Tag Archives: American Counseling Association

Supporting AAPI communities: ‘We still need to do more’

By Bethany Bray August 2, 2021

The United States has seen a significant spike in anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination in the past year. Since spring of 2020, “there was anti-Asian bigotry and misinformation spreading almost as quickly as the [corona] virus itself,” said Rep. Judy Chu at an online panel discussion hosted by the American Counseling Association last month to address the recent rise in anti-Asian sentiment and the professional counselor’s role in addressing it.

“Conversations about mental health have never been more important,” she noted. “With each new report of an innocent Asian American being attacked, many across the country worry, ‘Will I be next?’” Chu, a Democrat who has represented California’s 27th district since 2009, is a psychologist and the first Chinese American woman to be elected to Congress.

She was one of three legislators on the panel discussion held on July 21. The other speakers included Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos of Washington and Sen. Chris Lee of Hawaii as well as ACA CEO Richard Yep and ACA President S. Kent Butler.

The panelists noted that stigma and barriers, including being isolated or marginalized because of language barriers, often keep those in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community from seeking mental health services. Lee and Santos also discussed how mental health, trauma and the COVID-19 pandemic intersect.

“The issues that we are seeing have a lot to do with the isolation that we’ve experienced under COVID-19 restrictions and the challenges of race that have never been resolved in our country,” said Santos, who has been a community activist for more than 40 years. “What we are seeing, in my opinion, is the exacerbation of those fault lines that have existed in our communities for many, many years. … These are challenges that will involve all of us working together at the state and national level to address.”

Butler noted that counselors are called to help all disadvantaged groups. Not only is helping people regardless of their background or immigration status an ethical mandate but it is also a part of “who we are” as counselors, Butler stressed.

Although numerous measures have been passed by local and federal legislatures to better track and address anti-Asian violence and hostility in the United States, “we still need to do more,” Chu said. “There is so much that can be done to support our communities, and counselors are on the front lines.”

 

 

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Watch the full video of the July 21 event at ACA’s YouTube page: youtu.be/PYAvqIOWEzo

Related reading from Counseling Today

Take action

Support the following initiatives and others by visiting the ACA Take Action page:

  • Teaching Asian Pacific American History Act
  • Stop Mental Health Stigma in Our Communities Act
  • Increasing Access to Mental Health in Schools Act

More from ACA

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@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.

Cultivating space for inclusivity

By Laurie Meyers July 21, 2021

S. Kent Butler says he’s an elephant in a world built for giraffes. And he is here to shake things up. 

This metaphor comes from R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. and Marjorie L. Woodruff’s book Building a House for Diversity: How a Fable About a Giraffe & an Elephant Offers New Strategies for Today’s Workforce, explains Butler, who became the American Counseling Association’s 70th president on July 1. The elephant and giraffe are friends, but their relationship falters when the giraffe invites the elephant home. The house is not designed for the elephant. It’s tall and narrow, so the elephant has trouble navigating this space and often smashes into doorways and walls. Rather than accommodating his friend, the giraffe suggests the elephant change itself to fit in the giraffe’s environment by taking up aerobics or ballet.

Like the giraffe, the counseling profession hasn’t always created space for individuals in marginalized communities to hold leadership positions, Butler points out. In the past 70 years, ACA’s leadership has primarily been white, with Butler being only the second African American man to serve as president.

“Leadership can look different and still be good,” Butler stresses. 

As Butler notes, the counseling profession will have to continue to reshape itself to accommodate diverse leaders. “And this change will not be easy or comfortable,” he admits. “It will shake things up. Now we’re making way for other people to come into this counseling space and work together to build a better environment for all.”

Man meets moment

Cyrus Williams, a counseling professor and director of the counselor education and supervision doctoral program at Regent University in Virginia Beach, finds this era — one in which COVID-19 has laid bare this country’s health disparities, Black and brown people continue to lose their lives in acts of police brutality and racist attacks on Asian Americans continue to escalate — a perfect time for Butler to take the helm as ACA’s president. 

Facilitating difficult conversations about racial reconciliation, co-conspiratorship and the effects of racial injustice on communities is his area of expertise, Williams says. “He’s been working at this since we met, this has been his journey,” he says.

Williams was working in student services at the University of Connecticut while Butler was studying for his doctorate in counselor education and counseling psychology. “There weren’t a lot of Black men on campus,” he says. “We found each other and became friends.”

Because they both shared a passion for working with low-income, first-generation college students, they later collaborated on several work projects, including scholarly publications. 

