Tag Archives: advocate

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)




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.”




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





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.





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.


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.


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.


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.




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.




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




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.

Accepting failure as part of professional advocacy

By Whitney N. White May 25, 2016

In recent months and years, I’ve seen counseling and mental health move up the list of “hot topics.” Influential actors, leaders and even government officials have spoken up and drawn these areas into the light in a new and brilliant way. As a culture, we are talking about mental health now and reaching out for help more than ever. I find this inspiring and believe that all of this bold new conversation and outreach is changing lives for the better.

First lady Michelle Obama has spoken publicly about the importance of mental health and the need to end associated stigma. Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, recorded a video message this year in support of Children’s Mental Health Week. Actor Jared Padalecki, of Supernatural fame, talked publicly about his own mental health struggles and launched the Always Keep Fighting charity T-shirt campaign (I regularly see clients sporting the clothing that is sold to support the cause). MTV has run news segments on celebrities working to shut down stigma related to mental health. Leonardo DiCaprio talked about his struggle with obsessive-social justicecompulsive symptoms after filming The Aviator. While filming the movie, he stopped trying to control his tendencies toward obsessive-compulsive disorder and ended up developing stronger symptoms that lasted long after filming had ended.

For these reasons, I thought at least a tiny bit of the battle was over. What battle? The battle for counseling to be taken seriously as a profession, the battle to get people to understand that mental health is as important as all other aspects of health and the battle to get help to those who need it. I believed these changes and new discussions meant that the control tower had cleared the runway and all we needed to do as a profession was fly in and land.


A bubble burst

I didn’t want to be like many of the mental health professionals — counselors, caseworkers and others — I met during my school-related practicum. I’d hear them speaking about red tape, see the cynicism in their expressions and sometimes even sense their disdain for my fresh-out-of-the-box, new counselor, can-do attitude. But they knew what I’m beginning to understand.

The battle isn’t over. It won’t ever be over. We can’t rest from this as a profession. We have to keep going, keep working and keep educating. When a chiropractor points out that his church shut down its free counseling program because “counseling is just talking and doesn’t really work,” we have to smile and use that as an opportunity to educate. When a woman in line at Starbucks sees the American Counseling Association gym bag we’re holding and assumes that we just help kids get into college, we can speak up about what we really do.

My bubble was burst a few months into my first real counseling position at a nonprofit agency serving children in Texas. Texas is a large and, for the most part, very rural state. Many of its small cities don’t have any licensed mental health professionals. In addition, there are many people without the money or insurance to pay for services despite the Affordable Care Act, and many others lacking the resources to travel half an hour or more to access counseling services. Most families have parents and caregivers who work. Taking a block of time out of their workday for counseling has a price attached, both in terms of money and stress.

In an effort to provide services to populations in these circumstances, the agency where I work allows counselors to set up satellite offices in neighboring communities. This helps when families can’t make the trip to the main office or can’t afford to take off work to make that trip. To take this a step further, we often gain permission from schools in these outlying areas to see children in the schools where they attend (with proper consent and releases). Because of other tasks that require their time and expertise, school counselors don’t typically have the time to provide in-depth mental health counseling to students in need.

I received a few calls from residents of a nearby town who wanted a counselor to come provide services to children in the community. Each of the referral calls came from families with children in the local school district, so I was surprised when I reached out to the school to offer counseling services and got a “no” in response. The school’s lead administrator informed me that I could use space on the campus one day per week, but students would be permitted to miss only music class.

This was bad news on a couple of levels. First, because the school is small, each grade level goes to music class together. In other words, I wouldn’t be able to have two clients in the same grade because my sessions are 45 minutes long and music class is 50 minutes. Second, it would be impossible to protect the privacy of my clients under those circumstances. It wouldn’t be long before every kid in the school knew that if a student left music class, he or she was going to counseling. Never mind the underlying message that music (the arts) is frivolous — just like counseling.

I responded to the stipulated offer by explaining the privacy concerns I had about the situation. I also reiterated that multiple families with students in the school had sought services and that I wouldn’t be able to see everyone during music classes. I mentioned that I always talk with parents and children about what time of day will work best for them based on the child’s performance in each class and when that class occurs. I reminded the school administrator that Texas permits children to miss school to attend counseling appointments, just like they are permitted to miss class to see a medical doctor.

I communicated this all very professionally and from a place of love and advocacy for my would-be clients, my profession and my agency. In response, I got another “no” that included an explanation of how and why academics are the focus of this particular school. This school’s administration either doesn’t understand the way that mental and emotional health (which counseling supports and develops) affect academic performance, or they do and choose to ignore it. I’ll never know. I did my best to provide a basis for conversation and education about counseling. It didn’t work, and I was frustrated. A school — the place where so many issues are first identified — was refusing to help its students.

