At an online event for mental health practitioners earlier this week, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy emphasized that professional counselors’ role as “trusted healers” in their communities affords them an important opportunity to support clients — and clear up misinformation — as they’re making decisions regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The name of the game right now is trust. This vaccine campaign will move at the speed of trust,” Murthy said. “And it will depend on what people who are trusted in their communities do.”
Roughly two-thirds of eligible Americans who have not yet elected to receive the COVID-19 vaccine believe common myths regarding the vaccine, Murthy said. These myths, including those that claim getting the vaccine alters your DNA, causes infertility or will give you the COVID-19 virus, are false, Murthy stressed.
The vaccines, the first of which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) greenlighted for adults in December 2020, reflect the culmination of years of research on the mRNA vaccine platform, he said. As with any vaccine, there are risks of side effects with the COVID-19 vaccine, but they are rare — and the risk of getting the COVID-19 virus “far exceeds” the risks of side effects from the vaccine, Murthy said.
The June 21 event, organized by the White House, was part of a larger push by federal health officials in recent weeks and months to close the gap between the number of vaccinated and unvaccinated people in the United States. The forum, held over Zoom, was meant to equip mental health practitioners with information to answer clients’ questions surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine.
The American Counseling Association was a partner in Monday’s event, along with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the American Psychological Association. ACA members Suzzette Garcia, a licensed professional clinical counselor in California, and Rufus Spann, a licensed professional counselor in Maryland, were included on the event’s panel of mental health practitioners.
Garcia and Spann noted that some of the most important tools counselors can wield to support clients are empathic listening and validation of their uncertainties regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, including vaccine-related concerns. They also acknowledged that clients’ mistrust of the vaccine can dovetail with deeper and long held cultural mistrust of the medical system of a whole.
Garcia said she has role-played with clients during sessions to focus on distress tolerance and challenge their cognitive distortions regarding the vaccine. It’s also important for mental health practitioners to familiarize themselves with accurate information about the vaccine and local resources with which they can connect clients, Garcia said.
Navigating COVID-related uncertainties “is a question that a lot of ACA members have had to deal with,” said Spann, a past president of the Maryland Counseling Association. “We are part of the front-line experience. When these conversations come up, we allow [the client to talk through] life pressures, stress and anxiety. … It has been an opportunity [for clients] to talk to counselors who are able to listen to their stresses, fears and hopes, allowing space for clients to talk about what they’ve experienced and what they hope for the future.”
Murthy noted that the COVID-19 death rate in the United States is now the lowest it has been in a year. However, thousands of cases are still diagnosed each day, and variants have emerged that pose particular danger to the unvaccinated.
“We have a lot more work to do, and this is where we need your help,” Murthy told the mental health professionals participating in and watching the online event (dubbed “White House Virtual Conversation: Mental Health Professionals and the COVID-19 Vaccinations Effort”).
The key to increasing vaccination rates is for people who are uncertain about the COVID-19 vaccine to hear from people they trust, including professional counselors. No amount of advertising can match that power, Murthy said.
Bechara Choucair, the White House vaccinations coordinator, acknowledged that it is not within mental health professionals’ scope of practice to encourage their clients to get vaccinated. However, the White House wants to ensure that practitioners are well-equipped to answer clients’ questions surrounding the vaccine and talk through any potential fears they may have, Choucair said.
Those fears and hesitancies might include a phobia of needles or medical offices, a lack of trust in the vaccine and its development (or in the medical establishment as a whole), and resistance to government influence.
Murthy noted that mental health is a priority of President Joe Biden’s administration and that mental health-related topics come up often in Murthy’s regular COVID-19 briefings with the president.
The COVID-19 vaccine is “our most reliable pathway out” of the pandemic, Murthy asserted. It’s “one giant step toward getting back to normal” so that people can once again gather in person and find social connection — “which we know [is] so important to mental health,” Murthy said.
Watch the full video of the event on the White House YouTube channel: youtu.be/tzFS63G5sP8
Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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