Butler is a professor of counselor education and the former interim chief equity, inclusion and diversity officer at the University of Central Florida as well as a fellow of the National Association of Diversity Offices in Higher Education. 

He also is a past-president of the Association for Multicultural Cultural Development (AMCD), a division of ACA, but as Williams notes, his presence extends far beyond that. Butler has made myriad connections within the association — not just as a leader but through scholarship and professional collaboration, he says. 

It’s not just the many relationships that Butler has established that will make him an asset as president — it’s his commitment to what ACA represents, points out Ann Shillingford, his wife and colleague at the University of Central Florida. “He has a passion and dedication for the counseling profession — there’s no doubt that he takes it to heart,” she says.

Butler is also a people person, who is good at listening to people and getting to the heart of what they really want — “kind of like peeling an onion,” Shillingford adds. 

She says that Butler is an introvert until he gets to know you. Williams agrees, noting that Butler loves gathering with friends and family. During graduate school, Butler hosted a holiday party for graduate students and friends at the clubhouse of Williams’ condo. Butler spent the entire day before the party gathering supplies. At 1 a.m., he was still running errands when he got caught in a snowstorm. He walked toward the clubhouse, holding a large pan of his aunt’s famous macaroni and cheese, and slipped and broke his ankle. The macaroni and cheese went flying in the air, but unlike Butler, it remained unscathed. He then drove himself to the emergency room and still made it back in time for the party. 

“When Kent talks to you, he is fully engaged,” says Tony Crespi, a psychology professor at the University of Hartford and one of Butler’s former instructors. “You think you’re the only person in the room.”

Crespi also speaks of Butler’s sharp intellect and passion for learning. “I’m someone who gives written feedback on papers,” he says. “I want people to really write well, be persuasive.” Crespi says it’s not uncommon for students to groan over his rigorous standards, but not Butler. He would come to Crespi after class and ask him to go over the comments so that he could understand and make his articles better.

Because Butler came from a counseling psychology program, he could have easily chosen to become a psychologist like many of his peers did, Crespi adds. But instead, he was very intent on becoming a counselor. 

“I think my journey has been one in which I was led to counseling,” Butler says. “I was doing the work of counselor in many roles before getting into counselor education.” As an undergraduate, Butler mentored a number of other students, and then as a graduate student, in addition to his work with college students, he worked with Upward Bound, a federally funded program that provides academic support to low-income and first-generation high school students to prepare them for college.

“I was always working with young people and helping them to become their better selves,” Butler says. “It became really important to me in my degree program to strengthen my skill set in a way that fit with what I was already doing.”

Talking about racial justice

If Butler is the man for the moment, the moment almost missed its man. Violent racism nearly erased the possibility of his existence long before he was born. When Butler’s mother was just 10 years old, an unidentified group of white community members set fire to the house where she, her 14 siblings, her father and her mother — who was pregnant with her 16th child — were living. The fire, which started in the basement, was ignited in such a way that the family was unable to access the doors. The oldest siblings broke some windows, jumped out and caught the other family members as they leapt down from the second story of the dwelling. Miraculously, everyone survived. 

The family lived in a firehouse for a while afterward while Butler’s grandparents worked to make the barn on their property habitable. In an incident that was yet more proof of how much the neighbors didn’t want his mother’s family around, the barn was burned down before they could move in.

“Law enforcement didn’t pursue any leads even after my family told them about hearing voices in the basement before the fire started,” Butler says. And like so many other hate crimes, these cases of arson were never solved.

And yet Butler’s mother and father, who also grew up surrounded by signs that blatantly advertised society’s complete rejection of Black people, “still persevered,” he says. They saw the good in the world and made sure that Butler and his sisters knew that — despite the messages they might receive from society — they were in no way less than anyone else.

Butler says that over the years, his mother taught him not to spend his energy on causes that are unwinnable or to argue just to argue. He has used that lesson in his racial justice work as a reminder to meet people where they are. 

“Me going toe to toe with someone to try and solve an issue is not going to change anything if we aren’t listening to each other,” he says. “If I’m only speaking to hear my point and I’m dismissing yours, then I am not going to help change the narrative. If I want to make people understand where I’m coming from, I have to set a tone and create a space where people can hear me, and I have to speak with enough authority about what I know so that people will listen and take it in.” 