Months prior to this disappointing outreach, I had volunteered to present at a local high school career day. After the rejection of my services by the other school, I was hesitant to follow through on this career presentation. How would I possibly line up next to police officers, doctors and teachers as a career option? Had anyone even signed up for my presentation on mental health counseling as a career? Would the cynicism building up inside of me because of others’ rejection and resistance to mental health progress dull my eyes, spirit and voice as I talked to potential future counselors?

When the day arrived, more than 120 students had signed up to hear my presentation on mental health counseling. They asked great questions. For instance, a freshman asked, “How does working with others and their problems affect you as a counselor?” A ninth-grader asking about vicarious traumatization! They were listening! And interested! I opened up about what it is like for me to be a counselor.


Getting to ‘yes’

In a nonprofit agency, we often wear many hats. Sometimes we are counselor, case manager, outreach coordinator, guest speaker, educator and secretary. Sometimes we are all those things and more within a single hour of the day. We are advocates for our clients and would-be clients. I advocated for potential clients with the area school in hopes of making services available and easily accessible and to require less time out of class. I failed, but I tried. Sometimes we’re disappointed that others — professionals affected by our work — don’t understand its importance or take it seriously. But on some days, we get through. Some days we get a “yes.” That “yes” means the world to the people we work to serve.

It is vitally important that as a profession, we continue to advocate and communicate with professions that touch ours. Medical professionals, teachers and many others have contact with our clients. Their perspective on counseling can have an effect on how our clients view counseling — on whether or not they seek and receive the services they need. In the face of frustration, it is important to remember to talk openly and to stay educated about the research that supports our field and the interventions we use. The next time you’re brave enough to speak up, you may get a “yes” that changes minds and outcomes for better down the road.

The disconnect I’ve experienced across professions is often a result of my desire to avoid perceived conflict by not speaking up and telling someone how fantastic my research-supported profession is. Talk about our profession. Talk about it anytime you’re given a chance like I was at my chiropractor’s office. When you’re in line at Starbucks, talk about it with the woman who comments on your ACA bag. Talk about it on social media. Speak up about what we do and the research that supports it, and be ready to power through the possible frustrations of a “no” or disagreement.

We don’t just expect children to learn algebra “naturally.” We educate them from their first day of school until their last, which prepares them to do algebra in real-world settings. Yet the attitude of public educators is at best “refer for counseling”; at worst, “kids can do that away from ‘education’ time.”

The “yes” I hope to witness someday is a big one. In my head, every school in my state — in the United States — will welcome vetted agencies to enter schools and provide in-depth services on campus when they’re needed and with appropriate consent from guardians. I envision a time when I’ll call or visit a school campus that welcomes me and my bag of counseling goodies every time (it does happen!). I close my eyes and see schools with life skills courses — entire courses devoted to bettering the whole person in which kids can learn about emotions, coping skills, communication and healthy relationships.

My vision of counseling science as a cornerstone of health and education is a big one. Imagine! Sending kids into a classroom to learn how to communicate effectively with one another. Producing high school graduates with all the tools to truly live life to their fullest, most successful potential. This vision may seem very far away, but there was a time when children weren’t educated about math beyond what they might learn at home. In my moments of frustration, I close my eyes and see these things and remember to speak up for my profession, my colleagues and my clients.

Recently, Prince Harry, who has long been outspoken on mental health issues related to veterans of war, spoke with Good Morning America. He stated, “Psychological illnesses can be fixed if sorted out early. … We’ve got to keep the issue at the forefront of people’s minds. … Just talking about it makes all the difference.” The counseling profession must continue that battle, talking not just about mental health but about what we are able to do to help.





Whitney N. White holds a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. She is a national certified counselor and a licensed professional counselor intern in Texas, where she is employed in the nonprofit sector working with youth. Some of her passions are working with youth struggling with self-injury; using yoga to connect body, breath and mind; and spending time with her family. Contact her at whitneywhite82@gmail.com.

Don’t use the ‘t’ word and five other tips for counselor advocacy

By Kevin Doyle March 29, 2016

After 30 years in the counseling profession, I have arrived at the conclusion that we counselors are sometimes our own worst enemies. When a unified voice could be the key to advancing our profession — such as with current efforts to expand reimbursement for counselors’ services under Medicare, initiatives to standardize our licensing standards and outreach to get more counselors Branding-Images_Avocacyhired to positions within the Department of Veterans Affairs — we at times seem to be fighting our own internal battles instead.

How, then, can the individual counselor do his or her part to advance the profession that we all love? In the spirit of helping the counseling profession achieve the status that 40 years of licensure would indicate, I’d like to offer six concrete, yet relatively simple, suggestions.


First, as my students would corroborate, I have a visceral resistance to using what I call the “t” word: therapist. Although probably well-meaning in most instances, when counselors use this word, they miss opportunities to use an even better one: counselor. The same principle exists for use of the word therapy when counseling could be used.

