and employment opportunities are important if we are to practice our craft. We must know and promote our worth and recognize that if we are not strong and healthy as a profession, we cannot help others. Therefore, professional advocacy must be a top priority for all counselors.

Examples of professional advocacy

Advocacy activities serve to expand counselors’ presence at the community, state and national levels, and counselors should not underestimate the importance of supporting the growth of the profession through actions taken in their local communities. In addition, professional advocacy activities include those aimed at positively promoting the counseling profession.

Larger-scale advocacy actions could be conceptualized as capital “A” advocacy actions, whereas smaller-scale advocacy efforts could be called lowercase “a” advocacy actions. For example, “A” advocacy actions might encompass large, organized efforts such as those aimed at changing federal or state legislation or local policies and practices. They can include teaching and supervising students through setting standards, developing competencies and applying ethics. They are our shared responsibility to unite our voices.

Examples of “a” advocacy actions include those continuous, in-the-moment efforts that positively promote the counseling profession. These efforts may generate positive cultural change regarding counseling, help-seeking or what it means to be a counselor. These efforts can also include mentoring our next generation of professionals.

An important point is that neither “A” nor “a” advocacy actions are more or less important. Both types are needed, and we all have our role to play in professional advocacy efforts.

Today, counselors face myriad barriers to providing care to students, clients and communities. These barriers include the Medicare coverage gap, lack of licensure portability, inadequate funding for mental health treatment across settings, inadequate funding for school counselors, and a lack of public knowledge about counseling as a profession. In addition, the rising cost of graduate education often leaves professional counselors across all settings struggling to pay back student loans years after degree completion.

Each of the aforementioned barriers makes it difficult for counselors to provide care to the people and communities that need them most. For example, if an older adult whose primary insurance is Medicare cannot access the services of a licensed professional counselor, then their options to receive services become limited. When a counselor crosses state lines and cannot work in their new community, it is unjust to both the counselor and the community, especially because there is a nationwide shortage of counselors. Inadequate funding of counseling services means that counselors are not compensated appropriately and that clients cannot access services critical to their well-being. Inadequate student-to-school counselor ratios harm both students and school counselors. In each example, counselors, clients and communities are negatively affected by barriers at the sociopolitical level that prevent counselors from doing their jobs.

What ACA does to advocate for the profession

As an organization dedicated to the counseling profession, ACA has advocacy at the core of its mission. ACA staff, leadership, task forces and committee members work to raise awareness about the profession and support legislation that helps counselors serve myriad communities. By advocating for recognition, compensation and resources, ACA helps counselors continue to perform integral work.

Guided by its 2018-2021 strategic plan and framework, ACA’s advocacy efforts on behalf of the profession involve both legislative and nonlegislative means. For example, ACA continues to advocate for seamless portability across states for independently licensed counselors. To support counselors, ACA recently funded an initiative to pursue an interstate compact for portability. The advisory board for the compact brings together lawmakers, licensing board members, counseling professionals and others to work on advocating for licensure portability.

ACA also employs a team of government affairs and public policy staff members dedicated to advocating with federal, state and local governments on the legislative front to support the profession. These staff members’ efforts, along with those of other counseling organizations and individuals, helped counselors become eligible to provide services through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). ACA continues to advocate for more employment opportunities for licensed professional mental health counselors within the VA. ACA also uses an electronic legislative advocacy alert system that all counselors should sign up to receive; by clicking on a link, you can quickly advocate for the profession.

As part of its focus on advocacy, ACA has formed multiple member-led groups to identify the needs of counselors, raise awareness of what counselors do and how they impact communities, expand employment opportunities for new professionals, educate on professional development, and provide information to help counselors advocate for the profession and meet the needs of clients. By harnessing the passion, vision and energy of its members, ACA is invested in training counselors to advocate for the profession, educate the public and promote the needs of counselors and those they serve.

ACA is also working hard to raise awareness of the importance of good mental health. One significant example is ACA’s role in developing Counseling Awareness Month activities. This past April, the Counseling Awareness Month theme encouraged counselors to #BurnBrightNotOut. ACA introduced a Counseling Awareness Month toolkit containing social media resources, fact sheets, contests and sample proclamations that members could use to encourage leaders and governing bodies to recognize counselors and the profession. In addition, ACA promoted Teal Day on April 10. This was a day for counselors to wear the symbolic color of teal to promote the profession. According to the toolkit, “As an outward symbol of advocacy and hope for counselors and the profession, ACA created Teal Day: an enthusiastic social initiative designed to build strong support, recognition and appreciation for professional counselors.”

Suggestions for the profession

Through leadership and advocacy efforts, we have made great strides as a profession in establishing ourselves as vital to the mental health landscape. United, our advocacy efforts have made an impact on critical issues such as insurance reimbursement parity, licensure in all states, and increased consumer awareness of counseling and its value. All of these efforts are vital to our profession and ultimately make a positive impact on the wellness of our clients and communities.

Nevertheless, our profession continues to face threats, so we must never take these successes for granted. Instead, we must double down on our efforts to fortify the health and wellness of the profession moving forward. Ample opportunities exist for growth around professional advocacy initiatives.