At the same time, Butler points out that it’s difficult to get white people to come to these conversations. “The false narrative of fragility gets in the way,” he explains. “To be truthful, racism was not perpetuated from or benefited by fragile people. So, in that vein, we should not legitimize that white people are powerless against dismantling racism.” 

“We need white people to recognize that this is not about them,” he says. “This is about racism and … systems that are in place. All of us have a role in that and so opposed to me having to come and cater to your guilt or fragility, what I want to do is come to the conversation.” 

“We already know what the issue is,” Butler continues. “I’m not here to hassle with you about whether or not you are racist. I’m here to highlight the fact that racism exists, and we need to change the system. So, get out of your own way. It’s not about you at this point, it’s about trying to change the fabric of America so that all people can be accepted and be a part of the American dream [and] the access to equity that I think all individuals should have.”

Butler asks white counselors to become not just allies but co-conspirators. Allies often are the ones who approach Butler after he speaks about social justice and racial issues or after a meeting and say, “I really like what you said,” leaving Butler to wonder why they didn’t speak up during the meeting. Co-conspirators, however, help pave the way for marginalized populations through education and anti-racism work and speak out against racism when people of color can’t be or aren’t in the room. 

In fact, what people say when he’s not in the room is just as important. “Say it in the room,” Butler stresses. “Be there and help move the narrative forward in the room. People who are willing to speak up, stand in the gap [and] help change the narrative, those are the co-conspirators.” 

Michael Brooks, an associate professor of counseling at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, agrees that “it’s time for other [white] people to put action behind their words.” He and Butler met through AMCD and have forged a bond based not only on professional interests but also on the difficulties of being a Black man in counselor education.

“Kent is a large man with a dark complexion — he gets judged well before you get to know him,” says Brooks, who has a similar problem. Butler and Brooks often discuss how they have to be mindful of what they say and what gestures they use because they are constantly at risk of being misunderstood, misinterpreted and stereotyped. 

Brooks is excited that another Black man has been elected as ACA president, but as he points out, “the fact that Kent is [only] the second Black, African American male to be president should be embarrassing, and the counseling profession should be asking itself why it’s taken so long.”

Brooks is also aware that there is only so much one can do in a year, so he hopes the counseling profession has reasonable expectations of how much Butler can accomplish during his presidency.

Butler in Dubai in June 2016.

Football, family and far-flung places

Although Williams often has to remind Butler about maintaining work-life balance, ACA’s newest president does take time to relax. Shillingford says he’s a huge Dallas Cowboys fan and has assembled so much merchandise that she finally put her foot down about more memorabilia entering the house. She also admits to occasionally diverting Cowboys’ apparel to Goodwill. 

Butler also loves listening to music — particularly jazz, rhythm and blues, and gospel. He declares himself a night owl, which he admits is a problem when you have to get up early. He’s prone to staying up late doing work and occasionally watching shows he previously recorded. 

He and Shillingford love to travel — for work and pleasure. Some of their favorite places include Barcelona, Hawaii, St. Thomas, Dominica and South Africa. Butler says he would like to return to Africa and visit other countries, particularly Liberia because he discovered through DNA testing that he has family roots there. Butler and Shillingford also relish spending time at home with their 9-year-old daughter, Summer Joy, and Shillingford’s son, Justin, who is 21.

Butler with his wife (M. Ann Shillingford), stepson (Justin Ford) and daughter (Summer Joy Butler)

Presidential influence

One could say that Butler is now hoping to use his personal and professional life experiences to help the counseling profession become its best self. 

Because racial injustice and other inequities have imprinted themselves in such stark relief, “we have to pay attention to how systems are affecting different groups,” Shillingford says. Butler is hoping to use his platform to address issues of diversity linked not only to race and ethnicity but also to gender, disability, immigration and other intersections, she says. 

Butler’s overall goals for his presidency include helping the profession realize that people from varied groups and intersections can be leaders. “I think so often we look to a leader to be a certain type of person,” Butler continues. “We need to bring all people to the table. It’s about inclusivity.” He also plans to create leadership initiatives that help to develop future diverse leaders. 

Counselors should bring diversity to their client base as well, he adds. He urges his fellow counselors to consider what the profession is doing to dispel the stigma and distrust held by marginalized communities to help people see counselors as a supportive resource that can help them navigate life’s challenges and improve their mental wellness.

Because the presidency is only for one year, Butler has spoken with Williams about how he hopes to create initiatives that will continue to thrive long after his term ends. Butler “wants to be able to replace himself,” Williams says, with leaders who will continue the work of fighting injustices and eliminating disparities within mental health care systems. 

