Tag Archives: advocate

Counselors, represent!

By Carol Z.A. McGinnis November 13, 2019

Tragic events tend to mobilize local and national news reports with questions and concerns that relate directly to the work that we do as professional counselors. Shootings, disasters, immigration issues, and political fallout are just a few examples that come to mind at the time of this writing.

What is particularly troubling to me is the lack of counseling expertise represented in the news in response to these events. Instead, we often endure ad hoc theories from professionals with no counseling experience who errantly connect tragic events to mental health issues. These individuals may mean well, but they make broad statements that connect video games with shootings, promote mental health policy that is rooted in subjective ambivalent “right” versus “wrong” societal thinking (rather than empirical research), and engage in ignorant blaming or scapegoating that leads to even more conflict and mental strife for the general population. What better time for licensed professional counselors to provide empirical context for these issues and offer hope for healing when it is needed most?

At the same time, I think we can largely blame ourselves as counselors for this gap in the national consciousness. We have fantastic representation in our state and national counseling associations and plenty of empirical research on topics of interest, yet we are not insistent on providing that content to our communities. As counselors, we have been trained to advocate through appropriate channels that include citizen-driven activities to challenge federal and state legislation, yet we have not learned how to promote our profession in the times we are most needed. Alfred Adler and Carl Rogers both held a global vision for our profession that included change and advocacy for the community at large. So, where do we start?

As a whole, the general public would find it useful to know a little more about what we do as professional counselors. People need to know that we are trained to probe more deeply about family dynamics, to inquire about the presence of guns and the use of prescription or illegal drugs, and to listen for evidence of strained relationships that may need immediate attention. We need to share that we have expertise in evaluating suicidal thoughts and potential homicidal intentions and that we often determine neglect or abuse for mandated reporting. People often worry about the ramifications of going to a counselor; our presence in the news media can go a long way toward easing those concerns.

After a tragic event occurs, these basic counselor skills can be invaluable for parents worried about their teenagers, spouses concerned about the safety of their mate, and adult children fretting about the welfare of their elderly parents. We can provide confidentiality that may be just the ticket when social concerns, political stressors, and environmental issues seem to be ever-present. As professional counselors, we are qualified to share insights on what symptoms to look for in a troubled family member, what signs might be particularly worrisome when a child withdraws, and how to find help when a particular mental health issue is occurring. It is information such as this that often seems to be lacking when the larger community is hurting.

 

Action steps

You may be asking: What can I do? Here are a few suggestions to get started.

First, take a moment to consider your particular skills and expertise. Do you work with people who struggle with depression? What information could you share publicly that might help others to cope, have hope, or seek help from a professional counselor? Alternatively, if your experience is with anxiety, what compassionate message might you share for people who are afraid to go to the mall or to the movies? If you work with people through illness or grief and loss, consider what messages you might be able to offer when the community at large is suffering with a particular loss. As a licensed professional counselor, you have knowledge, awareness and skills that would be tremendously useful in times of strife. It is just a matter of getting that content “out there” in the public.

Next, consider how you may want to advertise your availability to news outlets and the general public. One way to do this is to write an email or a letter to your local news station to identify yourself and the work that you do. Be brief in your communication, pointing to the specific issue or circumstance for which you may be most helpful. Include a business card or a link to a website if you have one. This is not the time to expound on your many research interests or on why you became a counselor. Be concise, clear and direct in describing what you specialize in so that news outlets can easily place you into a resource category.

It helps tremendously to have a professional Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn account that can connect your expertise to an active news media database or digital rolodex. Give some time and attention to this virtual representation to ensure that you are abiding by the ACA Code of Ethics. Consider locking down your settings to avoid inadvertent negligence on the part of potential clients who may try to direct message you. As stated in Standard H.6.a. in the ACA Code of Ethics, it is important to maintain a professional virtual presence that is separate from your personal presence online. It may be tempting to connect your professional site to your personal account, but resist this temptation.

Your professionally oriented social media sites should be designed to help local and national news media locate you should a specific need arise. Likewise, make it easy for the general public to find pertinent information on your credentials, expertise, and research interests. These details should clearly inform the general public about counseling and the specific work that you do, with special attention given to technology/social media competency (Standard H.1.a.) and your social media policy (Standard H.6.b.). Note how you may be of assistance to the community and the means for contacting you as a news source. Be sure to “friend” or “follow” all pertinent news outlets and local organizations that may need your help, and then take time to keep up with any interactions that occur with these entities.