One way we can further develop our advocacy efforts is by institutionalizing advocacy supports and structures within counseling organizations. For example, this may include establishing and maintaining an ACA committee, with multiorganizational representation, that focuses solely on the advocacy needs of the profession. ACA, Chi Sigma Iota (CSI), the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), state branches, ACA divisions and other counseling organizations could also build within their structures an advocacy mentoring program. That way, those who have successfully engaged in advocacy efforts — whether legislative, organizational or community advocacy — could share their experiences and pay it forward so that a greater number of counselors would be well prepared to engage in advocacy efforts.

Counseling associations might also create a listing of local “advocacy leaders” as a resource for those facing advocacy challenges and needs in their workplaces or communities. Having the support of a colleague is sometimes all that is needed to encourage a counselor to engage in professional advocacy and help them navigate their way through such efforts. Within and across counseling organizations, spaces can be created for counselors to discuss, connect, consult and get support around advocacy needs.

Collaboration between or within counseling organizations may also provide opportunities for expanding existing advocacy efforts. For example, CSI currently publishes “Heroes and Heroines” interviews on its website, highlighting the lifetime work of highly established counselors who possess a depth of advocacy experience. Three times per year in its online newsletter, the Exemplar, CSI also publishes “Advocacy Agent” interviews with members currently engaged in advocacy efforts. Working together, ACA and CSI could bring these advocacy efforts to an even greater number of individuals through a collaborative advocacy-centric newsletter. Jointly, the organizations could also expand the audience of such efforts through social media, where they could also collaboratively broadcast important advocacy issues, needs and required action.

Furthermore, ACA and CSI members could collaboratively review and offer feedback on revised CACREP standards during the open-comment period to ensure that the standards reflect current and evolving real-world professional leadership and advocacy needs.

Finally, ACA can enhance cross collaboration among ACA divisions and branches by setting up regularly scheduled briefings in which division leaders share advocacy challenges and successes and gather support. One current example is an effort by ACA’s government affairs and public policy staff to host a monthly Advocacy Power Hour with state branch leaders.

Counselors should also engage in interprofessional advocacy. By identifying community partners and potential collaborators, we become stronger and can move more efficiently toward reaching our professional goals.

We are aware that many counselors struggle with understanding how to effectively advocate; they want to help but do not know where to begin. Thus, another way the profession can promote advocacy is through education, both on advocacy directly and on the leadership skills needed to engage in advocacy.

CACREP requires counseling programs to address leadership development. However, training on leadership is not often visible in master’s-level curricula, nor is it prominent in doctoral curricula. Intentional efforts to increase such education is vital.

This leadership and advocacy education can be accomplished in many ways. One means of ensuring that counselors are well armed to engage in advocacy is by making existing leadership and advocacy resources readily accessible. The ACA Conference offers a prime opportunity to promote advocacy education through advocacy-focused educational tracks; an advocacy booth in which resources, networking and support are offered; a keynote speaker focused on advocacy (perhaps with a legislative collaborator); special sessions in which legislators can share and demystify their experiences of working with counselors; and specialized preconference sessions that offer advocacy training.

ACA can further bolster advocacy education through the creation and promotion of short how-to advocacy videos. These videos could focus on inspirational stories of advocacy efforts, with details of how the advocacy got started and what was accomplished. Other videos might fortify our collective professional identity by effectively communicating who we are as a profession and highlighting how we are distinct from other mental health fields. This would help every counselor maintain their pride in the profession.

Additionally, professional associations and organizations could provide webinars on leadership and advocacy to their respective members. They could also create toolkits for counselor educators so that leadership and advocacy training are better represented in master’s and doctoral education.

Advocacy education could also be promoted via Counseling Today, the Journal of Counseling & Development, ACA division journals and other professional literature. These publications could offer dedicated space for featuring research and best practices in leadership and advocacy. Through collaborative, comprehensive, consistent and intentional efforts, counselors can continue to be empowered and united in our efforts to promote the profession, which in turn promotes the wellness and dignity of those in the communities in which we serve.

Suggestions for counselors

Professional counseling organization advocacy is just one piece of the puzzle. The counseling profession never would have evolved if not for the work of individual counselors, and nowhere is that as obvious as with regard to legislative advocacy. Generally speaking, legislators care most about what their constituents think. In fact, individual counselors working in unison with their legislators have facilitated the bulk of the legislative changes that impact our practice.

Each of us has a story to tell about how the law either helps or hinders our work as counselors. Rather than accepting that we have to do our best in a broken system, we must identify barriers that others may perceive to be immovable givens. Sometimes this means taking up the fight — a process that can feel foreign and intimidating, but it is important if we are to thrive.

A simple place for counselors to start is to analyze our social networks and the relationship resources in our own backyards. Who are the power brokers you may already know who can serve as cheerleaders for your cause? Take time to reach out strategically and build relationships. Find reasons to contact a member of your board of education, your religious leaders, a state legislator or your public health administrator. Support efforts in your local community that are consistent with your values, regardless of whether those efforts are directly related to your role as a counselor. For example, counselors can send emails or make calls to support a bill to increase funding for preventing human trafficking or for increasing resources for responding to community crises.