In our culture, most people do not know the differences between counselors, social workers, psychologists and even psychiatrists. Each time that we call ourselves by the correct name (counselor), we are taking advantage of an opportunity to educate the public about our profession — to help with our own branding, if you will. Similarly, each time that we use therapist or therapy, we are missing out on that same opportunity and in a small way contributing to the ongoing diminution of our professional identity. When referring to a multidisciplinary group of helping professionals, using therapy or therapists is, of course, appropriate.

A second concrete action that each of us can take is to refer to other counselors. Obviously, our primary obligation is to our clients, and if the appropriate and best referral is to a helping professional in one of our sister professions, then so be it. But in making referrals, we are afforded another opportunity to help our profession advance, so we should include professional counselors as often as possible when we refer.

In my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, several licensed professional counselors got together a few years ago and formed a loosely organized group. We meet monthly for informal support and discussion and engage in quarterly trainings together for required continuing education. But in addition, we have also established an active professional network that has allowed us to learn more about the expertise of local counselors, which has greatly enhanced our ability to make appropriate referrals. Rarely does a week go by without a member of our group posting a message to our distribution list asking for help in identifying a fellow counselor to work with a particular type of client. Referring to other counselors, when appropriate, is one of the best ways that each of us can support our profession.

My third suggestion relates to the electronic age in which we currently operate. We must not underestimate the power of the Internet. Unfortunately, many counselors in our community do not have websites, so the referral process I outlined above is often complicated by the fact that most clients want to read about the person they were referred to before pursuing services with that professional. Because of that, we may be forced to refer to a professional from another discipline who does maintain a website. Lest counselors be discouraged by expense, several low-cost or even free web-design templates are available (for example, see weebly.com, wix.com and web.com). Using these or other templates, the main cost involves purchasing the domain name and hosting the site, which is typically quite affordable (often less than $100 per year). In addition to generating referrals for your practice, having a website helps to solidify the presence of counselors on the Internet and further legitimizes our profession in the eyes of the public.

A fourth step in advocating for our profession induces fear in some counselors and may not be for everyone: talking to the media. Local newspapers, radio stations and television outlets are on a continuous quest for fresh content related to issues of the day. Some counselors routinely turn these requests down (I know, because they refer the media to me), missing another chance to educate the public about themselves and the profession.

Dealing with the media can be tricky, of course, but simply discussing what our profession does can be a valuable public service and an opportunity to teach about what counselors do. Commenting on particular cases or specific clients would be problematic and even potentially unethical, but participating in an interview on a particular issue, such as a counseling approach, what counselors do or a topic of interest to the local community, could be entirely appropriate and valuable. American Counseling Association staff members are available for consultation on talking to the media as well.

Getting to know your state and local legislators is a fifth way for counselors to engage in advocacy for the profession. State legislatures vary greatly, but most are composed of part-time legislators who spend much of their time in their local communities. These legislators are almost always extremely open to meeting with constituents (another word for voters!). Waiting until an issue is in front of the legislature to visit with your elected representative is often too late. By that time, whatever opposition exists may have already made its position known, meaning you may be up against a formidable adversary in a politically charged environment. A better approach is to proactively establish a relationship with local legislators. This can be done by inviting them to visit the program where you work, introducing them to other counselors, considering honoring them for work they may have done that is helpful to your clients or considering making a campaign contribution. Any or all of these steps can make a real difference when counselors in your state legitimately need the help of the legislator on a particular issue.

If you are uncomfortable or overwhelmed with the idea of visiting your local legislator, think about going as a group. Several counselors, perhaps with different specialties, can attend a meeting together, allowing the elected official to learn from multiple perspectives on a single visit and maximizing the effectiveness of your time. Remember, legislators are people just like us.

Finally, a sixth suggestion relates to the all-important governing bodies that oversee the practices of many of us: state licensure boards. Early in my career, my role in state professional associations led me to attend numerous meetings of our state board of counseling. Not only was this necessary and valuable as it related to the issues under consideration, but it also contributed to my interest in serving on the board and eventually resulted in my appointment to this position in my home state of Virginia. Before my appointment, while attending the meetings and advocating for things that weren’t necessarily in line with the board’s thinking at the time, I received a wonderful compliment when one of the board members said to me, “We don’t always agree with what you have to say, but we appreciate the way you conduct yourself.”

Opportunities to advocate for the profession frequently present themselves, and we need to take advantage of them, whether our audience is the general public or our fellow counselors. Attending a meeting of your state counseling board is an easy step; most boards must meet in open session, and their activities are matters of public record. Public comment is usually received at the beginning of each meeting, not just when controversial items are being debated. These are free, easy opportunities for counselors to speak in a public way about issues of importance to the profession. Serving on such a board is also a very valuable way to engage in advocacy on behalf of the profession.

Clearly, there are numerous ways for counselors to engage in advocacy. Each of us should be able to identify a few ways to get involved, either based on the suggestions in this article or by staying alert to other advocacy opportunities. Whether it involves the somewhat tongue-in-cheek avoidance of the “t” word or the more substantial activity of attending a state counseling board meeting, each counselor is presented with daily opportunities to engage in the activity of advocacy.