Also, take a moment to consider what populations or groups in your area might especially appreciate a free workshop or presentation on the topic in which you specialize. Advocacy often begins in your local area, and people are more likely to ask questions about the counseling profession when they have the opportunity to get to know you better. Churches, synagogues and mosques tend to be places where disheartened and disenfranchised people go to get support. Offering to discuss your services in these places can open up new opportunities for the general public to understand what you do. Public clubs, parent groups, and schools may also grant you the opportunity to speak on a specific topic. Once these populations have the opportunity to learn about your work, they can also advocate for inclusion of a counseling perspective from their news sources.

If someone is searching for you in your area of practice, how will they find you? Psychology Today offers a “find a therapist” option that is helpful to the general public, but it incurs a monthly fee that some counselors may find distasteful. Another option to consider is starting a podcast, blog or streaming channel to bring your professional identity into the public eye. Although these options take time and energy, the results can include bringing your expertise to the consciousness of your immediate community. The creation of a website can also be useful as a less dynamic online platform where these other social media delivery systems can be “housed” in a central location. A unique domain for this purpose can be purchased and maintained with minimal cost and low effort. Community websites that provide free postings for mental health professionals at the county or city level can also be helpful. You may need to dig to find these, but they do exist.

Finally, don’t be shy about introducing yourself as a professional counselor when you are “off duty” and, if possible, take time to volunteer for an Advocacy Day sponsored by most state branches of the American Counseling Association. There are very helpful tips and tools located on the ACA website that provide direction on how to interact with local, state and national legislators, and steps for developing ethical social media sites. Another useful suggestion is to include a pertinent hashtag with your counselor postings (e.g., #CounselorsAdvocate) that can bring attention to that topic. Be creative in using hashtags that are specific to your knowledge, awareness and skills (e.g., #counselorforanger, #askacounselor, #counselinganxiety, #counselorgriefandloss). Connect with similarly named social media groups, and offer your availability in times of community tragedy.

In short, when tragic or troubling events occur, take a moment to think about your own skills, and then reach out to offer your perspective as a professional counselor to the news media. We often hear about the impact of public happenings in clients’ counseling sessions and may feel that we cannot act outside of that environment without sacrificing client trust. But there is a way to do this in an ethical manner. Remember, we don’t have to “take sides” on a controversial topic to provide much-needed positive messages to our communities. It may take courage for us to make this happen, but it is important for us to promote what we do as counselors when the people in our communities need it most.

 

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Carol Z.A. McGinnis is a licensed clinical professional counselor, national certified counselor and board certified telemental health provider. She is associate professor and clinical mental health track coordinator for Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She is currently president-elect of the Maryland Counseling Association and specializes in research that focuses on anger processing (www.anger.works) and videogaming. Contact her at cmcginnis@messiah.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.

ACA advocates for Medicare bill on Capitol Hill

By Bethany Bray July 20, 2017

ACA leaders gather for a day of advocacy on Capitol Hill on July 18. (Photo by Paul Sakuma)

A bill that would allow professional counselors to be reimbursed for the treatment of clients under Medicare has been introduced in the House of Representatives, and more than 100 counseling professionals added to its momentum by advocating in person on Capitol Hill earlier this week in an event organized by the American Counseling Association (ACA).

Currently, Medicare does not reimburse licensed professional counselors (LPCs) for the treatment they provide for older adults who carry this federal insurance coverage. However, ACA is advocating for a bill that would add LPCs to the list of providers who can be reimbursed under Medicare – a list that already includes clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists. H.R. 3032 was introduced last month by Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) in the House of Representatives, and a companion Senate bill is expected to be introduced shortly by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

H.R. 3032 currently has three co-sponsors: Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). If passed, the measure would add an estimated 165,000 mental health providers to the Medicare network, providing much-needed access to care for older adults in the United States.

