Monthly Archives: December 2023

Counseling Today’s 15 most-read articles of 2023

December 26, 2023

A collection of all the magazine covers for 2023

Growing demands for mental health services. Provider shortages. Concerns over youth mental health and self-harm. The loneliness epidemic. These are a few of the topics that dominated the news and our minds in 2023.  

Before we ring in a new year, let’s look back at our 15 most-read articles published in 2023: 

#15. Identifying psychological abuse? 

Psychological abuse is a complex and prevalent issue that can go unnoticed unless clinicians learn to recognize the signs and use appropriate interventions to support clients. Read the full article. 

#14. Building rapport with clients experiencing psychosis 

Tina C. Lott, EdD, LCPC, discusses how stigma and misunderstandings about clients with severe mental illnesses can prevent some counselors from taking the necessary steps to build a strong therapeutic relationship. Read the full article. 

#13. Prioritizing trauma-informed care? 

A trauma-informed approach benefits both counselors and clients, yet more work needs to be done to ensure these principles are adopted across health care systems. Read the full article. 

#12. ‘The walls come right down’: The clinical benefits of therapy dogs? 

Therapy dogs can be more than our best friends; they can also help reduce clients’ stress and provide the emotional safety needed to process traumatic and painful life events. Read the full article. 

#11. Treating anxiety in children 

With childhood anxiety increasing at an alarming rate, early assessment and treatment can help children struggling with anxiety live a healthy life. Read the full article 

#10. A cultural framework for generational trauma 

Jyotsana Sharma, PhD, LCMHC, Carolyn Shivers, PhD, and Cadence Bolinger share a clinical framework that can help clients identify and process the complex experiences of intergenerational trauma. Read the full article. 

#9. The protective side of anger 

Peter Allen, LPC, discusses how exploring the potential positive and protective aspects of anger can help clients accept their feelings and learn to regain control in safe, healthy ways. Read the full article. 

#8. Conceptualizing diagnosis through a social justice lens 

Christine Banks-VanAllen, LPCC-S, argues that approaching diagnosis through a lens that considers systemic, cultural and ecological factors leads to better treatment outcomes for clients. Read the full article. 

#7. Recognizing burnout and compassion fatigue among counselors 

Madhuri Govindu, LPC associate, shares some tips on recognizing and preventing burnout and compassion fatigue. Read the full article. 

#6. Addressing the loneliness epidemic 

Loneliness is a growing public health concern, but counselors can help clients examine the underlying cause of this feeling and learn to rebuild their connections to others. Read the full article. 

#5. Does your personality make you more vulnerable to abuse? 

Avery Neal, PhD, LPC, shares four personality characteristics that make a person more vulnerable to psychological abuse. Read the full article. 

#4. Helping youth who self-harm 

As increasing numbers of youth turn to self-injury, counselors can offer empathy while guiding young clients to better tolerate their emotions and find healthier ways to cope. Read the full article. 

#3. Generational trauma: Uncovering and interrupting the cycle 

Counselors who understand the complexities of generational trauma can help clients acknowledge the role it plays in their lives, find healing and break the cycle. Read the full article 

#2. A closer look at the mental health provider shortage 

The U.S. is facing a significant shortage of mental health professionals, and solutions to this shortage are often as complex as the reasons behind it. Read the full article. 

#1. ‘Child abuse in disguise’: The impact of parental alienation on families 

Parent-child relationships are challenging and complex, so it’s no surprise that our most-read article was on navigating family dynamics that can emerge during divorce. Read the full article. 

  


What was your favorite article of 2023? What would you like to see Counseling Today cover in 2024? Leave a reply in the comment section below or email us at ct@counseling.org.


An integral model for using empathy in counseling

By Arthur J. Clark December 22, 2023

A black man wearing glasses sits across from another person. We only see the back of the other person who has a yellow shirt and shoulder-length brown hair. The man is sitting on a couch.