Become visible, and make your presence known. These relationships can be crucial, sometimes in unexpected ways, when you need to advocate for the counseling profession or for the students or clients you serve. When it matters most and when efficiency is essential, those lines of communication will already be open. A counselor constituent might reach out to that one lawmaker who will take up the cause and become a policy champion, thereby influencing others to join the effort. That one lawmaker may determine whether a great idea eventually becomes a law. In sum, individual relationships and networking count. 

Unfortunately, upstream factors such as funding, bureaucracy and scarce resources may cause social services and other constituencies to compete against each other. It is often said that those who are not at the table will not be able to eat. Speaking out about what you or your clients need, either as an individual or, ideally, with your ACA branch or division, and establishing a place at the decision-making table can lead to changes that positively affect the lives of individual clients.

Indeed, such advocacy can also make your work much easier, more efficient and more effective. Counselors should consider how various state or federal government agencies either support or challenge the work of professional counselors. Are there job descriptions and real opportunities for counselors to be employed in the broad variety of settings where other mental health disciplines are already accepted or embraced? Are there loan forgiveness programs that need to include counselors? The need for counselors to be integrated into the VA system and Medicare reimbursement are examples of significant challenges. A natural response to these injustices and barriers to people getting access to care is to become angry or frustrated. Individual counselors who connect with this frustration can use it as momentum to courageously enter unfamiliar territory, including the legislative world.

State counselor practice acts and the licensure boards that enact these laws play an extremely important role in the landscape of our profession. It is helpful for counselors to develop relationships with their licensure board members. Sign up for their email alerts, and take any opportunity you can to forge relationships with them. Attend their meetings if they are public. Seek appointment to serve on the board. Let them know what you need and where you see counselors and consumers struggling. Then encourage others to do the same. Licensure board members are public servants tasked with protecting the public, and many of the issues with which our profession struggles have a significant impact on consumers. Similarly, school counselors can forge connections with their state board of education members.

Professional counselors can help policymakers, members of their local communities and members of their social networks better understand the importance of counseling and the benefit we bring to our clients and communities. Making sure that the power brokers in your respective areas and social circles are aware of counselors’ value is an important task. We know that counseling services help our clients and students to feel supported, reduce their stress and anxiety, and increase their daily functioning. Transferring this knowledge to others is important.

Helping others understand the impact of our work and the ripple effect that counselors have on their communities ultimately influences the profession in various ways. Increasing awareness of counseling’s value can help reduce stigma associated with mental illness and mental health issues. When others understand that 1 in 4 people are living with a mental illness and that our work as professional counselors aids in creating positive change, we can more effectively decrease stigma in our communities. When mental illness is destigmatized, people who need counseling and support are more likely to seek that help in pursuit of living more fulfilling lives.

The importance of a strong counselor identity

A foundational element of effective professional advocacy is a clear professional identity. Unless we know who we are, we cannot communicate that message to stakeholders. ACA, CSI, NBCC, CACREP and other professional counseling organizations have helped to steer counselors toward a shared professional identity. Development of the ACA Code of Ethics, support of CACREP educational and training standards, and the adoption of competencies set forth by ACA divisions are among the ways our profession has worked to define and support counselor identity.

The public’s lack of knowledge about counseling as a profession is an additional barrier to services and is intrinsically tied to legislative barriers. Legislators may not have enough knowledge about professional counseling to make laws that create equitable access across professions or for all clients. Similarly, when managed care companies are not aware of the valuable care that professional counselors can provide, we may be inadequately reimbursed. Even potential and current clients may be unaware of the unique professional identities of counselors and thus misunderstand or undervalue our services. It is critical that we educate the public, including lawmakers, on who we are and what we do.

We work in an increasingly interdisciplinary world. Thus, counselors must work to expand public knowledge and awareness about the services, skills and training provided by professional counselors. As suggested by Stephanie Burns in a 2017 article in the Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy, every counselor should have a one-minute professional identity “elevator speech” that they can share with others. Such a speech can succinctly communicate who we are and what we do to support public understanding of our work.

Some practice settings require counselors to work alongside other mental health professionals under titles such as caseworker or therapist. Similarly, clients may be called consumers or patients depending on the setting. It is important for counselors to use the word “counseling.” When able, counselors should refer to themselves as counselors, not as therapists or guidance counselors, and be clear about who they are as unique helping professionals.

We cannot expect to thrive in an interdisciplinary world if the public does not understand who we are. Educating the public about important issues related to mental health and well-being continues to be an essential role of counselors.

In summary, the counseling profession has come a long way, but we still have work to do. Counselors continue to experience many barriers that get in the way of our ability to practice. All counselors, and all of our professional associations and organizations, have an obligation to commit to and work toward advocacy efforts that will grow our profession.

 

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ACA Advocacy Task Force members who contributed to the development of this article were (in alphabetical order) Angie Cartwright, Madelyn Duffey, Louisa Foss, Cheryl Fulton, Denise Hooks, Victoria Kress, Christine McAllister and Jordan Westcott. Direct questions or comments regarding this article to task force chair Victoria Kress at victoriaEkress@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.