On July 18, 125 ACA members from across the United States visited the Capitol Hill offices of their senators and House representatives to ask for support for the Medicare bill. The counselors were gathered in Washington, D.C., for ACA’s annual Institute for Leadership Training (ILT), a four-day conference of education sessions, trainings and business meetings for leaders in the counseling profession.

“In the United States, exercising our First Amendment rights under the Constitution is vitally important to ensure that we have a strong and responsive government,” said ACA Director of Government Affairs Art Terrazas. “I am so happy that we were able to help ACA leaders from across the country meet and speak with their federal lawmakers about the needs of the counseling profession.”

Amanda DeDiego, an ACA member from Casper, Wyoming, talks with Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) in his Capitol Hill office. (Photo by Bethany Bray)

Amanda DeDiego, an ACA member from Casper, Wyoming, met with Sen. Barrasso to thank him for his upcoming sponsorship of the Medicare bill. Barrasso expressed his support for the issue, saying “the needs are great” in Wyoming. For example, the average life expectancy on Native American reservations is 47 years – decades below that of Wyoming’s general population – and issues related to mental health are part of the cause, Barrasso said.

A delegation from the American Counseling Association of New York (ACA-NY) met with staff in the office of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to ask for co-sponsorship of the bill that Barrasso soon will introduce in the Senate.

ACA-NY leaders Summer Reiner, Allison Parry-Gurak and Tiphanie Gonzalez (ACA-NY president) explained that LPCs have training and graduate coursework that is equal to or exceeding that of the social workers and other mental health practitioners currently covered under Medicare. In the rural parts of New York, a dearth of mental health providers already exists, and that number shrinks further for people who rely on Medicare coverage for treatment, Reiner explained.

“There’s a huge need,” said Reiner, an associate professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Brockport and ACA-NY past president. “There are more than enough clients to go around, and we all have a different perspective for a reason.”

“We’re very much cousins in the exact same family, with different specialties,” agreed Gonzalez, an assistant professor at SUNY Oswego.

ACA members who visited legislative offices on July 18 also advocated for full funding of the Title Four block grant as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The grants, some of which goes to support school counseling programs, were funded at $400 million, or just 25 percent of the $1.6 billion that was authorized this year. President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 recommends no funding for the block grant at all.

Terrazas, in a training session held prior to the Day on the Hill event, urged the assembled ACA leaders to follow up with their legislators, stay informed and continue pushing for issues that are vital to the counseling profession.

“Advocacy doesn’t start and end with just this day [on Capitol Hill] tomorrow; it is year-round,” said Terrazas.

 

ACA members from Louisiana speak with staff in the office of Congressman Steve Scalise (R-La.) on July 18. (Photo by Bethany Bray)

 

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By the numbers: ACA Day on the Hill 2017

125 ACA members from 37 states, plus the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, visited 74 Senate offices and 95 House offices

ACA President Gerard Lawson also met with

  • James Paluskiewicz, staff, House Committee on Energy and Commerce
  • Nick Uehlecke, staff, House Committee on Ways and Means
  • Allison Steil, deputy chief of staff, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)
  • Wendell Primus, office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

 

Cynthia Goehring and Sarah Shortbull, ACA members from South Dakota, met with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) on July 18. (Photo by Paul Sakuma)

 

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ACA awards Murray, Lieu

ACA has recognized Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) with an Illumination Award for their work against harmful conversion therapy. Lieu and Murray have introduced bills in the House and Senate, respectively, that would classify commercial conversion therapy and advertising that claims to change sexual orientation and gender identity as fraud.

An ACA delegation met Murray on July 18 to recognize her on Capitol Hill; Lieu was previously honored at last month’s Illuminate symposium, a three-day conference in Washington, D.C., focused on the intersection of counseling and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer (LGBTQ) issues.