My July/Shutterstock.com

Although empathy is considered a critical aspect of effective counseling, confusion about its definition and practical application often prevents it from being fully utilized in counseling. Contemporary counseling textbooks, for example, vary in how they discuss this topic. Some authors present empathy as a clinical skill, whereas others simply equate it to reflecting feelings. Still others align empathy with a small number of techniques such as immediacy or self-disclosure.

Narrow and superficial conceptualizations of empathy are common among scholars and practitioners in counseling and related human service fields. Defining it as “walking in a client’s shoes” or “understanding an individual’s world” seems simplistic and shallow. Even more clinical conceptions of this term such as “grasping a client’s cognitive and affective experiences” fail to capture the nuances and subtleties of empathic phenomena.

Thus, the current definitions of empathy in counseling literature do not always articulate the fullness and richness of the process. In addition, when discussing empathy, counselors and scholars often focus on the client’s frame of reference and rarely mention the internal experience of the counselor in this interaction.

The lack of clarity around how to use empathy in counseling practice is a missed opportunity to pursue its unrealized potential. Empathy, broadly speaking, involves understanding clients and fostering emotional connections. Maintaining these essential qualities as a function of empathy across a wide range of therapeutic skills enlivens and enriches the counseling process.

After several years of studying empathy in the counseling experience, I have developed an integral model of empathy — one that captures the complexities of this process and incorporates how it affects counselors as well as clients. This model defines empathy as a counselor’s attunement with the feelings and meanings of another individual through the engagement of subjective, objective and interpersonal empathic modalities.

Integral model of empathy

When using the empathy model, a counselor relies on what I refer to as an empathic use of self. In sustained interactions with a client, a counselor’s empathic use of self involves engaging subjective, objective and interpersonal modes of empathy through an integral framework. In the subjective mode, a practitioner resonates with internal sensibilities that momentarily connect with the lived experience of a client. The objective position mobilizes the counselor’s reasoning capacities by bringing to mind referential sources of knowledge and accumulated treatment experiences as a means of empathically understanding an individual. Moving into the interpersonal posture of empathy fosters an evolving client awareness in a relational context and informs the execution of a wide scope of therapeutic skills.

Each of the three empathy modalities has identifiable qualities that are effectively applied on an individual basis. At the same time, the empathic modes are complementary and are more therapeutically impactful when used through an integral framework. A counselor’s engagement of a particular empathy stance depends on its saliency in immediate interactions with a client. Refining ways of knowing a client within the tripartite structure involves a cognitively complex process. In this pursuit, the ability to differentiate and integrate multiple perspectives gives rise to a deeper and more coherent understanding of an individual.

Of course, facilitating the integral model of empathy is subject to reflective practice and development. The goal in counseling is to work toward effectively discerning modes of empathy and integrating them through an empathic use of self. Ultimately, this endeavor seeks to cultivate a more empathically attuned and effective counselor.

Subjective empathy

Subjective empathy allows counselors to momentarily experience what it is like to be a client. Drawing on a practitioner’s common humanity, identification evokes a heightened sense of what it is like to be a client on a partial and temporary basis. Identifying with the joys and sorrows of another person, even when the experiences are culturally different, engenders a perceptible kinship found in empathy. For example, an African American client may express feelings of hurt and dismay when speaking about a recent incident of discrimination in therapy. Although a white counselor does not have personal experience with dealing with racial oppression and discrimination, they could identify with the client to a limited extent based on social encounters of distress and rejection.

The capacity of a counselor’s imagination triggers mental images and emotional reactions when listening to evocative narratives of a client. A practitioner’s imaginal activity connects with the lived experience of an individual, including envisioning potential outcomes that seem vague or distant to a client. Consider, for instance, a young adult who is in treatment for substance use disorders. In a despairing tone, this client recounts how challenging it is to avoid spending time with a friend who has a serious drug issue. To better understand this situation, the counselor imagines the client walking near the neighborhood where his friend lives and pausing on a street corner. A few minutes later, the counselor fleetingly experiences a visual image of the client in the future voicing feelings of accomplishment for being drug free for an extended period.

