“How can I to continue to hold hope for my clients while I feel like I’m drowning?”
“How can I confront colleagues who commit microaggressions in client sessions?”
“What advice do you have for students whose professors and textbooks do not address multiculturalism?”
These were among the many challenging — and honest — questions raised during “Our Community Gathers: A Conversation With Counselors About Mental Health in 2020,” an online forum the American Counseling Association held Sept. 17 to facilitate professionals connecting with one another and sharing concerns. Much of the discussion from panelists and attendees alike focused not just on the additional stress that counselors and clients have been experiencing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic but also on the trauma, grief and exhaustion raised by recent social turmoil tied to systemic racism in America.
The online event, which was sponsored by the ACA Foundation, drew more than 400 attendees, including ACA members and nonmembers.
“This event is all about you,” said ACA President Sue Pressman as she opened the Zoom session. “Each day it feels like the very fabric of our society is unraveling. The work we do for clients and students is so important, [and] frankly speaking, counselors are needed more now than ever. I could never be more proud to be a counselor. At the same time, counselors are in crisis and in need of support. … Care and compassion for our colleagues is important and can be quite powerful, and this is one of the reasons for this event.”
S. Kent Butler, ACA president-elect, served as the forum’s moderator, while Pressman gave opening and closing remarks. The event panel included several past ACA presidents and leaders from across the counseling profession, including Beverly O’Bryant, Courtland Lee, Gerald Corey, Ebony White, Mark Scholl, Anneliese Singh and Selma Yznaga.
The panelists were open and honest about how they too have been struggling recently. They urged attendees to focus on practicing self-care, taking breaks and staying aware of the body’s signals that one is becoming overwhelmed. They opened the session by talking about the necessity for counselors to seek their own counseling.
White said that counselors are “secret keepers” and noted the importance of processing the pain they carry for others in their own counseling sessions. At the same time, it can be a challenge for Black practitioners and other counselors of color to find a practitioner who looks like them because a majority of counselors are white. This is a barrier that is also shared, of course, by clients of color when they seek counseling.
“Even still in the year 2020, right now, as a Ph.D., LPC [licensed professional counselor], Black counselor who has a [professional] group of people I’m connected to, I’m having trouble finding a Black woman counselor, right now in this moment,” said White, an assistant clinical professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “This continues to be an obstacle, particularly for people of color, and it needs to be addressed.”
It is always a good idea for counselors to seek out therapy, but especially so now, agreed Lee, a professor in the counselor education program at the Washington, D.C., campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “Dealing with this [clients’] intense pain constantly is really going to get to us,” he said.
Lee, a past president of ACA and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, emphasized the importance of resting and only taking on work and tasks that are personally important to individual counselors. He said that was a lesson he learned acutely and personally after his wife, Vivian, passed away suddenly earlier this year.
“What’s not important is sitting in front of a computer all day and having my phone in my hand all the time. Tonight was important to me; that’s why I’m here,” Lee said. “Find what gives you meaning, what’s sacred to you. You’ve got to find ways to take rest.”
White suggested that counselors consider “the bare minimum” amount of time they want to devote to self-care and make sure to hit that mark. For her, that’s 1% of her day. “Dedicate that portion of your day to something that is self-care. Whether that’s for prayer, dancing, drinking wine, whatever it takes,” she said.
Corey and Scholl urged attendees to consider all facets of wellness — physical, social, spiritual, emotional, cognitive, etc. — and focus on areas they find depleted, seeking activities that rejuvenate. For Corey, that includes doing Pilates; for Scholl, it’s enjoying naps that aren’t restricted to “power naps.” Scholl also is intentional about engaging in activities to connect with his Native American heritage, including attending Native gatherings and reading works by Native authors.
“One of the things that I’ve learned is that wellness doesn’t just happen, it takes discipline,” agreed Yznaga. “I have to plan for it, be deliberate. … For anyone who is thinking, ‘I’m not well and I cannot be well,’ yes you can, but you have to work at it.”