Sen. Patty Murray (center left, in grey suit) is given an ACA Illumination Award on July 18 by ACA Past President Catherine Roland, current ACA President Gerard Lawson and ACA President-elect Simone Lambert, along with ACA members from Washington state. (Photo by Paul Sakuma)

 

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To stay up-to-date on the Medicare bill and other current issues, sign up for updates from ACA Government Affairs at counseling.org/news/aca-blogs/aca-government-affairs-blog

 

Search for the hashtag #ACAILT2017 for social media posts from ILT and the Day on the Hill

 

See more photos on the ACA flickr page: flickr.com/photos/23682700@N04/albums/72157686345016025

 

A delegation from the American Counseling Association of New York (left to right) Tiphanie Gonzalez (ACA-NY president), Summer Reiner and Allison Parry-Gurak met with staff in the office of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to ask for cosponsorship of the Medicare bill that Sen. Barrasso will soon introduce in the Senate. (Photo by Bethany Bray)

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook: facebook.com/CounselingToday

 

Counselors asked to advocate against FY2018 federal program cuts

By Bethany Bray June 13, 2017

The American Counseling Association will be keeping a sharp eye on federal budget proceedings through the next few months, as several programs critical to the work of counselors and school counselors are on the chopping block.

Counselors can – and should – make their voices heard throughout the process by advocating to their congressmen and congresswomen, reminding them of the critical work that counselors do, Art Terrazas, ACA’s director of government affairs, said during a recent ACA webinar on the federal government’s fiscal year 2018 budget.

The May 25 webinar gave an overview of the cuts pertinent to professional counselors in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for FY2018. The proposed budget seeks to offset an additional $57 billion in military spending with cuts to domestic and federal programs, the majority of which are in the U.S. Departments of State, Education and Health and Human Services.

Of particular concern to the counseling profession is the proposed decimation of the Student Support Academic Enrichments (SSAE) grants program, which is the only federally funded program that directly supports school counselors. The president’s proposed budget would eliminate all funding for the program, a bipartisan-supported initiative that was previously authorized for $1.65 billion over the next four years.

As envisioned by Trump , the budget would also eliminate funding for the federal Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the public service student loan forgiveness program, as well as reduce funding for Medicaid – all of which would affect professional counselors.

While Trump’s proposed budget is “pretty grave” for professional counselors, it’s also just a wish list that outlines the president’s priorities, said Chris Andresen, a public policy strategist who spoke at the webinar with his colleague Jayne Fitzgerald. Andresen and Fitzgerald are both senior vice presidents at Grayling, a public affairs firm ACA has partnered with for a number of years.

Ultimately, Congress must draft the actual FY2018 budget, explained Fitzgerald. This process will play out over the summer, as a budget is crafted and vetted via congressional committee hearings. A budget resolution will need to be passed by September 30 to keep the federal government funded and operating.

“We’re just going to have to see how all of this plays out. Right now, we don’t know,” Andresen said during the webinar. “With the changes that are being proposed there are going to be less tools in the toolbox for [counselor] practitioners such as yourselves and your clients in access to services. That gives us a lot of concern.”

The next few months will be a compressed, fraught process as Congress not only debates the budget but healthcare as well (a possible replacement for the Affordable Care Act), said Fitzgerald. At the time of the webinar, there were 43 legislative days left on the calendar.

“We’re on a ticking clock. September 30 will come quickly,” said Andresen.

 

 

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View the full webinar here: youtu.be/hz-d9L4ogZc

 

Email follow-up questions on this issue to mylearning@counseling.org

 

Contact your legislators via: counseling.org/government-affairs/actioncenter

 

Sign up to receive ACA Government Affairs news updates via email here: counseling.org/news/aca-blogs/aca-government-affairs-blog

 

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

 

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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.

Planting seeds in Somalia

By Bethany Bray May 1, 2017

A recent mental health conference in Mogadishu broke new ground in many ways. Not only did it draw attention to mental health, a little-discussed or addressed topic in war-torn Somalia, but it is believed to be the first time the American Counseling Association has been represented in Mogadishu.

Yegan Pillay, an ACA member and associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Ohio University, was the keynote speaker for the World Mental Health Day Conference in Mogadishu on Oct. 10.

Pillay, a licensed professional clinical counselor and past chair of ACA’s Human Rights Committee, says the event was a “good starting point.” The one-day event planted seeds to begin addressing mental health issues in a country where many people are “walking wounded” by the trauma of decades of civil war, Pillay says.

The World Mental Health Day Conference was organized by Rowda Olad, a former student of Pillay’s at Ohio University. A Somalian refugee, Olad recently completed a master’s degree in counseling. Pillay said he advised her, upon graduating, to try and influence change – whether at the micro or macro level – in her home country.