Drawing from a counselor’s life and counseling experience, intuition involves a rapid way of empathic knowing that is outside the realm of reasoning. With an immediate awareness and a sense of certainty, a practitioner recognizes explanatory patterns of client functioning that were previously unclear or questionable. In an assessment, for example, a client may recall an early recollection when using a projective technique in session. Almost simultaneously, the counselor intuits the theme or main idea of the individual’s first memory. Although the theme of the memory emerges rapidly, counselors are in a position to verify it through objective and interpersonal ways of knowing.

Embodiment is a more visceral approach to empathy. Through an activation of embodiment in counseling, a practitioner periodically experiences sensations rooted in the body that contribute to empathically understanding a client. When an individual manifests physiological signs of tension, lethargy, relief or other somatic expressions, the counselor briefly reacts with similar bodily felt states. For instance, a client may express that they feel tired most of the day and often lack energy. As the client describes sitting on their couch watching television for hours at a time, the counselor begins to experience a sense of fatigue.

A practitioner’s sensibilities of subjective empathy resonate in personal exchanges with a client. However, implications of the capacities only become therapeutically meaningful when a counselor embraces their potential to cultivate an experiential way of knowing a person.

Objective empathy

With a shift to an objective empathy mode, a counselor’s empathic use of self becomes more focused on theoretically informed knowledge and accrued counseling experiences that are fundamentally different from the experiential quality of subjective empathy. From a broader perspective, however, converging subjective and objective modalities enhances a reasoned view of a client in lived contexts. While maintaining an awareness of subjective reactions with a client, a practitioner steps back and more dispassionately accesses conceptual material relating to an objective standpoint.

Counselors can draw from their knowledge of diverse counseling orientations when using objective empathy. From the therapeutic tradition of reality therapy and choice theory, quality world encompasses internal images of what matters most to a person in their life. Take for example an early adolescent who comes to counseling because of failing grades. The school counselor is aware that the client highly values spending time with friends, riding a skateboard and wanting to own a motorcycle. Expressing an empathic grasp of the individual’s quality world is essential before attempting to expand perceptual foci to include academic performance in school.

Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that involve automatic and habitual responses of a person to perceived threat. Empathically understanding a client’s maladaptive defenses contributes to strategically processing ingrained patterns. In a treatment context, for instance, a client may discuss volatile personal events in muted emotional tones. The counselor recognizes the client is using isolation as a defense mechanism in which the client severs verbalized experiences from associated affect. This empathic awareness enables the counselor to effectively work with the individual through guidelines relating to the meaning and modification of the threat response.

Through an empathic use of self, counselors can strengthen not only theoretical orientations but also clinical aspects such as diagnosis, multicultural dimensions and trauma-informed approaches. Clinicians use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to gather evidence-based data to help them with assessment and diagnosis of mental health disorders. Some counselors, particularly those with a humanistic orientation, criticize the DSM because it categorizes individuals through labeling. However, it is possible to blend reputable sources of knowledge with humanizing and contextual perspectives through an integration of objective and subjective empathy modalities. Consider the example of a client who is in counseling for behavior consistent with a major depressive disorder. Although the counselor is able to discern symptoms of depression using the DSM and the client’s functioning, the process lacks context and does not account for the individual’s lived experience. After the counselor listens to the client’s stories through a subjective empathy posture, however, what it is like to be depressed day after day resonates with the counselor. Thus, combining experiential and reasoning ways of knowing generates inclusive, richer and potentially more accurate diagnostic formulations.

Interpersonal empathy

Although the subjective and objective modes are vital for empathically understanding a client, the integral model is not fully realized until counselors also engage in the interpersonal mode. An interpersonal position emphasizes a sense of grasping the phenomenological experiencing of a client and formulating and executing a wide range of therapeutic skills. When moving into an interpersonal empathy posture, a counselor is aware of perceptions of a client that materialize from subjective and objective empathy perspectives that inform and shape counseling change.

