Monthly Archives: October 2020

Fear and anxiety at the ballot box

By Laurie Meyers October 22, 2020

Word began to filter out late morning on Tuesday, Oct. 13, the last day that Virginia residents could register to vote in the 2020 general elections. A severed fiber-optic cable had brought down the commonwealth’s voter registration portal. Officials said the cut was an accident caused by roadwork; skeptics on Twitter had “accidentally” trending. Paper registration was still available — if postmarked or dropped off at local voter registration offices.

By midafternoon, after an approximately six-hour outage, the site was back up. A federal judge ordered an extension of the deadline to compensate would-be voters for lost time. Everyone would still be able to register to vote. All’s well that ends well, right?

And yet. To many people, the snafu seemed like just one more alarming plot twist in the tale of an election season — and year — so fraught with unprecedented crises that it would most likely evoke reader skepticism if found within the pages of a novel.

The U.S. national elections are already set to serve as a proxy for the country’s stance on climate change, universal health care, racism, police brutality and (dueling visions of) democracy. The maelstrom of events that is 2020 has brought everything to the forefront in Technicolor. The death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer. The ensuing protests against police brutality and the continuing demands for an end to racial injustice. The spread of violence by white supremacist groups. Record-breaking wildfires in California and Oregon. An incredibly active — and ongoing — hurricane season. The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the rush to appoint her successor. All of it amidst a pandemic unlike any other seen in the past 102 years.

When most Americans started staying home in March in hopes of bringing down the levels of infection by the novel coronavirus, they most likely didn’t expect that almost everything about COVID-19 would become partisan. The degree of threat posed by the virus. Whether to close businesses and restrict community movement. To mask or not to mask? In some quarters — albeit fairly fringe ones — the very existence of the novel coronavirus became a partisan matter. Now, less than one month before the election, more than 225,000 Americans are dead — a total that includes a disproportionate number of Black, Indigenous and people of color — and voters have spent months wondering about the best way to cast their vote.

In response to voter anxiety about going to the polls in person, most states expanded absentee mail-in voting by allowing anyone to use COVID-19 to justify their request. But the U.S. Postal Service, which had been preparing for the surge, was subject to organizational and equipment changes that made the mail less timely. So, many voters worried: If they requested an absentee ballot, would it arrive in time? The requirements for mail-in ballots vary from state to state, leaving some voters baffled and bemused. A process that is usually fairly straightforward has become yet another tangle to unravel in a year that has been fraught with knots.

“Our ability to cope with uncertainty is maxed out,” says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Keri Riggs, an American Counseling Association member with a private practice in Richardson, Texas. The pandemic has also effectively put most of our previously established timelines in question.

“We can’t make plans,” Riggs, whose areas of specialization include depression and anxiety, says. “The thing about the election is that we have a theoretical deadline.” We’ve always thought we understood when voting for the election was over, but this year, we can’t even have a sense of certainty about when it might end and when an undisputed winner in the presidential election might be declared, she says. Part of this year’s election anxiety is tied to not being able to rely on that usual deadline as an endpoint to at least one source of uncertainty.

With the exception of the contested vote count in Bush vs. Gore in 2000, modern Americans are used to learning who the winner of the presidential election is on election night or the morning after. But because so many people are voting by mail this year and it will take time to process those ballots, the votes amassed on Election Day will not be the final tally.

“If there is a contested election, it could drag on for a very long time,” Riggs points out. “Everything has already been dragging on for a very long time.”

And it’s not just about the endpoint. Many voters see this election as more than a mere partisan contest; to these voters, it is something upon which the future of bigger picture issues such as climate change, immigration and racial justice rests. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 83% of registered voters say it really matters who wins the presidency. These results are an increase from the 74% of voters who said the same thing four years ago and the highest share of voters saying this in two decades of Pew Research Center surveys. In keeping with the anxiety surrounding the election, approximately 50% of survey respondents said they expected that voting will be difficult.

The stories that we tell ourselves play a critical role in how we cope with stress, anxiety and the seeming chaos around us, Riggs says. Too often, clients focus on the “what ifs” of a doomsday future that may or may not come to pass, she explains.

“The Islamic theologian, Sufi mystic and poet Rumi once said, ‘The words you speak become the house you live in,’’’ notes Ryan Thomas Neace, an LPC who is the founder and CEO of Change Inc., a St. Louis counseling practice that focuses on healing and personal growth in the face of pain. A similar dictum is contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, “The power of life and death is on the tongue,” he continues. “In other words, what we say matters.”

Neace is not denying that voters are facing weighty issues as they cast their ballots, but he maintains that the narratives we construct are not solving anything. Instead, people get caught in the trap of thinking that constant worry and panic are somehow equal to civic engagement or political purpose.

Clients can break their “doom” loops with present-moment awareness, Riggs says. For example, when fear of the future and visions of disaster threaten to take over, she has clients practice telling themselves that they and everyone they love are safe in that moment.

