Counseling Today, From the President

From the President: What is really in our power to do?

S. Kent Butler September 1, 2021

S. Kent Butler, ACA’s 70th president

Typing this column comes two days after learning that I lost a cousin of mine. Please understand that the comments I am making come from a raw place and should be taken as such. I am writing this as the “human me” perhaps, not as the “counselor me.” 

The circumstances are still murky, but based on the way the call came in, it seems that my cousin may have taken his own life. He had been struggling with some pretty major life issues. We were apart due to distance, but how I wish that he had reached out to let me or someone else know he was hurting. I wish I had known something was going on and, in turn, reached out to him myself. So, now I sit with this and wonder: What was really in my power to do? 

I feel for my cousin’s immediate family. They are dealing with a lot and will continue having to do so in the coming weeks and months. Truth be told, over the years, they have already dealt with more than their fair share. If there could actually be a silver lining in this scenario, it is that they are people of faith. I know they will get through this, but what an awful lot to have to get through.

Yes, I am a counselor, but at times like these, when someone was hurting silently, and they were family and therefore “under my care,” but not in ways in which I am trained to care, I come to a standstill. A family member was hurting, miles away, and I was not privy to the warning signs. I had no idea there were red flags. So, what could I really have done? Had I known, what would have been within my control to do? 

As a counselor, this is one of my biggest concerns, because I know that I am limited in what I can do in this type of scenario. However, while I may not be able to counsel, I believe that I am still able to see the warning signs and help a family member find the support they need to work through the things that are weighing them down. I imagine that I am not alone in this.

In a very real sense, I wish I had been in a position to help my cousin. I was just up north, two weeks prior, after almost two years of not being around family. What if I had made time for him? My purpose was to check in on my sisters and older relatives. I didn’t make major attempts to see my cousins and my friends. But this is not a pity party; I know that I’m not responsible for the ultimate decision my cousin made. Still, that doesn’t stop me from wondering. So, in the midst of a pandemic, Black Lives Mattering, and my own journey, I now have this death on my mind.

It leads me to share the following, but with the realization that we can’t be all-knowing or in several places at the same time, acting as “Wonder Persons” who save lives in a single swoop. That’s not really our gig. Acknowledging this may be the key. Perhaps we need to learn to give ourselves grace because we often beat ourselves up over the life-altering decisions that others make. I do not envy those — especially counselors — who find themselves in this predicament. It is a horrible position to be in, but it makes me want to be even more cognizant of the following potential warning signs displayed by folks I encounter. I hope that these potential red flags will be helpful to you on your journey too:

  • A sense of hopelessness 
  • A sense of worthlessness
  • Social isolation/feelings of abandonment 
  • Depression 
  • Impulsivity 
  • Hostility 
  • Environmental stress
  • Prior attempts/thoughts of suicide
  • Having a close friend or relative who has died by suicide
  • Inability to focus on the future; focusing only on the present or negative events
  • Making final plans, such as by taking care of unfinished business, giving away possessions, or making amends with others
  • Verbalizing threats, such as “I can’t take it anymore,” “Who would care if I wasn’t around?” and “I should end it all”
  • Intent to die

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers help around the clock for people in distress at 800-273-8255. In addition, the lifeline’s website ( provides prevention and crisis resources, as well as best practices for professionals. Another resource is the Crisis Text Line ( Simply text HOME to 741741 for free, 24-hour support. The International Association for Suicide Prevention ( also provides an extensive database of resources for those seeking help.

Next month, I hope to share some powerful lessons on true social justice advocacy. Until then, #ShakeItUp and #TapSomeoneIn.

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