From an interpersonal stance, a counselor accesses an array of empathy-based stage and strategic skills. Stage skills are identifiable in three phases of the counseling process: relationship, integration and accomplishment stages. In the relationship stage, relational skills foster an empathic understanding and emotional connection with a client. Relational skills include reflection of feelings, reflection of meaning, encouragement, immediacy, questions, silence and self-disclosure. For example, a counselor may ask open questions to learn more about the client: “What is it like to be in a public setting (such as in class) when your mind wanders?” or “What did you hope would happen when you asked for help?” When conveying a question from an interpersonal empathy mode, the counselor attunes to a client’s nonverbal expressions. Using an objective empathy standpoint, the practitioner also draws from counseling guidelines and resources on the effective use of questions. And when the counselor shifts to a subjective empathy stance, the client’s reactions to the question resonates with the counselor.

In the integration stage, integrative skills facilitate an awareness of client dysfunction and foster more purposeful ways of being. The integrative skills include confrontation, reframing, cognitive restructuring and interpretation. Reframing, for instance, involves inviting a client to explore alternate perceptions or perspectives to a particular problem or situation. After having developed an empathic way of knowing the client, the counselor suggests alternative, yet meaningful, ways of viewing problems and situations. From a subjective empathy posture, the counselor listens to the client’s story in context and recognizes dysfunctional and unhealthy thoughts. Shifting to an objective empathy position, the practitioner brings to mind more adaptive viewpoints. Using an interpersonal empathy mode, the counselor conveys an alternative and more purposeful perspective and guides the client in effectively reframing the negative thought or belief.

The accomplishment stage emphasizes an empathic focus on engendering change and consolidating gains from the previous phases of counseling. At this point in the counseling process, the counselor has already forged a deeper relational connection with the individual and the client is typically ready to make a concerted effort to change. Accomplishable skills that help clients move toward change include the Adlerian techniques of breaking it down, catching oneself and acting “as if.” For example, if a client views a task as daunting because of its perceived magnitude, then the practitioner suggests “breaking it down” by segmenting the undertaking into smaller and more doable parts. In the interpersonal empathy mode, the counselor introduces the concept of breaking it down, while also being aware of application guidelines involving steps or procedures from an objective empathy stance. In turn, a subjective empathy posture resonates with the counselor as the client details action plans relating to segmenting the task into more manageable parts.

Beyond the stage skills, strategic skills, including methodological conceptions and practice formulations, are among the most critical and challenging competencies for a counselor to navigate in counseling. Methodological conceptions include immediate and extended perceptions of a client, content and process, first- and second-order change, schema theory, multicultural dimensions, empathy and sympathy distinctions, and stages of the therapeutic process. Consider, for instance, first- and second-order change. First-order change stresses attention to immediate problems or symptoms of a client in situational contexts. This might involve issues such as divorce or separation, extended unemployment, academic failure or other distressful events. In contrast, second-order change focuses on ingrained and dysfunctional client perspectives or schemas that contribute to distress or impaired functioning. Without a preliminary empathic understanding of a client, decisions on the type of change required may result in flawed treatment planning and a misdirection in the counseling process.

The strategic skills associated with practice formulations include response to threat, countertransference, alliance ruptures, dream work, nonverbal communication, practitioner distress and trauma, and individual assessment. For example, a practitioner may make remarks that a client experiences as offensive or threatening. This leads to an alliance rupture because it triggers strains and tensions between the counselor and client. When the counselor takes a subjective empathy stance, the client’s distressful reactions resonate with the counselor. By recognizing the relational impact of the alliance break from an objective empathy perspective, the practitioner also realizes they must also assume some personal responsibility for the infraction. Shifting to an interpersonal posture, the counselor communicates a lack of empathic awareness for the insensitive comments.