To this counselor at least, it seems that we earn the right to express our displeasure only when we actively engage in advocacy. Not doing so contributes to some of the obstacles we currently face in attaining the respect and consideration that the counseling profession both needs and deserves.




Kevin Doyle, a licensed professional counselor and licensed substance abuse treatment practitioner, is an assistant professor and co-coordinator of the counselor education program in the College of Education and Human Services at Longwood University in Virginia. Contact him at doyleks@longwood.edu.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org



Immigration’s growing impact on counseling

By Laurie Meyers January 27, 2016

They come by air, land and sea. In airplanes, on overcrowded boats, aboard shipping vessels, by train or even on foot. They are immigrants and refugees looking for the same things as previous generations of people who willingly came to the United States: hope, sanctuary and the possibility of a better life.

Everyone in the United States who is not an American Indian or Alaska Native is of course an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants, whether by choice or because of slavery. For much of our nation’s history, most immigrants were of European descent. However, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated the immigration quotas that favored Northern Europeans. Current immigration policy gives preference to applicants with family ties to U.S. citizens or legal residents and to skilled workers.

Branding-Images_libertyBecause immigration policy no longer gives preference to European immigrants, today’s immigrants come from all over the world but particularly from Latin America and Asia. As a result, the United States is a much more ethnically diverse place than it was 50 years ago.

According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonprofit think tank that analyzes worldwide migration, an estimated 41.3 million immigrants lived in the United States as of 2013 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), constituting 13 percent of the population. MPI says that approximately 19.3 million of these immigrants are naturalized U.S. citizens, while the remaining number are lawful permanent residents, unauthorized immigrants or legal residents on temporary visas, such as students and temporary workers. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), approximately 1 million people were granted lawful permanent resident status in 2013, meaning they can legally work and live in the United States but are not yet eligible for citizenship; slightly less than half of these immigrants were new arrivals. DHS records also indicate that 69,909 refugees were admitted to the United States in 2013, while 25,199 immigrants already in the U.S. or at a U.S. port of entry were granted asylum. The DHS estimates that there were 11.4 million unauthorized or undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. as of 2013.

Not everyone is comfortable with this reality. From Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump’s stated plans to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and bar entry to Muslim immigrants to the numerous state governors who have announced they will not accept refugees from Syria, current headlines vividly demonstrate the obstacles confronting many immigrants and refugees, ranging from bureaucratic and legal battles to suspicion, prejudice and outright hostility.

Many immigrants and refugees are also unaware that there are professionals such as counselors who can help them navigate this strange new landscape. Those who work with these populations say that as part of the cultural diversity that the counseling profession has embraced, counselors have a responsibility to help immigrants and refugees with everyday challenges associated with community, school, work, health care and other systems.

Strange new world

Although every immigrant’s story is different, they all share one overarching truth — that every aspect of life will be affected by the immigrant experience, says Shabnam Etemadi, a doctoral counseling student at Tennessee State University in Nashville. Etemadi studies and works with immigrants. She is also an immigrant herself.

Most immigrants come from a collectivist culture to settle in the United States, which features an individualist culture, Etemadi says. This means they must grapple with a society whose very nature is fundamentally different from their own, she points out.

Etemadi and her family emigrated from Iran when she was 6, settling in Nashville. Even though the city is home to a large Iranian American population, the family often felt very isolated. Language was probably the biggest barrier to her family’s adjustment, she says. Knowing very little English, the family was afraid to go outside and interact with the world at large. “The main way we learned English was by watching TV,” Etemadi says. “[We would watch] simple kids shows and soap operas.” Her family members also practiced reading, but Etemadi says the television was particularly important because it helped them learn cultural nuances.

Another language barrier had to do with learning that certain phrases and words had meanings beyond their literal definitions, Etemadi says. For example, she vividly remembers her classmates taunting her one day for “cutting.”

“They kept saying, ‘You’re cutting! You’re cutting!” she remembers. Bewildered because she was not physically cutting her classmates, Etemadi eventually realized that cutting meant “cutting in line.”

That one instance offers a small but insightful example of how coming to America fundamentally changed who Etemadi was. “I was an extrovert back home, and when I came here, I became an introvert,” she says. “I was shy, withdrawn and fearful because I didn’t speak the language. I was bullied in elementary [school], and I never made any meaningful relationships with the teachers.”

Etemadi says all the teachers spoke to her in a way that she perceived as “weird” as a child. In reality, she says, they were doing something that many Americans do when trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak much English — talking very loudly.

Etemadi says she also felt “marked” because she was in the English as a second language (ESL) program. “I would be a part of [my homeroom] class and, suddenly, I would be taken out by an ESL teacher to talk about my schoolwork,” she recalls. “I was learning English, which was great, but I felt isolated, and my peers would wonder why I was taken out of class every other day.”