Riggs also advises clients to consume social media and news in moderation and to take breaks. She urges clients to channel their energy into productive action, either by engaging in the political process with a campaign donation or volunteering at the polls, or via a smaller personal outlet such as journaling or even cleaning the bathroom.

Riggs says it is also essential to exercise self-compassion and what one of her clients calls “grace.”

“We need to give ourselves and each other grace — the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “We’re not all on our A-game.”

Neace reminds clients that it is OK — indeed helpful — to tell themselves resilience-building stories such as, “There’s a lot at stake here, but we’re going to get through this together, no matter what.”

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, pictured in a nationally-televised debate on Sept. 29.

Fear of racial violence

“There is a lot of evidence that there are a number of groups that actively want to hurt and disenfranchise Black Americans,” says Harrison Davis, an LPC in Atlanta who specializes in depression, anxiety, resentment and helping people overcome personal obstacles. These groups have come out of the shadows and appear to feel empowered by what they — and many Black Americans — perceive as support from the police and from forces within certain parts of the government and judicial system, he says.

The clients and community members he’s spoken to say their sense of security has diminished over the past year because they feel betrayed by people they believed were their allies. Some of his Black clients have told Davis that instead of standing by them in the fight for racial justice and an end to police brutality, some of their white neighbors and friends supported these law enforcement actions and were actively critical of the ensuing protests.

On top of this vulnerability, some of his Black clients have expressed concern that President Trump has not committed to a smooth transition of power if he loses, while white supremacists are threatening violence or even war, Davis says.

Some clients have an almost panicky need to prepare for an emergency — as if by doing so they can keep their darker fears from manifesting, he continues. This sense of catastrophe is fueled not just by the election, but by the many deaths the coronavirus has brought to the Black community.

Although the threat is real, his clients’ response — living in a constant state of anxiety and panic — is neither healthy nor sustainable, Davis says.

Like Riggs and Neace, when working with clients struggling with election anxiety, Davis zeroes on how much news and social media they are consuming. Not only are clients being bombarded with a sense of overall catastrophe—they are engaging in conversations that are often vitriolic and damaging.

“When I grew up, you would just watch the polictical coverage on the TV networks,” he says. Now, everyone can watch a developing story or scandal in real time. So Davis asks clients to notice how they are responding as they track this torrent of information. “Is it causing you to tense up?” he asks. “Lose sleep?” Clients also report irritability and constant worry–not just about the election, but everything. Right now, the constant urgency and concern of news and social media has such a marked effect on clients, that Davis has moved away from recommending that they balance their use. Instead, he has them do a complete detox.

“Channel that energy into positives instead of arguing with people,” he urges clients. Rather than trying to convince others of their viewpoint, they could be helping people register to vote or get to the polls on Election Day. Davis also encourages clients to find hobbies and outlets that have nothing to do with politics or current events.

On a deeper level, he finds that clients are struggling to accept the world as it is. They may have believed that we had grown as a nation and society over the past decade but now may see that things haven’t changed significantly. One way to cope with that reality and find greater peace is to identify ways to help the community, Davis says.

In his own life, Davis’ father, who was an activist in the civil rights era, told him and his siblings that they might have thought things had changed, but they really hadn’t. Black Americans are still engaged in the struggle for racial equality that has been denied them for generations.

That doesn’t mean that clients need to live in fear, Davis says. Living like that only gives power to those who want Black people to be afraid. He urges clients to find a space where they feel like they belong and to be thoughtful about who they invite into their inner world. They may not yet be able to change the world, but they can control elements of their world by removing unsupportive friends or by leaving environments which make them feel triggered or unsafe—such as social groups or toxic work environments.

A number of his clients are very spiritual, Davis adds. They find strength through the Bible, which holds many stories of people who experienced tragedy and injustice but prevailed by relying on faith and their community.

Power and connection amid chaos

Although many of us view the cacophony of the election cycle as something to endure while keeping our sanity in check, ACA member Laura Brackett is encouraging clients to find their personal power in the chaos.

The year 2020 and the years leading up to it have been traumatic in myriad ways, and exploring personal power is a constant component of trauma work, she says. “The beauty of it is that personal power takes countless forms,” says Brackett, the director of community engagement at Change, Inc., in St. Louis. “For some clients, this has meant outward action in the form of voting, protesting and becoming active in the community. For others, it has meant embracing their own emotional reactions and how that is influencing their behavior and empathy toward self and others.”

Often the process involves a combination of both external and internal work, she says. Brackett’s goal is to encourage clients to embrace their personal power without losing sight of how its expression affects others.

“If there is one thing this year has shown us, it’s that we don’t live in a vacuum,” she says. “Our words and actions have real impact on others. I want to help my clients see this interconnectedness and learn how they can best live within it in a way that is compassionate as well as empowered.”