An ongoing journey

Carl Rogers was well-known for his work on empathy, and toward the end of his life, I had the privilege to attend one of his public lectures where he spoke about wanting to know more about empathy. I remember being confused by Rogers’ remarks at the time. He was an expert on this topic, so why would he want or need to know more? How could there be more for him to even understand?

But Rogers’ words began to take on new meaning as I continued my quest to better understand empathy in counseling. He reminded me that learning about empathy is not only an ongoing process but also an essential one because it helps us realize empathy’s potential to engender psychological healing. For me, playing a small part in this continuing journey is both gratifying and humbling.


headshot of Arthur J. Clark

 

Arthur J. Clark is an ACA member and professor emeritus at St. Lawrence University. He is the author of Empathy and Mental Health: An Integral Model for Developing Therapeutic Skills in Counseling and Psychotherapy (2023) and Empathy in Counseling and Psychotherapy: Perspectives and Practices (2007). Contact him at aclark@stlawu.edu.

 


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.

The balance of innovation and ethics with artificial intelligence

By Russell Fulmer December 19, 2023

blue background with blue, purple, pink, and white strand of lines and lights indicating neural networks and technology

amiak/Shutterstock.com

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become more mainstream, especially with the launch of ChatGPT in November 2022. Today’s AI creates, augments, modifies, replaces and encroaches, but it also intrigues and startles us for many reasons, including its propensity to trespass on territory once considered uniquely human. The implications of this incursion (or opportunity, depending on one’s perspective) are immense.

Because AI is powerful, it often draws the attention of governing bodies and policymakers, such as governments, or in our case, ACA. Earlier this year, ACA President Edil Torres Rivera created an AI task force charged with creating statements and recommendations to practicing counselors and for clients about the use of AI. Those documents are forthcoming. Kent Butler, ACA past president, also appointed a task force to explore AI in the counseling profession during his presidential term. Both presidents should be commended for recognizing AI as a force worthy of address.

AI regulation is actively discussed internationally, including in the United States, European Union and China, and in professional associations across the globe. The effort to ensure both safety and a climate of scientific progress is a complicated one involving many moving parts. A central question is: How are innovation and ethics balanced? In this article, I discuss some advantages and objections to AI regulatory oversight at a governmental and associational level.

Questionable motives

In May, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman testified before Congress recommending regulation for AI. Shortly thereafter, Altman warned that his company would cease operations in Europe if the European Union overregulated, a notice he later rescinded. Then during the AI Summit in September, tech executives convened in a closed-door meeting led by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to discuss AI regulation. Reports suggest that during the summit, which was predominantly attended by CEOs and politicians with a collective net worth estimated at $550 billion, there was a loose endorsement of the concept of AI regulation. I invite you to ponder the motivations of the people in that room in light of the information I discuss in this article.

Counseling and regulation

Our field is no stranger to regulation. The ACA Code of Ethics qualifies as a form of oversight. Counselors actively lobby the government, often for matters related to money. For example, counselors were instrumental in passing the Mental Health Access Improvement Act (S. 828/H.R. 432), which allows counselors to receive reimbursement from Medicare. The passage of licensure laws is another example of a time when counseling and government overlap; our accrediting body, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, is also intertwined in this process.

We know that regulation happens, but is it always a good idea? Are there drawbacks? These are hard questions to answer, and a case can be made, using ethics and efficacy studies, that there are pros and cons to regulation. Let’s delve into why AI regulation is important, consider some reasons for exercising caution and highlight a few areas that may fall under either category. (Please note that this is not an exclusive list.)

Reasons to regulate

There are three areas where regulation may help to ensure the protection of the communities we serve: confidentiality, environmental impact and bias.

Given the pivotal role of confidentiality in counseling ethics and the substantial use of personal data by AI, potential breaches of confidentiality are certainly a valid concern. AI regulation, however, may help ensure data security and the protection of sensitive information. Two essential regulations include instituting a cybersecurity regulatory structure (for comprehensive protection) and securing client privacy and confidentiality (for client protection).