School also proved bewildering for her parents, Etemadi says. For example, the grading system was based on a different set of numbers than they were used to, so their understanding of their children’s reports cards was limited. The idea of participating in extracurricular activities — which in the United States plays an important role in getting into a good college, among other things — was virtually inexplicable to her parents, Etemadi says. In Iran, she says, students go to school strictly to study, so her parents had trouble understanding why she might need or want to stay at school after classes were over for the day.

Talking to other Iranian American families in the community eventually proved helpful in understanding the importance of extracurricular activities, Etemadi says. But as a whole, Iranians are protective of their personal lives, she explains, so the family tried to cope with many struggles on their own.

The most profound event for which the family needed support happened a few years after moving to the United States, when Etemadi’s brother died under traumatic circumstances. Unfortunately, the family was still relatively isolated in their new home country and didn’t have anyone to turn to to help them process what had happened. Even the teachers at her school barely acknowledged her brother’s death, let alone her grief surrounding it, Etemadi says.

It is those types of events that might push many Americans to seek counseling. But the idea of counseling is completely alien to Iranians because it just doesn’t exist in their country, Etemadi explains. And that is a point that counselors in the United States need to understand — they should not expect that members of most immigrant communities will simply show up at a counselor’s office if and when they need help.

That is why Etemadi says counselors can and should be advocates for immigrants. She believes that from the beginning of the immigration process, immigrants need someone who can speak their language to provide them with mental health support. They also need to be told that counselors can continue to provide assistance if they run into barriers that they have trouble surmounting.

Because of her personal experiences, Etemadi developed an interest in studying the immigrant experience. As she learned that the types of difficulties faced by immigrants of all cultures are similar, she decided she wanted to help. She ultimately chose to become a counselor because she felt that counseling’s emphasis not just on mental health but also wellness and personal development would be most palatable — and useful — to immigrant populations.

As part of her dissertation, Etemadi is currently studying whether it is possible to develop best practices specifically for counseling with immigrant and refugee populations. Because the notion of counseling is typically foreign to immigrant populations, she believes it might be particularly difficult for these clients to grasp that emotions are connected to actions. Etemadi has found narrative therapy to be particularly useful because it helps clients who have immigrated to the U.S. to look at their stories from an outside perspective, while allowing her to identify cultural differences between the client’s culture and American culture. She can then partner with clients to explore how these differences may be causing difficulties.

The primary thing Etemadi wants counselors to know about the immigrant and refugee populations, however, is that they need help acculturating but don’t generally know where to find this help. She says counselors have a responsibility to reach out to immigrant communities. Because there is often stigma surrounding counseling, especially in these communities, she suggests that counselors use a soft approach to raise awareness. For example, she says, counselors could post their business cards in international restaurants or even settings such as the tire store. She also advises that counselors work with local physicians to make connections. In some cultures, she explains, the suggestion to seek help from a counselor will be much better received if it originates with a doctor.

Communicate to advocate

Saari Amri, a licensed professional counselor in Falls Church, Virginia, agrees that very few immigrants are going to walk into a practitioner’s office. “It’s rare that we have immigrants in general proactively seek out mental health counseling,” she says. “When they come in, they come in after crisis or have gotten to a tipping point. … With torture survivors, domestic violence, they come in through referrals, usually law enforcement or social services.”

Amri practices at Northern Virginia Family Services Multicultural Center, a clinic that receives many of its referrals because the counselors who work there are multilingual and culturally responsive, she says. Many of the clinic’s clients are seeking a counselor who is an Arabic speaker or a Muslim. Amri, a member of the American Counseling Association, is both.

Although similarities exist between different Arabic cultures (including those whose members may be largely Christian) and Muslim societies, Amri cautions against making assumptions. “Cultural competency is a dynamic process even for someone like myself who has a lot of experience with the population and shares their culture and religion,” she says. “I’m always learning something new. [Counselors] always need to explore and understand.”

To get a full sense of the sociopolitical context of a client’s story, Amri says it is important to know not only where that client is from but also to ask about his or her particular experience. For instance, Amri recently had a client who was a former refugee from Somalia. She assumed the woman would be presenting with posttraumatic stress disorder, but it turned out her presenting issue was unrelated to her refugee experience.

Many of the issues with which Amri’s clients present — including depression, trouble sleeping and difficulties parenting their children — are common experiences for those who are struggling to acculturate, she says. She notes that she tries to keep the primary focus of her counseling on addressing clients’ immediate needs and safety. Within her clients’ cultures, people are generally seeking help for a specific issue and aren’t interested in anything touching on the psychoanalytic, she explains. Amri doesn’t believe there is any one method or practice that is most effective with clients who are immigrants or refugees. “You can’t go wrong with keeping it client-centered and meeting the client where they are,” she says.

However, it is important to understand that the immigration journey intertwines with everything the client is experiencing, Amri says. “It’s important to normalize what they are going through, whether it’s struggling with acculturation or coping with the effects of war or torture.”