 

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

ACA legislative briefing tackles racism, police reform and mental health issues

By Laurie Meyers October 20, 2020

The nation is poised at a historic moment in which the American people’s recognition and understanding of the injustices that happen every day in Black and brown communities is at an all-time high, said Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., one of the speakers at the American Counseling Association’s Legislative Briefing on Racism, Police Reform and Mental Health held via Zoom on Wednesday, Oct. 14. He urged legislators, policy makers and advocates to use this awareness to make truly transformational changes to police departments.

Organized by ACA’s Government Affairs and Public Policy department, the briefing consisted of a bipartisan panel of national and local legislators.

ACA CEO Richard Yep opened the session with a statement noting that the association denounces all forms of racism, police brutality, systemic violence and white supremacy. The briefing was offered to ACA’s membership, legislative staff and advocates who are working on bills currently before the 116th Congress, specifically focusing on racism, police reform and mental health.

MSNBC commentator Aisha C. Mills, a longtime political strategist and social impact advisor moderated the briefing. Before turning the discussion over to the first panelist, Brown, she took a moment to acknowledge the pain that was happening in communities all over the country as a result of interactions with police departments.

“It’s fraught—there’s a lot of tension,” Mills said. “One of the conversations that too often gets lost is that law enforcement responds and reacts in a way that is about safety, is about duty to protect communities and is not always able to be flexible and sensitive to the needs of people who are struggling with mental health issues.

“We’re hopeful that through this conversation, we will learn about a variety of solutions that policy makers are thinking about—legislation that can be moved and … that the counseling community will be able to connect with ways that you all can be in better partnership with law enforcement and legislators as we all try to seek solutions together,” she concluded.

The role of mental health in transforming community policing

Mental health professionals play a vital role in the broader public health of our communities, noted Brown. Their expertise must be a key feature in work to combat racism—particularly in police departments.

“The killing of Black Americans at the hands of the police is an epidemic in this country—one that has existed for decades and has gone largely unaddressed,” he continued. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black men and women has highlighted the need to fundamentally transform policing in this country.

“I believe we should start by changing the culture of policing by moving the officers who protect us away from a warrior cop mentality toward their proper goal as community guardians,” Brown emphasized. “We must also recognize and acknowledge that officers are often tasked to respond to certain situations where they don’t necessarily have the proper training.”

Police officers are often unable to properly understand the citizens and communities that they are confronting or engaging with and thus cannot  properly de-escalate or manage a situation, he said.

“Since 2016, nearly a quarter of the people killed by police officers have had a known mental illness,” Brown said.

He believes that calling upon the expertise of mental health professionals is a vital part of preventing such tragedies.

“I believe we can save lives by acting more with compassion and understanding rather than force,” he said. “We can save lives and livelihoods when we stop criminalizing mental illness and addiction by instead providing resources and help to those who need it. We must also provide structural reform in police departments.”

This was the intent of H.R 7120, the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June.

The George Floyd Act seeks to transform police departments by reducing their militarization by preventing the transfer of military equipment from the U.S. Department of Defense to local police departments, removing bad officers and banning harmful practices such as choke holds and no-knock warrants. It also proposed training for police departments on diversity and cultural sensitivity, including how to end racial, religious and discriminatory profiling.

“We know that this legislation alone won’t be enough,” he said. To establish a more just country, we need to invest in long neglected policies and programs that meet the social needs of communities and address the structural disparities that harm Black and brown families, Brown said.

This month the House passed the Strength in Diversity Act of 2020 (H.R.2639) to address the persistent racial disparities in the education system. Brown authored an amendment to the act that would provide funds to recruit, hire and train more school counselors.

“School counselors play a vital role in students’ success,” he said.

On the other side of the aisle—and the other body of Congress—Jake Hinch, legislative assistant to Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said that the senator had become interested in the intersection of mental health and policing because statistics show that approximately one in 10 police calls and one in four shootings involve someone with a mental illness.

Inhofe believes that one of the ways to address these issues is with S. 1464, the Law Enforcement Training for Mental Health Crisis Response Act of 2019, which would provide state, local and tribal agencies with federal grant funding for behavioral crisis response training. Inhofe believes that the training would provide knowledge that would assist police officers when responding to calls that include people who are suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol; are possibly suicidal or suffering from mental illness.

A call for counselors to lend their expertise

Charlyn Stanberry, chief of staff for Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., began her portion of the panel by noting that Oct. 14, the date of the event, would have been George Floyd’s 47th birthday.

We are in a period of reckoning when it comes to systemic racism, police reform and mental illness, she said.

Rep. Clarke is the vice-chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over healthcare—including mental health, Stanberry noted. As part of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)—which was specifically tasked by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi with putting together the George Floyd Policing Act—Clarke was involved with the public health aspects of the bill, which included discussions on how public safety in all communities could ultimately be reimagined so that it is just and equitable. In practice, such an effort would require bringing all stakeholders, such as law enforcement, mental health professionals and constituents to the table. One of the ways the CBC sought to ensure that would happen was by including a provision within the bill for providing public safety innovation grants for community-based programs, Stanberry explained. The grants would go toward creating task forces that would examine how policing would fit into the community and contribute to public safety in an equitable way.