An underrecognized reason to regulate is the environmental impact of AI and technology in general. AI has a large carbon and water footprint, yet it concurrently has the capacity to help address climate change, such as through the analysis of climate datasets, smart agriculture and energy-efficient urban planning. According to the 2023 preprint paper “Making AI less ‘thirsty’: Uncovering and addressing the secret water footprint of AI models” (posted on arXiv), training GPT-3 consumed 700,000 liters of freshwater. The researchers also found that ChatGPT consumes the equivalent of a 16-ounce water bottle every time someone asks it five to 50 prompts or questions. The 2019 paper “Energy and policy considerations for deep learning in NLP,” published in the Proceedings of the 57th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics, showed that emissions from training an AI model surpassed 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. Regulations may help curtail some of the harmful environmental effects of AI.

AI algorithms are also known harbingers of bias. Bias usually occurs from the design and machine learning training of the AI. For example, if the computer is trained using datasets that underrepresent an ethnic group, then the computer will follow programed rules, or instructions, that may discriminate against that group. The result may be that a person is misidentified, misdiagnosed or suffers from an assortment of other unfair or harmful practices. Thus, regulation could help protect vulnerable groups. Many government agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, already have laws prohibiting unfair or deceptive practices, including the sale or use of racially biased algorithms.

Caution against regulation

Theoretically, regulations should improve quality and safety, but in many cases, there is a surprising lack of evidence that it actually works. Take licensure, for example, which is a form of regulation. We hope that licensure ensures high standards and competence, but if we ask the question, “Is there evidence of safety and quality improvement because of licensure enactment?” then the answer for many fields is no. For counseling, the research is incomplete. Few if any experiments exist that look at improvements in safety and quality of counseling service because of licensure. However, many articles attest to the diligence of counselors in pursuing licensure and how this process enables counselors to be paid and establishes counseling as a legitimate profession.

Regulation, in fact, can serve as a barrier to entry and come with a high opportunity cost. Large companies often handle regulatory burdens better than startups, and these companies are known to lobby Congress to enact regulations for the purpose of keeping competitors out of the market. Meeting regulatory requirements also takes time and resources. The trade-off, or what never came to fruition because of the time spent meeting regulatory requirements, represents an opportunity cost. There is a hidden cost to every decision. As I write this, I am listening to “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra. The opportunity cost is every other song I could be listening to.

Regulation, especially overregulation, means that advancements will happen someplace else. Peter Diamandis, an aerospace entrepreneur and founder of several high-tech companies, captured the sentiment well: “If the government regulates against use of drones or stem cells or artificial intelligence, all that means is that the work and the research leave the borders of that country and go someplace else.” When applied to the counseling field, this implies that excessive regulation of AI use by counselors (or a lack of participation in the AI arena) could result in psychology, social work and other mental health disciplines assuming the responsibilities and research initiatives. I’m aware that some may try to counter this argument by saying, “Well, good. If psychology jumps off a cliff, should we, too?” Nonetheless, if counseling shirks AI, then someone else could reap the value that AI offers.

Free speech, jobs and AI

A contentious point in the recent writer’s strike by the Writers Guild of America highlights an ongoing issue in the AI regulatory question: the impact of AI on jobs. The strike ended once they reached an agreement that, among other things, prohibits a company from using AI to write or rewrite scripts. Speculation has long run rampant that AI will automate jobs out of existence (for humans) to the point that mass unemployment ensues. Solutions for this possibility include regulation or a universal basic income. Presently, it makes sense for career counselors to include automation and AI as considerations in their models and be prepared to deal with how the anticipated increase in automation will affect the populations they serve.