“Rowda took the bold step of putting together this conference and inviting stakeholders that make decisions in government,” Pillay says. “It was really groundbreaking.”

Mental health and counseling are “not really on the front burner” in the majority-Muslim country, Pillay says, where the culture also often stigmatizes Western-based interventions.

“I’m not sure where all of this will go, but every journey starts with a single step, as they say. I think it’s movement in the right direction, and I’m optimistic that it will at least raise awareness,” Pillay says. “It’s a tangible concrete step in putting mental health on the agenda in Somalia.”

The conference was co-sponsored by the Somali Ministry of Health and Human Services. Pillay says many of the attendees were government officials, and he tailored his keynote to address the drain that untreated mental illness can cause on an economy, government resources and society.

“I think they will go back to their respective constituents within the ministry and government and — most likely and I hope so — advocate for putting resources into mental health,” he says.

In addition to Pillay, Cherie Bridges Patrick, a licensed independent social worker and clinical supervisor at the Buckeye Ranch, a mental health and social services nonprofit in Ohio, spoke at the Oct. 10 conference.

While in Somalia, Pillay also visited the campus of Benadir University in Mogadishu and met with the school’s dean. “Mental health, counseling and even psychology [are] not well-established or studied in universities [in Somalia],” explains Pillay, who is a native of South Africa.

He hopes that events such as October’s mental health conference will spur Somali students to travel to the U.S. or Europe to be trained in the mental health professions so they can return to Somalia and help those in need.

“Who better to serve the Somali people than Somalis themselves?” he says.

Ohio University is not far from Columbus, Ohio, which is home to one of the largest concentration of Somalian refugees in the U.S. Pillay and his students often work in the Somali community. Pillay is currently working on a translation project for materials about posttraumatic stress disorder that could be distributed in the community.

Pillay says he sees a huge amount of potential for American counselors to train other counselors and advocate for the profession — and mental health in general — internationally, particularly in Africa and other non-Western cultures.

“In many parts of the world, counseling doesn’t exist on its own [as a profession]. ACA is at the forefront of counseling worldwide,” he says.

“We need to really push the boundaries of propagating the benefit of mental health. From a global perspective, there is a great opportunity in the United States because of the number of students who are international” and come to America to study, he says. “There has to be a global focus. Even now, more so, with what’s going on politically. My message would be that we [counselors] transcend the geographical boundaries of the United States and see how we can make a difference for people … regardless of where they’re from. We can certainly lend a hand in terms of human resources [to help] other societies find ways to improve mental health.”

 

Yegan Pillay, an ACA member and associate professor at Ohio University, was the keynote speaker for the World Mental Health Day Conference in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 10. (Courtesy photo)

 

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Personal safety and international work

While in Mogadishu, Pillay always traveled in an armored vehicle and stayed in the “green zone,” a designated safe area of the war-torn city.

Counselors shouldn’t be discouraged from working in risky areas – either at home or abroad, Pillay says, adding that they should simply be smart and do some research before they go.

“Do your homework and talk to individuals on the ground in the area to give you an accurate sense of what’s happening,” he says. “Be cautious not to put yourself at undue risk, either at home or abroad. Make sure you have somebody [in the area] that can really articulate how safe you’ll be.”

“There’s no guarantee [of safety,] but you can minimize risks,” he says. “I think one has to keep your wits about you and do background checks. Would I advise individuals to go to Somalia to do [counseling] work? I would be hesitant. But short-term work? Yes. I have no second thoughts about having done what I’ve done.

“But if I go back, I would really want to do as much homework as possible to see if things have changed on the ground or not. It’s an individual decision. I’m a person of color and tend to blend into the communities there. I would not necessarily stand out, but if you’re a white female, you would certainly draw attention to yourself. One has to be very cautious.”

 

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ACA members: Interested in getting involved in international counseling work? Consider joining ACA’s International Counseling Interest Network: bit.ly/2o7pWgF

 

Related reading:

Is international certification right for you? Tips on getting a counseling certification outside of the U.S. from Counseling Today columnist Doc Warren Corson: wp.me/p2BxKN-4GF

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

 

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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.