“That’s a big part of what we as individuals and counselors need to think about,” she said. “How can you play a role if these grants are brought into the communities and talk about what this new 21st century police, community policing or public safety looks like?”

Hinch said that discussions like the ACA briefing are essential for him and other staff to stay aware of crucial issues. Legislative teams cover a lot of different subject areas and rely upon experts to educate them.

“It’s important for counselors to come to their representatives in Congress to explain what the issues are and what they can do better,” he said, adding that Sen. Inhofe wants to hear from everyone, whether they be Democrat, Republican or Independent.

“It’s vital for the senator that we continue to have these kinds of conversations,” Hinch said.

Stanberry added that although they are entering a lame duck session, the 117th Congress will be in session in January. There will be a lot of hearings that have to do with mental health, and she is officially issuing a call for research and expertise from counselors.

The final speaker was Georgia State Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, the head of the state Republican party and chair of the Senate Law Enforcement Reform Committee, which is looking at police practices and procedures. The committee’s intent is to see if police officers are receiving sufficient training to prepare them to deal with potentially confrontational situations such as crowd control or serving warrants or any incidents in which mental health issues may come into play, Cowsert explained. They’ve only had one meeting, but what the committee found is that throughout the country, police departments seemed to be getting a lot of training in de-escalation. Cowsert said he and the committee believe that the training could be improved upon. They intend to hold a hearing with members of the local mental health community in order to gain insight on how to improve training.

As the briefing ended, Stanberry and Hinch both placed their contact information in the comment boxes and urged the audience to get in contact with them to share ideas, comments and expertise.

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Resources

Related reading, from Counseling Today:

 

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Pop-top cans: Ensuring services truly support those experiencing homelessness

By Seneka Arrington and Chad Yates October 19, 2020

Community food pantries rely upon the generosity and goodwill of community members. Food pantries are invaluable to those individuals and families who are either homeless or facing food scarcity.

As an education specialist for a large nonprofit, I (Seneka Arrington) oversaw the daily operations of our local food pantry. In the back, from ceiling to floor, nonperishable food items — organized by soups, vegetables, meats, snacks and beverages — lined the walls. On a shelf sat prepared food bags, created by hand and ready to be distributed to those in need.

One afternoon, a man walked through our front doors and requested a bag, stating, “I haven’t eaten in days.”

With delight, I grabbed a food bag and handed it to our guest. Famished, he decided to open the bag in front of me just to “have a few bites.” But to his dismay, he was unable to access any of the food because every can in the bag required a utensil to open.

Discouraged, he mumbled, “It’s so hard to get here. Now it’s hard to get the food out. This always happens.”

I quickly apologized for the inconvenience and asked if I could make the situation right. I took his bag and returned to the fully stocked pantry, scanning for a meal to provide to my guest. On the middle rack, three items in pop-top cans caught my eye. I grabbed all three and created a dinner bag that my patron could enjoy. Upon receiving this new food bag, the man smiled and hugged my shoulders.

This experience highlighted for me contradictions in the ways our society tries to support, care for and aid those who are homeless. Although goodwill is typically present in these initiatives, a lack of intentionality often plagues efforts to reduce suffering in this community. I came to recognize how education could increase the effectiveness of the support offered by society. From that point on, my mantra became that all food bags “need to make sense and include only pop-top cans.”

Homelessness is an ever-present concern in communities. The problem is anything but invisible. More than half a million people in the United States experience homelessness on any given night. The National Coalition for the Homeless highlights three types of homelessness: chronic, transitional and episodic.

Chronic homelessness is used to describe the people who are most vulnerable due to experiencing homelessness for at least a year while also struggling with a substance use disorder, physical disability or serious mental illness.

Individuals experiencing transitional homelessness rely on the shelter system for a short period. These individuals are likely to be younger and to have become homeless because of a calamitous event.

Episodic homelessness includes people who experience mental health, medical or substance abuse issues. These individuals are chronically unemployed, resulting in a frequent shuffle in and out of homelessness.

Homelessness and helping those in need has been a passion of mine since I was in the third grade. In working with this population, I have witnessed a frequent lack of intentionality by those who donate or serve and a subsequent lack of self-worth on the part of those who receive these donations or services. What are we saying to a person when we hand them food that they cannot access? As helpers, what is our attitude around giving to those in need? Do our services reflect our support?

It is important to first look at our biases toward those who are homeless and the difficulties that surround asking for help.

Stereotypes about homelessness

Throughout my career, I have heard words such as annoying, needy and lazy applied to those who are experiencing homelessness, often as justification for someone’s lack of desire to serve this population. Such words are often used when describing panhandlers. “If that person can ask for money, they can get a job” is one prevalent line of thinking that negatively influences people’s willingness to help those they deem to be undeserving. There is also the idea that given all of the community and government efforts to assist those who are homeless, individuals who are still asking for help are not taking advantage of these resources.