Regulation also brings up another issue: questions of free speech. What happens when an imperative for free speech, a tendency toward misinformation and the speedy acceleration of disinformation via AI get thrown in a bag? A debate, that’s what. Recall that if misinformation means that a person accidentally got it wrong, then disinformation signifies that they meant to get it wrong. AI is good at both misinformation and disinformation depending on who and what created the AI, their intention, their attentiveness to ensuring fairness and diversity, or even their naivete. Of course, when permitted (i.e., when people are free to pursue solutions through machine learning), AI is capable of producing breakthroughs in science, medicine and, potentially, our field as well. However, regulation around AI in the domain of speech remains tricky and controversial.

Finding a balance

Categorically, the major options are regulation or no regulation for AI. The actuality, or what will likely happen, is probably somewhere in between. Sometimes, intervention is precipitated by a publicized event, maybe one in which people unfortunately get hurt. Counselors are bound by principles that might conflict in relation to AI regulation. For instance, the World Health Organization estimates that there is a global shortage of 4.3 million mental health workers, a number expected to reach 10 million by 2030. The shortage is more pronounced in low- and lower-middle-income countries. If AI can assist in providing mental health support, yet is curtailed by excessive regulation, then perhaps the principles of justice and beneficence are violated. Alternatively, unleashing AI capable of bias and unfairness also violates justice, not to mention nonmaleficence.

The question of how to balance innovation and ethics is a hot one that may intensify in the coming years. With each milestone, AI seems to encroach further into human domains, and this pattern may increase the call for regulation. Staying abreast of developments in a fast-paced field is demanding but may prove valuable in a future where AI’s prominence grows.


headshot of Russell Fulmer

 

Russell Fulmer is a professor and director of graduate counseling programs at Husson University. He is the chair of the ACA Task Force on AI. Contact him at fulmerr@husson.edu.

 


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.

Advocacy Update: Your vote is your voice 

By Guila Todd December 18, 2023

As we end 2023 and look toward a new year of new opportunities, it is important that we reflect on the events that captured the headlines this year, including labor strikes, controversial U.S. Supreme Court decisions, congressional upheaval and international crises. The issues of the current year usually shape the political landscape of the next year, particularly as we move into a congressional and presidential election cycle. A little less than a year is left until Election Day 2024, and this would be a great opportunity for you to begin focusing on the issues, considering how you would like to make your voice heard and becoming involved in advocacy efforts that support your profession and community.

One of the easiest ways to effect change and help to create a lasting impact in your community is to vote. If you think that just one vote in a sea of millions can’t make much of a difference, consider some of the closest elections in our history. In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore narrowly lost the Electoral College vote to George W. Bush (266–271) because of a difference of about 600 votes in Florida. In 2016, although Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by nearly 3 million, Donald Trump voters in key “swing” states helped to gain enough electoral votes to win him the presidency.

If you are not registered to vote — or are not sure if you are already registered — visit vote.gov to make sure that you can cast your ballot on Election Day. Your vote may not directly elect the president, but if you join with enough voters in your district or county, your vote will matter when it comes to electoral results.

We realize that not everyone is able to vote, but there are still things that you can do to become involved and make your voice heard:

  • Talk to people in your community. Even if you cannot vote, you can still voice opinions on social media, in your school or local newspaper and in other public forums. You never know who might be listening.
  • Volunteer. If you support a particular candidate, you can work on their campaign by participating in phone banks, doing door-to-door outreach or volunteering at campaign headquarters. Your work can help get candidates elected.

ACA often calls on you and others in the counseling community to engage with congressional leaders on issues that affect the counseling profession. It is critical that you let those in Congress know the importance of legislation that will yield their constituents greater access to behavioral health services and other resources.

The ACA Government Affairs and Public Policy team is here to provide you with tips on how to schedule meetings with your senators or representatives, offer insight into our legislative priorities on which to advocate, and provide necessary resources that will allow you to feel confident going into these meetings.