It isn’t common for the clinic to see immigrants soon after they’ve arrived in the United States, Amri says. Instead, they usually come in years later as problems develop or grow worse. In many instances, this includes providing support to asylum seekers, who are generally coping with mental health issues related to whatever it is they have fled, including torture, war, political oppression or other circumstances.

Many of Amri’s clients are Arabic-speaking women who are subjected to domestic violence. In some cases, the women are immigrants from the Middle East who entered into arranged marriages in which an American man came to the woman’s home country, “picked” her out and brought her to the United States. Once in the United States, the husband becomes abusive. It’s very difficult for these women to find help, Amri says, because they don’t speak the language and may not be allowed to leave the home. The abuse often goes on until neighbors call the police or the woman flees, Amri says. These women often end up in her office through referrals from social services or law enforcement.

Amri also works with couples who are experiencing major cultural clashes as part of an interethnic or interracial marriage. They struggle in particular once they have children and realize that their child-rearing styles and basic values may be very different, she says.

Amri and the other counselors at her clinic also help clients navigate social service providers, school systems, the juvenile justice system and health care providers. The clients find it useful to be accompanied by people who speak the same language they do but, more importantly, Amri says, the counselors are there to make sure these clients actually get their needs met. Because the concept of negotiating with school systems, public service providers and health providers is often completely alien to these clients (let alone trying to do it in a foreign language or new country), Amri and her colleagues are there to help them navigate the cultural nuances and secure the services they need.

With situations such as this, Amri and other counselors have to go beyond traditional counseling techniques. They provide a source of support but also help the clients find outside services they need, such as occupational therapy.

Amri acknowledges that it may be difficult for a counselor who doesn’t come from an immigrant’s culture to provide effective services. At the same time, she says, it is inevitable that counselors will end up working with clients who are immigrants unless the counselors limit themselves to engaging with a specific client group or clinical issue. For that reason, Amri would like to see counseling education programs and professional groups provide more opportunities for multicultural training.

Connecting with the community

If clients won’t come to the counselor, sometimes the counselor needs to go to the clients, says Johanna Nilsson, director of the Empowerment Program, which is part of the Division of Counseling and Educational Psychology at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. The program provides free case management and mental health services to immigrant and refugee women and their families.

The Empowerment Program has a small staff supplemented by women from the immigrant and refugee community. These women not only provide a link to the various immigrant communities but also function as advocates for the clients. Nilsson, a professor currently on sabbatical, also has her students work in the program, coordinating psychoeducational workshops for the immigrant community or counseling women who seek mental health services in the division’s training clinic, Community Counseling and Assessment Services (CCAS). She says this enhances students’ knowledge of cultural diversity and is a good way to introduce the next generation of counselors and psychologists to immigrant communities.

Most of the program’s clients are women who are struggling with family, employment and cultural adjustment issues, says Nilsson, an ACA member. Kansas City’s immigrant population is diverse, but the Empowerment Program’s largest client groups come from Somalia, South America, Central America and Vietnam.

One common concern is parenting, Nilsson says. Many of the women are experiencing a loss of parental authority and struggling with how to parent in an unfamiliar culture in which they are confronted with new expectations for how to raise children. In addition, they tend to lag behind in understanding the language and culture in which their children are so quickly immersed, Nilsson says. The counselors provide a substantial amount of individual psychoeducation, both in CCAS sessions and workshops and when working in conjunction with advocates on visits to clients’ homes. The counselors also present workshops at religious institutions and service organizations on topics such as parenting, physical and mental health, trauma and domestic violence.

In the parenting workshops, the counselors teach parenting skills, conduct role-plays and even bring in local teachers and principals so the parents can get a better idea of how school systems (and public systems in general) work in the United States and how to interact to get what they need from people in positions of authority. One of the larger lessons these workshops help to promote is that immigrants and refugees “have the right to ask questions and seek help,” Nilsson says.

The program also occasionally holds family nights with immigrants and refugees from different cultures. Although language is often a barrier, Nilsson witnesses the women in particular bonding over their shared concerns about family, which helps them recognize that their struggles are common across cultures. In other words, they’re not alone. “It feels very energetic,” Nilsson says.

Nilsson believes it is also important to meet with clients in their homes. The counselors and students are accompanied by the community advocates on these visits. This approach tends to lessen the inherent language and cultural barriers while also helping to put the families more at ease. The home visits provide a way for the counselors and students to get to know members of the immigrant community, see how they are doing and learn what they might need. The visits also allow for opportunities to educate immigrants and refugees about available services, Nilsson says. A nurse will sometimes accompany the team to give health checks and provide additional information.

The program focuses on women not only because responsibility for home and child care often rests on their shoulders but also because refugee communities in particular have high numbers of families that have been separated, Nilsson explains. In many instances, the men have been unable to leave their home countries, so the women and children enter the U.S. on their own, she says.