Homelessness is repeatedly associated with choice. Those burdened by homelessness are often viewed as being individuals whose predicament resulted from their own poor choices and who have full autonomy to get themselves out. Many of these individuals desire stability, but the added stresses of humiliation, worries of where to sleep at night and food insecurity are their reality.

Their losses of employment, housing and family are commonly viewed as resulting from poor decision-making and mismanagement. These negative impressions are so ingrained in our society that even well-meaning citizens have difficulty giving to those in need. Understanding the complexity of homelessness, addressing our personal biases and updating these beliefs are the first steps on the path toward advocating for this population.

Understanding homelessness through the lens of a counselor

Community mental health agencies are supportive of accepting individuals who are experiencing homelessness. These agencies typically accept Medicaid/Medicare or offer sliding feel scales to help these individuals obtain services.

Other organizations in which counselors may work with individuals who are homeless include nonprofit agencies, Department of Veterans Affairs facilities, and child and family services agencies. In addition, school counselors may assist students whose families are transitory or homeless.

As counselors, we are tasked with being influencers of hope and developers of self-worth. We create spaces for growth and facilitate transformations. Even as we help individuals work through the hardships associated with homelessness, coupled with the psychological processes, we must recognize basic needs. Often, it is a lack of basic necessities that serves as a significant barrier or hindrance to an individual’s progress. Counselors are therefore encouraged to affirm the existence of said barriers, as well as the barriers of discrimination, poverty, injustice and hardship.

Counselors can create spaces for individuals to work through feelings of guilt, shame, helplessness, hopelessness and fear associated with simply surviving from day to day. Counselors can also work with clients who are homeless on overall wellness. We recommend addressing the “Six Dimensions of Wellness” created by Bill Hettler, co-founder of the National Wellness Institute. The six dimensions are:

1) Emotional wellness: Reducing stress and improving sleep

2) Environmental wellness: The creation of happy, clean and safe spaces

3) Social wellness: Relating, interacting and communicating

4) Physical wellness: Regular exercise, proper nutrition and good sleeping habits

5) Intellectual wellness: Problem-solving, processing and creativity

6) Spiritual wellness: Meaning, purpose and guidance

In addition to addressing the emotional and psychological needs of individuals experiencing homelessness, counselors rely on community resources and relationships with community stakeholders to meet the needs of this population. Through interdisciplinary partnerships, counselors can create a broad network of support. These duties — e.g., securing food or shelter — are typically divided among helping professionals rooted in various disciplines other than counseling.

Factors counselors should consider

The stigma around asking for help: Even with a strong support system made up of co-workers, friends, family or helping professionals, it can be difficult to ask for help. People experiencing homelessness are often seen as burdensome, which can reduce the willingness of these individuals to request assistance.

In addition to the stigma of asking for assistance, few organizational and individual resources give without first asking or demanding that individuals meet certain criteria. The number of documents required to prove homelessness and obtain housing, food and security impedes the process at times. Advocacy from the counselor and education regarding how to navigate the complex system of aid can assist clients who are homeless in connecting with the necessary support.

Health: Individuals who are homeless can face severe barriers in accessing basic needs related to health and nutrition. The prerequisites to obtaining medical services, coupled with the financial means to sustain such services, hinder access and consistency. Health complications, poor hygiene, lack of adequate or varied nutrients, possible drug and alcohol abuse, and environmental stress directly affect the health and well-being of individuals experiencing homelessness.

Illnesses that most individuals recover from within a couple of days (e.g., the common cold) can become serious problems for those who are homeless due to living in unsanitary conditions. Chronic conditions are vitally important to consider because they require consistent medical treatment and healthy lifestyle habits to control. When not adequately treated, these physical conditions worsen over time and can contribute to mental health issues and a decrease in quality of life.

To assist these clients, counselors can aid in providing seamless transitions to medical offices. Partnering with local transportation networks, churches, food banks, medical professionals, local free medical clinics and shelter systems can create consistent care and build a supportive community to address homelessness collectively. Support is often evidenced by donations and collaborations.

Mental health and emotional well-being: Mental health conditions can be either the cause or the result of homelessness. A study by the National Institute of Mental Health reported that approximately 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill, compared with 20-25% of individuals experiencing homelessness. The predominant mental health disorders seen in those living in impoverished conditions include major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Mild, yet prevalent, mental health issues show up in the form of generalized anxiety and adult attention-deficit disorder.

Counseling services require weekly sessions for effective treatment. Consistency is key to progression, follow-up and accountability. However, lack of adequate sleep and lack of access to immediate needs can continually disrupt the process of counseling for individuals who are homeless.