Every day, legislators make decisions on your behalf — without hearing from you. You should be shaping policy decisions when it comes to legislation that affects licensed professional counselors and others in your community. Legislators pay attention when they hear from their constituents. And if they don’t hear from you, they may make uninformed decisions. Our primary goal is to create counselor-advocates. At ACA, we aim to empower our members by equipping them with the tools needed to successfully advocate on the federal, state and local levels. We encourage members to recruit and engage other counselors, which will in turn increase our presence on Capitol Hill. We want to create volunteer leaders by providing members with the educational currency that is crucial to advancing our legislation.

ACA is committed to advocating on behalf of the profession and advancing all counseling specialties. Please let your congressional leaders know who you are, what you do and the importance of the counseling community. Letting them know about legislation that is important to you would greatly help our efforts. You don’t have to come to Washington to contact your House or Senate representatives. You can meet with them in your own community by attending a town hall meeting or scheduling a meeting at their local in-state office. If you would like to be an agent for change and support ACA’s advocacy efforts, please contact the ACA Government Affairs and Public Policy team at advocacy@counseling.org to find out how you can make a difference.


Guila Todd is the government affairs manager for ACA. Contact him at gtodd@counseling.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.

ACA participates in White Ribbon Day in Congress

By Samantha Cooper December 13, 2023

Attendees of the White Ribbon Day in Congress event on Dec. 1, 2023, take the White Ribbon pledge

Attendees of the White Ribbon Day in Congress event on Dec. 1 take the White Ribbon pledge to never commit, excuse or stay silent about sexual harassment, sexual assault or domestic violence.

ACA partnered with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to support the White Ribbon VA campaign, an initiative that calls for the end of sexual harassment, sexual assault and intimate partner violence across the VA. This collaboration raises awareness of the unique challenges veterans face related to mental health, trauma and intimate partner violence and provides resources and support for counselors working with this population.

ACA CEO Shawn Boynes speaks at the White Ribbon Day in Congress

ACA CEO Shawn Boynes speaks at the White Ribbon Day in Congress.

On Dec. 1, ACA CEO Shawn Boynes spoke at the White Ribbon Day in Congress event held in Washington, D.C. Boynes discussed the important role counselors play in supporting victims of domestic violence, including providing survivors of domestic abuse with a safe, nonjudgmental space to express their feelings, fears and concerns and helping them develop safety plans. He also highlighted how the partnership between ACA and the VA benefits both counselors and veterans because it gives counselors access to necessary resources that will help them provide culturally appropriate care to clients.

Veronika Mudra, CEO of White Ribbon USA, at the White Ribbon VA event

Veronika Mudra, CEO of White Ribbon USA, talks about the importance of the White Ribbon campaign.

Other speakers included VA Secretary Denis R. McDonough; Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania; Anthony Estreet, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers; Veronika Mudra, CEO of White Ribbon USA; Katherine McGuire, chief advocacy officer at the American Psychological Association; and Cristina Maza, foreign policy and defense correspondent at the National Journal.

ACA CEO Shawn Boynes and Anthony Estreet, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers

ACA CEO Shawn Boynes and Anthony Estreet, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers, talk with other attendees.

The White Ribbon VA campaign was inspired by the global White Ribbon organization, which was founded in Canada in 1991 with the goal to end gendered violence toward women and girls. It now operates in 60 countries across the globe.

Shawn Boynes, ACA CEO, and Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia

Shawn Boynes, ACA CEO, shakes hands with Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia.

ACA is currently advocating for several bills that would support survivors of domestic violence and make it easier for veterans to access mental health resources. These bills include the Vet Centers for Mental Health Act of 2023 (H.R. 733), Health Families Act (S. 1664/ H.R. 3409), and Safe Leave for Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking Act (H.R. 2996). Learn more about these bills and other legislation related to mental health at www.counseling.org/government-affairs/actioncenter.

ACA staff at White Ribbon VA campaign in 2023

ACA staff enjoy the event. From left to right: Brian D. Banks, chief government affairs and public policy officer, Guila Todd, government affairs manager; Syndey Sinclair, government affairs coordinator; Stacy Brooks Whatley, chief communications and marketing officer; and Shawn Boynes, CEO.