Attendees of Our Community Gathers flooded the platform’s chat queue with questions and comments throughout the session. Many posted websites and resources they thought others might find helpful and exchanged email addresses to continue conversations offline.
Panelists stayed online for more than three hours, until 10:30 p.m. Eastern, to answer questions and share ideas with attendees. Judging by the level of engagement the event garnered, counselors found the dialogue sorely needed.
One attendee asked for guidance on how to respond when a client makes a racist statement or uses offensive language in a counseling session. The panelists stressed the importance of responding to clients with honesty in these situations.
“It’s your responsibility to manage that tension in the room,” said White, who noted that counselors are doing a disservice to the client if they let a client’s statement go by without challenging it in session even as another dialogue that disagrees with the client plays silently in their heads.
Confrontation can be a therapeutic tool, White added.
Lee emphasized the term “broaching” in his response and the importance of broaching the subject to help clients un-learn words and perspectives that may have been ingrained in their culture and upbringing.
“Counseling is supposed to be an educative process,” Lee said. “Counselors often skip by teachable moments, but you can’t let them slide by.” When a client expresses a racist view in session, “Broach it and use it as a teachable moment,” he advised.
“We can be authentic and confrontational and still be respectful, even though it’s tough,” agreed Corey, an ACA fellow and professor emeritus of human services and counseling at California State University, Fullerton.
In such an instance, Corey said he would respond to the client by saying, “What I’m hearing you say is X. Let’s talk about it.” Afterward, it would be helpful for the counselor to seek out a mentor or colleague to debrief with and find support, he said.
Several panelists noted that the United States is in the midst of a cultural shift that brings opportunity for the counseling profession.
“Let’s try and take advantage of this moment and show the country what we have to offer, to destigmatize mental health and teach people how we [counselors] can help,” said Yznaga, an associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Lee remarked that he never thought he’d witness Confederate monuments taken down in his lifetime or the professional football team in Washington, D.C., change its name.
“We are at an inflection point that I have never seen,” Lee said. “This is much different than the [civil rights movement of the] 1960s. The ‘60s opened the door and made tremendous progress, but this era … It’s beyond just a teachable moment at this point; it’s an opportunity that we haven’t had before. If counselors are agents of social change and social justice, we need to get out there and fill the learning gap.”
- Register to view a recording of the Sept. 17 event here.
- The American Counseling Association’s resource page on cultural competencies and combating racism: org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/racism
- Gerald Corey offered these resources to attendees of Our Community Gathers: https://imis.counseling.org/ACA/Community_Gathers_Event.aspx
- ACA anti-racism statement
- From the July issue of the Journal of Counseling & Development: “Carrying the Burden: Counselors of Color’s Experiences of Microaggressions in Counseling”
Continue the conversation
ACA will hold a virtual event on racial injustice and policy reform Oct. 14 at 2 p.m. (Eastern). The moderator for the event will be Aisha Mills, CNN and MSNBC political commentator.
Be on the lookout for registration information in ACA’s Member Minute newsletter, or email email@example.com to share your interest in attending.
Counseling Today articles on related topics
- “The revised meaning of self-care in the wake of COVID-19”
- “Black mental health matters”
- “Unmasking white supremacy and racism in the counseling profession”
- “Encountering and addressing racism as a multiracial counselor”
- “Addressing clients’ prejudices in counseling”
- “Raising counselors’ awareness of microaggressions”
- “Five points of discussion for conversations about racial injustice”
- “Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies: Practical applications in counseling”
- “Making the counseling profession more diverse”
- “The historical roots of racial disparities in the mental health system”
- “Primum cura te ipsum: First, heal thyself”
- “Stumbling blocks to counselor self-care”
- “Counselors as human beings, not superheroes”
- “Self-care for the activist counselor”
- “Wellness matters”
- “The battle against burnout”
Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. 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.