A recommended strategy that may be helpful to counselors is incorporating a weekly needs assessment to inquire about the client’s basic needs and whether they are being met. It can also be helpful to connect clients to resources that will allow them to attend counseling more consistently, such as free transportation and stable shelter. It is recommended that counselors put a multifaceted approach in place to address the needs of and provide appropriate mental health care to individuals experiencing homelessness.

Impact on helping professionals

Individuals experiencing homelessness are especially vulnerable due to a lack of access to stable shelter, reliable communication, financial means and medical resources. These barriers also restrict access to preventative health care and treatment that could aid in cultivating a more balanced and healthier lifestyle.

Gaps in professional partnerships often hinder consistent and effective care. Continuity of care should flow from the counselor to the medical professional, to the housing caseworker, to the food pantry volunteer. When this flow is inconsistent, so is the individual’s access to these services. Collaborative efforts, or a lack thereof, weigh heavily on the ability of those who are homeless to have their physiological and psychological needs met.

Most housing and homeless assistance organizations are fragmented and enigmatic systems. The difficulty in navigating such systems often leads to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness among individual in need. People are forced to obtain information on available services and programs through peer-to-peer interactions. Crisis response centers are under-resourced. Helping professionals receive incomplete information related to available resources and to the eligibility criteria for existing programs. Unfortunately, this fosters individual disengagement and distrust for public systems.

Consistently having to address crises and concerns such as trauma, addiction and emotional disorders with clients can be an overwhelming task for counselors. This is characteristic of settings in which clinicians are vulnerable to workplace stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. The latter can result in a lack of intentionality and patience when working with individuals experiencing homelessness.

Due to the physiological demands, working with homelessness requires patience and persistence that are not typical of everyday counseling encounters. As a result, counselors can experience a parallel process of hopelessness and subsequent compassion fatigue and burnout. To combat burnout, organizations can provide space for processing groups in which counselors can provide support to one another. These groups can be extended to partners in the community.

Action steps

Appropriately and competently addressing the needs of the homeless population requires intentional exploration and understanding of the multifaceted tenets of homelessness. The figure below depicts the necessary steps for counselors’ work with homeless communities.

Specific training for counselors and counselor trainees is essential in addressing the privation of the homeless community. Training can be offered through community and private mental health agencies and integrated into counseling programs. Practitioners and stakeholders can play an active role in addressing and supporting the identified needs by providing corporate training in the form of panels, lectures and service learning. Helping professionals and organizations can utilize the literature that expounds on care and attention for homeless communities.

Engagement efforts and materialization of the next steps can be demonstrated through interdisciplinary partnerships and collaboration. Immersion, outreach and advocacy can also serve as action steps toward increasing awareness and practical experience.

Action steps for work with homeless communities

Hopes for the future

Highlighting access and engagement is pivotal in effecting change and fostering spaces where homeless populations can receive care. Multiple health and human services agencies, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), prioritize connection to programs that help address and prevent homelessness. The core principles of SAMHSA, as noted in its strategic plan, include expanding access to the full continuum for mental and substance use disorders and engaging in outreach to clinicians, grantees, patients and the public.

Health and human services typically include discharge planning in addition to financial support through Housing First programs. The Housing First model was created in New York City by Sam Tsemberis in the 1990s. Tsemberis asserted that housing was the only solution to homelessness. The model highlighted the significance of permanent housing for the chronically homeless with no conditions attached.

Counselors can be at the forefront of advocating for the integration of this model, with modifications that include intentional interaction, purposeful food contributions, advocacy and activism, preparation, partnership and hope. A modified approach could focus on creating opportunities for people experiencing homelessness to adopt a healthy and stable lifestyle through holistic treatment. Specific methods for counselors include:

  • Training on people-first language
  • Pursuing partnerships with low-cost grocery stores to provide vouchers to clients
  • Increasing access to medical and clinical services through remote client monitoring and telehealth mediums
  • Providing continuity of care by granting computer access in clinical spaces
  • Offering career counseling
  • Instituting a commuter benefit program by teaming with an independent transportation network and providing transport vouchers

Neglecting the resources that can contribute to the success of people experiencing homelessness is akin to giving someone a can of food that is inaccessible to them. A pop-top-can-oriented organization or helping professional embodies compassion and wherewithal that fosters change and growth. Counselors can further close the gap by offering substantive interactions with built-in goals for meeting clients’ hierarchy of needs, encouraging comprehensive treatment, and promoting hope by helping homeless individuals discover exceptions.

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Seneka Arrington strives to bridge the gap between research and practice, emphasizing the importance of connection, collaboration, and translating research findings into clinically meaningful information. For the past decade, her practice and research have been in the nonprofit sector, highlighting homelessness, mental health, career counseling and service leadership. She is a licensed professional counselor, as well as a current doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant at Idaho State university. Contact her at arrisene@isu.edu.