 

Raising public awareness of the counseling profession

By Bailey P. MacLeod and James W. McMullen December 8, 2016

Counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education and career goals.”
— Consensus definition of counseling developed and approved through
20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling

 

Renaldo sits at home dreading when the next panic attack will hit him. It has happened twice this month already since his wife abandoned him and their young son. Renaldo now makes it a point to leave work earlier than normal each day to avoid the stress of traffic.

Even though Renaldo feels like he is losing control, he makes an effort to seek help for himself and his child. But while researching online, speaking to family members and his physician, and having parent-teacher conferences, he is bombarded with an avalanche of confusing and often conflicting information.

Renaldo’s family doctor recommends that he seek a psychiatrist for medication for extreme anxiety. His sister offers the phone number of a social worker Renaldo can speak to on a daily basis for a reduced fee. Online, Renaldo finds a listing for a licensed professional counselor in a december-authorsneighboring city who specializes in working with panic attacks, but another website states that he should see a clinical psychologist if he is prescribed any medication. During a recent parent-teacher conference, the second-grade teacher suggested that his son meet daily with the school counselor to address his withdrawn behavior that is steadily getting worse.

Renaldo is presented with many different options, but he desires more support because he is overwhelmed and confused about which direction to follow. Should he seek medication to feel less worried? What is the difference between a clinical psychologist and a licensed professional counselor? Which one is covered by his insurance? Can he receive the help he needs through a social worker? In what ways can a school counselor support his child? Will Renaldo need to seek outside help if his son continues to struggle at school?

These are just some of the questions that Renaldo faces as he begins the seemingly daunting task of seeking mental health services. Professional counselors and counselors-in-training have found themselves facing similar questions while debating the future of our profession.

Over the past couple of decades, we have heard numerous calls for professional advocacy and a desire for unity among counseling specialties. Delegates to the 20/20 initiative, co-sponsored by the American Counseling Association and the American Association of State Licensing Boards, began meeting in 2006 as a means to position the counseling profession for the future by the year 2020.  Through this initiative, delegates representing 31 major counseling organizations identified the Principles for Unifying and Strengthening the Profession, developed a consensus definition for counseling and most recently finalized a licensure title and scope of practice for counselors to lay the groundwork for licensure portability.

Although the profession has advanced the process to understand what it means to be a professional counselor, roadblocks still remain. Fragmentation continues to drive some specialties to advocate for individual areas rather than counseling as a greater whole. A lack of consensus on licensure education requirements still remains an obstacle to training.

There is also a lack of knowledge regarding public perception of our field. A consensus definition of counseling was created for use with the public, but how do we begin to explore its potential? How do we bolster our identity with the people we serve? If it can be difficult to explain to the public where our profession fits in with other mental health professionals, then how do we let the pubic know that we are available to serve their needs? How can clients such as Renaldo make better “informed decisions” about where (and from whom) to seek services?

To address these issues, the 20/20 initiative states that one of the strategies to support a unified vision of counseling includes conducting ongoing outreach to the public. By looking at the public’s perceptions of counselors and other mental health professionals, the authors of this article hoped to gain a better understanding of:

  • How the public makes decisions regarding seeking mental health services
  • How counselors are viewed differently from other helping professionals
  • To what level the public agrees with the consensus definition of professional counseling

What is professional advocacy? 

Much of the counseling literature on advocacy focuses on advocating for our clients to promote their needs and find them resources. Professional advocacy, on the other hand, has received less discussion, even though it is equally important in meeting the needs of clients and society.

Professional advocacy means promoting counseling — and counselors — as a legitimate profession that is worthy of serving the public based on specific training and credentials. Without this advocacy and recognition from the public, counselors would not be allowed to bill for insurance, gain licensure or work in a variety of settings and with a broad range of clients and issues.

Many barriers to professional advocacy exist for individual counselors attempting to balance the multiple roles of being a counselor in the community. Specific obstacles include a lack of funding or support from their agencies, a lack of time, opposition by other providers and a lack of knowledge about professional advocacy. Despite these barriers, most counselors would agree that professional advocacy is necessary to promote our services and help a greater number of clients in the community.