Unfortunately, program workers also see cases of domestic violence. In addition to the danger and fear experienced by all people who endure domestic violence, women who are immigrants or refugees also tend to face language and cultural barriers that make them feel even more isolated and vulnerable, Nilsson points out. In many cases, these women might not even know what a shelter is or report that the shelter’s staff members don’t seem to understand them, she says. The idea of sharing space with other women and children at a shelter can also be particularly frightening to women who are immigrants or refugees, Nilsson explains.

To compound matters, domestic violence may be widely overlooked or even accepted in the woman’s culture. In fact, choosing to leave an abusive home situation might traditionally result in the woman being shunned, Nilsson says.

The Empowerment Program does partner with a shelter, so there is a place that staff members can take women and children in an emergency, but many immigrant and refugee clients are simply not ready to leave, Nilsson says. In such cases, staff members provide information on what the women’s rights are, what resources are available and how to access those resources. This information is also provided in the program’s workshops and sometimes in the women’s homes if it is safe to do so, Nilsson says.

Nilsson reminds her students that when they encounter instances of domestic violence, it is essential to start with the basics: Does the client have food, clothing and a safe place to live? Like Amri, she also believes that counselors are responsible for supporting immigrants and refugees with whatever they need, even when those needs fall outside the traditional realm of counseling. The Empowerment Program provides assistance with immigration paperwork and also serves as a bridge to other organizations that offer services the program is not equipped to handle.

Nilsson believes stepping outside of the office and into the community to provide what clients need is the future of counseling. She also thinks this kind of training is essential for students. “If students only attend a diversity class, the population is still foreign to you,” she emphasizes. “You have to bring the student out into the community.” It’s not solely the responsibility of immigrants and refugees to seek out counseling, she asserts. Instead, counselors must be intentional about reaching out to and connecting with these individuals and communities.

Undocumented and disadvantaged

As difficult as the immigration experience can be for those who are legal permanent residents, entering the United States without documentation presents an extra layer of barriers.

“This is a population that is frequently and repeatedly marginalized and scapegoated,” says Selma Yznaga, who helped establish the Community Counseling and Training Clinic at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (formerly the Community Counseling and Training Clinic at the University of Texas-Brownsville). “They struggle with prejudice and discrimination, lack of access to basic services, housing and fair wages.”

Brownsville is on the U.S.–Mexico border, so many of the clinic’s clients are from Mexico. The clinic staff does not ask about immigration status, says Yznaga, who is also the interim chair of the university’s department of counseling and guidance. “Their residency status wouldn’t change anything about the way that we serve them and could raise suspicions about our intent for asking,” she explains. Regardless, some of the clients’ circumstances surface in the biopsychosocial histories that counselors gather during assessment, and these factors are considered holistically, she says.

“Clients come in for many of the same reasons people seek counseling in other parts of the country — relational problems, school referrals, issues related to poverty,” says Yznaga, a past president of Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA. “The majority of our referrals come from the local department of health and human services and the school districts.”

However, as with any other immigrant or refugee population, these clients’ presenting issues are always intertwined with their cultural struggles, she says. “For many of the undocumented population, basic resources for survival are a priority,” she says.

Obtaining these resources is a constant struggle because although there is a thriving black market in the Rio Grande Valley in which almost anything can be obtained for a price — driver’s licenses, green cards, Social Security cards and jobs — the market is ruthless, Yznaga says. Undocumented workers aren’t protected by labor laws, so they get paid below minimum wage or sometimes don’t get paid at all and are threatened with deportation if they complain, she says.

Not surprisingly, counseling is not typically a priority for this population. In fact, Yznaga says, people from Mexico are unfamiliar with counseling as a concept. In Mexico, mental health services are provided by psychiatrists and psychologists, she explains.

However, Yznaga and other clinic staff work to promote wellness within the immigrant community by going to places such as housing developments, where they can help organize health fairs that include diabetes screenings and depression assessments.

Clinic staff members also educate clients at the health fairs and in the clinic itself about systemic discrimination and marginalization and help clients learn to advocate for themselves. “We help them differentiate between mental health and mental illness and [work] to destigmatize help-seeking,” she says.

Because the undocumented immigrant population is such a stigmatized group, counselors should be careful to avoid the “missionary posture,” Yznaga says. “Undocumented individuals are sensitive and perceptive to people treating them as ‘less than,’ and sometimes well-intentioned assistance can be mistaken for pity,” she cautions. “Mexicans are proud of their tolerance and ability to survive under harsh conditions and can be shamed by the counselor’s perception that they are weak.”

Yznaga also notes the importance of counselors understanding the diversity inherent within the Mexican population. “We should all be very aware of in-group differences and avoid stereotyping any immigrant group,” she says. “For example, there are 31 states in Mexico, as diverse and unique as the 50 United States.”

“When possible, we should do our own background research and tentatively explore what resonates with the client as it relates to the presenting problem,” Yznaga continues. “In other words, as much as we want to know about a new culture, we shouldn’t make it the client’s responsibility to teach us in their counseling sessions.”