Chad Yates is an associate professor of counseling at Idaho State University. His counseling experience includes working with individuals with substance abuse disorders, batterers and survivors of domestic violence, families, and as a generalist treating many diverse client issues. His research interests include evidence-based practice in counseling, client-focused outcome evaluation, and the treatment of individuals with substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. Contact him at yatechad@isu.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.

Social media and active listening skills don’t seem to mix

By Grace Hipona October 13, 2020

Since the onset of COVID-19, I have observed through my work with clients via telehealth that people’s reliance on social media as a vehicle for connecting with others has intensified. While this engagement may be beneficial and necessary during the pandemic, it does not afford us the opportunity to connect on a more meaningful level. Even more concerning is how this contributes to individuals not directly learning active listening skills.

Simply put, COVID-19 and our over-reliance on social media as a means to connect has impacted the process of ACTIVE communication. Think about a typical post, whether it consists of a picture, a funny quote or the sharing of a political news article. The main benefit of social media is to put information out into the universe as a means of sharing with others. However, this process is usually one-sided and does not typically result in active conversation. Individuals may use social media to stay “up to date” with others, but this might involve simply scrolling through posts without providing any comment or engaging in any conversation.

Think about the typical responses to a post. Individuals can choose to “like” a post, comment or scroll on. These responses lack much opportunity for active exchange. I emphasize “active” because even with a high-engagement social media post in which there is an exchange of comments, there is a passive reactiveness that ensues. Sometimes, the thread may become lengthy and escalate, leading to some inflammatory or not-so productive statements. Regardless, the active listening process is not present.

When we are talking with others in person, common courtesy is to ask, “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” The other individual responds with a reflexive, “Good” or “Fine,” and then also asks, “How are you?” But on social media, this quick and simple process is completely bypassed. Typically, there is no exchange of questions. There is a responsiveness, but people are responding to statements, NOT questions.

For example, I recently posted a picture of a family outing. One of my friends wrote, “Beautiful,” and several others “liked” my picture. But people did not typically ask, “How was it?” or “How did it go?” Nor did I expect them to. There is not “room” for an active exchange. I am unidirectionally telling you about my life, not asking you to engage with me. Social media is no substitute for an actual conversation because there is no depth.

What happened to asking questions?

More and more, my clients verbalize challenges related to developing meaningful relationships. In many cases, I believe their reliance on social media in place of more interactive engagement is a primary reason for that.

Some people are not being taught how to have a simple conversation — not just an exchange of ideas but questions that can enrich a conversation. The clients I work with who fall into this category, many of whom are younger, are developing without an understanding of the importance of asking questions.

We ask questions to demonstrate that we care about the other person. We also ask questions to obtain more information, more details. We ask each other questions so that we can have a conversation. We ask open-ended and follow-up questions to learn the depths of a person.

Asking questions allows us a window into someone’s inner world, and this glimpse is key in building relationships. Without creating this opportunity, our connection with someone will remain surface level and superficial. I can recall interactions with people in which I shared about myself, but the listener didn’t ask any follow-up questions.

Those experiences feel odd and confusing. It can even come across that the other person is self-involved or selfish. Having such an experience can be deflating and potentially cause a barrier to further interactions.

Unfortunately, when people use social media as a substitute for connection, these feelings of isolation can be exacerbated, with users not always consciously realizing that they are missing critical aspects of engaging.

Actions to take

As counselors, we are constantly searching for opportunities to help others. So, what can we do in this instance?

1) Educate: One of the many hats counselors can wear is that of the educator. We can talk about the process of active engagement and share strategies to maintain active engagement even during these challenging times. We can directly teach our clients, students and supervisees about the significance of active listening. We can point out why social media does not easily allow for this. Because the process of active listening is typically a strength of counselors and because we are trained in it, we may sometimes forget that it is a developed skill and that it takes education and practice.

2) Role model: We can role model in our everyday lives by taking the time to ask others, “How are you feeling?” Typically, we might ask, “How are you doing?” However, if we want to demonstrate how to have a more meaningful exchange, asking how a person feels gets below the surface and provides an opportunity to show that we care and want to have a more significant interaction. We can also ask, “How can I better help support you?”

In other words, the active engagement process begins by asking a simple question. But once that has been mastered, we can more thoughtfully ask specific questions. In our sessions with clients, we can help them practice this art of asking questions, and they can experience the benefits.

3) Advocate: Students need to be taught these skills directly. Sometimes we assume that people will learn active listening skills somewhere along their journey in life. However, the only way to really know whether someone has learned a concept is to teach them that concept.

To piggyback on my first point, we need to advocate in our communities and education systems for classes, groups or other learning formats that can be geared toward active listening and interpersonal skills. This is especially important for a younger generation that is much more reliant on social media for communicating. From my perspective, it seems that students are given the opportunity to directly learn these subjects only if they have a formal diagnosis and undergo the process of obtaining an individualized education program.