Counselors do not necessarily need to devote countless hours to volunteering for larger organizations or lobbying for the profession (although these efforts are still needed and helpful). Advocacy can be done at a microlevel by adjusting how you promote the counseling profession in common interactions with clients, agencies, community stakeholders and other mental health providers. But to understand how better to advocate, we must first be aware of what the public knows about professional counseling.

Public perception

What does the public know about professional counseling? It turns out not a lot, at least in comparison with their knowledge of psychiatry, psychology and social work.

In 2014, we conducted an online survey of 300 individuals from the general public about their perceptions of professional counseling and other mental health professions. The participants came from 43 different states, and more than half of them had received mental health services in the past. Compared with their knowledge and perceptions of psychiatry, psychology and social work, these participants’ responses indicated less knowledge and information about the educational requirements, licensure standards, experience and scope of practice of counselors.

Their answers shed light on ways that counselors can advocate for the profession with clients and the community. What follows are important findings from our survey and suggestions for how counselors can use this information to promote their work.

Education  

Many counselors have had the experience of trying to explain what being a “counselor” really means to others outside of the profession. Often, people will follow that explanation up with a question: “So, is that like a psychologist (life coach/guidance counselor/social worker)?”

The reality is that the meaning of professional counselor is not as widely known as other mental health professions with longer histories. Given that professional counseling is relatively new compared with psychology, psychiatry and social work, the general public is not as well informed about who counselors are and what we do. In addition, the term counseling is not a protected term, meaning it is used to describe a variety of other services and professionals outside of professional counseling.

Licensure terms (e.g., licensed professional counselor, licensed mental health counselor) also vary between states, which can further confuse public understanding. Likewise, roles among professional counselors can also vary. For instance, clinical mental health counselors, university counselors and school counselors can be expected to perform different tasks for the populations they serve.

Responses to our survey regarding public perception of the educational and licensure requirements of professional counselors varied widely. Two examples: “Someone who went to advocacycollege and obtained at least a bachelor’s in social work or counseling”; “A trained professional in the field of mental health and/or social services.”

Counselors can engage in professional advocacy by informing clients, students, colleagues and the public of their educational backgrounds, credentials and licenses, as well as what these things mean. Participants in our survey endorsed licensure, experience and graduate degree as the three qualities they would most value in mental health professionals.

Counselors might consider displaying their degrees, licenses and professional organization memberships in their office settings and also including this information in their professional disclosure statements. This may seem like a small step, but by taking the time to explain your training and experience, you are educating clients (and potential clients) such as Renaldo about the profession of counseling as separate from other “helping” professions and promoting your own professional competence.

Scope of practice

In general, survey participants assumed that counselors work more with individuals experiencing transient issues or problems in living, whereas they perceived psychologists and psychiatrists as working with more serious issues and social workers engaging more frequently with families. For example, one participant said, “A psychologist would be trying to understand why a person is doing something. A counselor would probably just be giving advice on how to change behavior.”

In reality, counselors work with a large range of issues, populations and techniques. However, states often regulate counselors’ scope of practice, such as diagnosing, which can cause further confusion among the general public. Providing clients, students, referral sources and colleagues outside of counseling with information about your scope of practice, areas of specialization and professional experiences could result in more accurate understanding of what you do as a professional counselor.

Returning to Renaldo’s dilemma, for example, knowing how we stand out among other helping professionals can empower us to better understand our strengths and limitations. This would allow Renaldo to get a glimpse of our professional capacity and how we might collaborate with other stakeholders to provide adequate care for him and his son.

 Promoting our focus

What makes the counseling profession unique among other mental health professions is our wellness-based, developmental approach to mental health. Of all the different areas of focus for counseling, survey participants endorsed prevention as the most valued. In addition, 86 percent of survey participants agreed that the 20/20 consensus definition of counseling fit their idea of professional counseling. Counselors could promote this definition and discuss how their practices align with these beliefs as a means of providing clients with a more accurate understanding of counseling and fighting the stigma associated with seeking counseling.

For instance, Renaldo could be worried about any stigma that might result from his son seeking help from a school counselor. Reaching out to Renaldo could provide a clearer picture of the academic, career and personal focuses of school counseling services. This in turn may
help alleviate some of the anxiety he might be experiencing.