Working toward the future

Historically, many immigrants have come to the United States in pursuit of the fabled American Dream — not just for themselves, but especially for their children. That hasn’t really changed in the 240 years since the United States came into being. The path to that dream has undergone some significant detours, however.

In some ways, today’s children who are first- or second-generation immigrants may have greater opportunities for education than did prior generations. After all, these children do not need documentation to enroll in school — only a local address. However, once in school, they may not be given all the resources they need to learn everything the school has to offer, which can hamper their hopes of graduating, getting a job or going to college.

The biggest barrier, of course, is language. Many counselors have heard the occasional news story about schools in areas with large Latino/Latina populations that refuse to offer bilingual education. But most people aren’t aware that in a growing number of areas in the U.S., it is not uncommon for schools to have a student body that speaks five, 10 or even more different languages. How can any school system accommodate that?

This is where school counselors come in, says Diana Wildermuth, a former school counselor who worked predominately with the English-language learner (ELL) population for 14 years. There is much that school counselors can’t control, Wildermuth acknowledges, but she still urges school counselors to be aware of the ELL laws in their states so they can help to ensure that students receive the language services to which they are entitled. These services can vary widely, depending on the state. Students in California, for instance, may have access to bilingual education, but in certain areas of other states, there might not be any teachers who speak Spanish or other needed languages.

Some schools at least maintain a translator service so teachers can meet with parents who don’t speak English or who have limited English proficiency. If the school doesn’t have a translation service or can’t provide translation for a particular language, Wildermuth, now a professor of psychology and education at Caldwell University in New Jersey, recommends contacting local community organizations. At her former school, there was a need for someone who could speak Ukrainian, so she contacted a local community organization that could provide people to assist in translating.

Although this may help the parents, these translation services aren’t typically available to students, she points out. In some places, ELL services may consist of students following along as best they can or being paired with a native English speaker who can help explain through demonstration, she says.

Language isn’t the only barrier with which ELL students contend. The cultural and functional differences in the school experience can contribute to these students feeling like strangers in a strange land, says Wildermuth, a member of ACA. “For instance, in U.S. high schools, students move from classroom to classroom throughout the day,” she explains. “But in other countries such as South Korea, the teacher moves from class to class.”

This may not seem like much more than a stylistic difference, but imagine, Wildermuth says, being a new Korean student who is pointed toward homeroom and then expected to know how to navigate the school schedule for the rest of the day. School counselors need to be aware of these and other barriers that students who have immigrated to the U.S. might face, she says.

“If a brand-new student is coming to school, you have the opportunity to meet and greet them, make them [feel] comfortable and welcome,” she says. Simply letting the student know that you, as the school counselor, are a safe person to come to with any problems or concerns is important, Wildermuth emphasizes.

School counselors can also use some creative approaches to further ease these students’ sense of awkwardness and even help them build their English-language skills, she says. Wildermuth suggests organizing a scavenger hunt for ELL students at the beginning of the school year to assist them in learning the locations of classrooms and other facilities. If the clues are accompanied by short notes, the scavenger hunt can help reinforce the names of the locations in English, she adds.

Wildermuth also suggests engaging in role-play by asking questions with students so they can learn what is considered to be appropriate teacher–student interaction. It’s also important for counselors to make teachers aware of how difficult it can be for ELL students to know what to do or how to behave in the classroom, she says. Teachers are often uncomfortable with ELL students and tend to leave them out of class interactions and discussions, Wildermuth points out, but by educating teachers beforehand, counselors can ease some of their anxieties and pave the way for a smoother transition for the student.

Finally, Wildermuth says that much of what school counselors need to do with ELL students mirrors what they need to do with American-born students — namely, educating them on the role of the school counselor and how the counselor can help the student.




The professionals interviewed for this article realize that it is unrealistic to expect the average counselor to possess all of the skills needed to work with every client who is an immigrant or refugee. At the same time, they emphasize that all counselors need to educate themselves and seek training in those skills. As a growing number of people from diverse cultures continue to enter the United States, these counselors emphasize that our society and, accordingly, the role of the counselor must continue to evolve.




Additional resources

For those who would like to learn more about the topics addressed in this article, the American Counseling Association offers the following resources:

Books (counseling.org/bookstore)

  • International Counseling Case Studies Handbook edited by Roy Moodley, Marguerite Lengyell, Rosa Wu & Uwe P. Gielen
  • Culturally Responsive Counseling With Latinas/os by Patricia Arredondo, Maritza Gallardo-Cooper, Edward A. Delgado-Romero & Angela L. Zapata
  • Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice: Integration, Theory and Application, Fourth Edition, by Manivong J. Ratts and Paul B. Pedersen
  • Counseling Around the World: An International Handbook edited by Thomas H. Hohenshil, Norman E. Amundson & Spencer G. Niles
  • Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity, Fourth Edition, edited by Courtland C. Lee

Webinars (counseling.org/continuing-education/webinars)

From ACA’s trauma webinar series:

Podcasts (counseling.org/knowledge-center/podcasts)




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

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