4) Research: My insights into the impact of social media and technology in general on active listening are not heavily researched. I have found some anecdotal information on blogs and in newsletters, but there do not appear to be many evidenced-based articles available. Given that reality, another important opportunity we have as counselors is to collect data, both formally and informally. We can then share our findings to help inform others.

It is challenging just to survive in these times, let alone do any one of the things I describe above. But when I feel overwhelmed by our collective experience, I focus on what I can control. I can purposefully choose and feel empowered by these choices. I can choose to directly communicate with people rather than relying on social media.

Sometimes when I think about macro-level change, I feel like I am not doing enough. I do believe that our individual efforts have an impact on the larger community, however. Therefore, I remind myself that even the simplest of exchanges can be significant. It starts with asking a question.

 

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Related reading: See Counseling Today‘s October cover story, “Helping clients develop a healthy relationship with social media

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Grace Hipona is a licensed professional counselor for NeuroPsych Wellness Center P.C. and holds a doctorate in counselor education and supervision. Her dissertation focus was on disaster mental health (specifically sheltering in place). She is also a certified substance abuse counselor and approved clinical supervisor. Her experiences over the past 15 years includes working in private practice, managing behavioral health programs, teaching graduate students, and providing supervision for master’s-level counseling students and counselors-in-residence. Contact her at ghipona@hotmail.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.

Voice of Experience: The hurting counselor (an update)

By Gregory K. Moffatt October 7, 2020

In 2018, I published a Member Insights article in Counseling Today titled “The hurting counselor.” I received more feedback on that article than anything else I’ve ever written, and it went on to become the most-viewed article posted to CT Online at any point in 2018. Nearly all the responses I received were comments about how counselors had (just like me) neglected self-care until crisis slapped them in the face and they realized they didn’t have the tools to deal with it.

In that article, I described a time when my marriage was failing and how, at the same time, my self-care had been sorely neglected. Even though my own story was a part of that article, my real point was to petition readers to take self-care seriously. Fortunately for me, at the end of the article, I gratefully noted that my marriage had been salvaged. Healing was slow and setbacks continued, but things improved.

Sadly, I’m here to tell you that a very painful tragedy has found me once again, and I’m devastated. I’ll leave the specifics of my painful situation unspoken because if I told you what it involves, then some readers might think to themselves, “That doesn’t apply to me.” The specifics of my situation are not why I am writing this follow-up article, any more than my original article was just about the sadness of my failing marriage. Let’s just say that I’m hurting as much as one can hurt and still survive.

But just like before, my purpose is to address the importance of self-care. I religiously practice what I told readers about in “The hurting counselor” two-plus years ago. My separation that I wrote about at the time had happened almost a decade prior, and it nearly crippled me. I couldn’t eat or sleep, and I scarcely could get through each day. My compromised self-care nearly did me in.

But since that time, I’ve been practicing everything I wrote about in “The hurting counselor,” and now that I’m yet again facing a very painful experience, I’m so glad I did. The follow-up is that self-care is not only helpful but crucial.

Don’t get me wrong. The tragedies of life are always hard: the loss of a child, the humiliation of arrest and jail, failed relationships, crippling physical illnesses, etc. The timing of my current situation, coming as it does in the midst of the coronavirus, the beginning of a very challenging school year at my university, and a generally hard time of life, makes it worse.

My days are difficult and my nights are even harder, but I’m managing reasonably well — unlike the time I wrote about previously — because I’ve practiced our ethic of self-care. The unavoidable pain of personal crisis won’t defeat me as it nearly did years ago. I have a therapist, I play, I eat right, and I rest as well as I can. All the keys to reasonable self-care.

As noted above, self-care is not an option. It is an ethical obligation. The excuse that “I don’t have time” to exercise, go to therapy, eat well or take a day off is not only untrue, it is irresponsible.

Unlike the situation I found myself in all those years ago, today I’m making better decisions because I’m in better condition and I have the strength to do it. I will weather this storm with clarity of thought and resilience of heart. Neither of those things is possible without regular self-care. Fortunately, I’ll also be in reasonable condition to continue working with my clients, my interns and my supervisees. They will never know that I’m in the midst of a crisis unless I tell them.

If we are not taking care of ourselves, we will make poor decisions in all sorts of areas. We will stay in toxic relationships and dead-end jobs or work too many hours. Our lack of clarity will make it hard to see the damage we are doing to ourselves. I know that in my prior life of poor self-care, I could not have weathered this current hurricane. Today I’m so strong, even though daily I’m feeling vulnerable and battered.

I often tell stories about my life, my clients and my practice in my column, but this particular article is as personal as it gets. I’m not just processing my current pains with you, however. Because of the outpouring of responses I received from my original article on self-care, I know that self-care is a problem and a challenge for many therapists. It is imperative that we tend to it so that we are adequately prepared when we are facing deep hurts — as we all inevitably will in one way or another.

My testimony here will hopefully convince you that there is a good reason to take care of yourself. And I want you to know that I not only practice what I preach to you, but that it works.

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

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.