In reaction to the definition of professional counseling, one survey participant wrote, “Honestly, I didn’t realize that professional counseling was an option. I thought it was psychology or something that sounds desperate, like a life coach. It sounds useful, and like something I could recommend for friends.”

Informing the public and potential clients about the focus of professional counselors could open doors for people who would not normally seek services because of their preconceived notions of the field and mental health in general.

Referral networks

The two places survey participants said they were most likely to seek information about mental health services were primary care physicians and the internet. Counselors can advocate for the profession by collaborating with and educating important stakeholders and referral sources about professional counseling services.

Primary care physicians are often clients’ first stop in addressing mental health concerns, and these individuals may be more likely to follow up with a mental health referral if it comes from a trusted professional. Counselors could gain a valuable referral source by making this connection and also educate other health professionals about the research that supports the benefits of counseling for overall mental and physical health (for example, research has shown that a combination of medication and counseling can increase treatment outcomes).

The impact of this referral was evident when Renaldo’s family doctor recommended that he connect with a psychiatrist to receive medication to reduce his anxiety and address the panic attacks he was experiencing. If this doctor had been made aware of the potential benefit of professional counseling in conjunction with seeking medication, we might have been able to centralize the information Renaldo was seeking at a familiar and trusted location.

Relationship  

When discussing the quality and availability of counseling, survey participants frequently mentioned the relationship between counselor and client. For example, one participant stated, “I feel counseling is helpful if one finds the right counselor, and that’s not always easy. If a person finds the right counselor, therapy can literally change their life.”

Participants seemed to agree that the counseling relationship was central to the quality of their experiences with counselors. This parallels what most counselors believe and what the research shows is most important. Professional counselors could advocate for themselves and the profession by making the relationship a high priority in professional statements and behaviors.

For example, counselors in private practice settings could allow potential clients a no-obligation consultation before beginning counseling to see if the relationships might be a good “fit.” This type of approach might empower Renaldo to decide what would work best for his family and show him that he is in control of his treatment. Counselors in other settings could discuss the importance of the client-counselor relationship upfront with new clients or students and allow them to switch to a new counselor within the same setting if the client so chooses.

For many people, the decision to seek help can be difficult. Promoting the importance of relationship within counseling can help create an environment of respect, collaboration and autonomy.

Community engagement 

Finally, counselors could advocate for the profession by reaching out to their communities outside of the counseling setting. For example, counselors could volunteer at nonprofit organizations in their local areas. This allows counselors to be a part of missions that are important to them while also helping counselors with networking and exposure. Giving the public opportunities to meet and engage with counselors outside of the traditional counseling setting and informing them about what counselors do might open doors for people such as Renaldo who have never considered counseling before.

Providing outreach in places that may need additional education or resources could also be a way to combat stigma and stereotypes of mental health issues, teach people about wellness and inform others about the benefits of counseling. For example, a counselor who specializes in children and adolescents could teach a parenting workshop for new foster parents, or a counselor who specializes in addiction could educate staff at a homeless coalition about substance abuse. Outreach and volunteer work allows counselors to use their skills in new and helpful ways, while providing the public with an experience of what counselors do and what they value.

Conclusion

The counseling profession and professional organizations have worked hard to advocate for counseling’s place among the other mental health professions. These efforts have resulted in advances in counselor licensure, insurance recognition and a broader scope of practice. And more advances are currently in progress.

For our profession to address obstacles such as fragmentation of counseling specialties and the general lack of public knowledge regarding our professional capacity, it is important that we develop meaningful strategies like the ones mentioned in this article to continue our efforts in professional advocacy. This can begin at the individual level by exploring our professional identity and creating individual initiatives to help people such as Renaldo better understand our profession and make more informed decisions about mental health services.

 

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Note: Those interested in more information about this topic can refer to the article “What Does the Public Know About Professional Counseling? A Study of Public Knowledge and Perception of Professional Counselors” in the Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy, Volume 3, Issue 2.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Bailey P. MacLeod is a licensed professional counselor associate and counselor educator in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she specializes in clinical mental health and addiction. Contact her at bmacleod0222@gmail.com.

James W. McMullen is an assistant professor of school counseling at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He is a licensed professional counselor associate, national certified counselor and licensed school counselor. Contact him at mcmullenj@uwstout.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@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.