He also wants to make sure that the counseling profession maintains the current momentum for diversity, equity and inclusion. He hopes to help counselors begin to engage in difficult dialogues and become social justice advocates.

Butler is at a point personally and professionally where he is ready to speak his truth. “This is my story, my narrative,” he says. “I’m coming to expose you to my experiences. I’m going to be truthful about who I am. I’m not here to step on toes, but if your toes are in the way, move.”

S. Kent Butler, ACA’s 70th president

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Read S. Kent Butler’s first presidential column from the July issue of Counseling Today: “Shaking it up and tapping you in

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Laurie Meyers is senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at LMeyers@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.

‘Color of Money’ columnist offers counselors tips for financial health

By Lindsey Phillips April 26, 2021

Michelle Singletary, a nationally syndicated personal finance columnist for The Washington Post, knows firsthand the importance of money management. It was a lesson she learned at a young age from her grandmother, who raised Singletary and her four siblings on a limited income in Baltimore.

“She was a nursing assistant, and she never made more than about $13,000 a year,” Singletary told the audience to open up the fourth week of the ACA Virtual Conference Experience. Singletary noted that her grandfather struggled with alcoholism, so his paychecks rarely made it home.

“The thing that makes me want to help people is how I grew up and how my grandmother managed with so little. … She was a wonderful money manager,” said Singletary, who writes the syndicated newspaper column “The Color of Money.” She acknowledged that she acquired most of the wisdom she would be sharing with the audience through observing how her grandmother cared for her and her siblings without having much money.

Singletary’s keynote stressed the importance of professional counselors taking care of not only their mental health but also their financial health. She then provided five steps for focusing on financial health.

Step 1: Triage your budget

Singletary, author of four personal finance books, including the upcoming What to Do With Your Money When Crisis Hits: A Survival Guide, compared handling a budget during an economic crisis with the way that medical professionals prioritize patients based on medical need when arriving in the emergency room. When facing a job loss or economic uncertainty, people should also triage their bills, focusing first on necessities such as mortgage/rent, auto loans, utilities and child support, she explained.

Step 2: Be careful with credit

The last thing counselors need is to be overwhelmed by debt, Singletary said. The overall household debt in the United States was $14.27 trillion by the end of August 2020, with most of the debt going to credit card payments, student loans and car loans, she noted.

Singletary told the audience that the best way to reduce debt is “the debt dash approach”: Pay off the smallest debts first (regardless of the interest rate). “Psychologically, people get defeated by the slow process of paying off debt. So, the debt dash gives them something to look forward to in [the] short term, and it encourages them going forward,” she explained.

She also provided the following tips to avoid going into debt:

  • Only charge what you can pay off the next credit card billing cycle.
  • Use cash, not plastic, when possible because it helps you spend less overall.
  • Don’t buy a car that requires more than a four-year loan.
  • Don’t take advantage of the current pause on student loan payments if you still have a stable income; continue to make those payments.
  • Consider moving home for a few years after college to save money. That way, paychecks can be applied to paying off loan debt rather than on rent or mortgage.

Saving money and paying off debt shouldn’t be an either-or decision, she asserted. “If you’ve only been paying off debt, you don’t have a savings cushion. … You don’t want to have all this money in the bank earning nothing and you’ve got high-interest credit card debt,” Singletary said. “You want to do a combination of both, so that you’re paying off debt and you’re saving.”

Step 3: Stick to a budget

Drawing on her grandmother’s sage advice that “every penny ought to have a purpose,” Singletary told the audience that every dollar they earn has a job — retirement savings or household expenses, for example.

She recommended budgeting for an emergency fund and a “life happens” fund. The emergency fund should have three to six months’ worth of living expenses because it operates as a backup in case of an economic emergency such as losing a job or having to take time off work to help a sick family member. Put money in that fund and don’t touch it unless there is a true emergency, she stressed.

The life happens fund is for more common incidents and inconveniences such as the car breaking down. It’s OK for money to flow in and out of this fund, she said, but she advised keeping approximately $1,000-$2,500 in such an account.

Counselors should also budget for continuing education opportunities and insurance, she added. Every month, counselors can set aside funds for these two items so that when the time comes, the money “is right there for you to invest in yourself,” she told the audience.

Singletary also offered five tips to practitioners on managing self-employment income:

  • Set a baseline for expenses.
  • Establish one account from which to pay all monthly expenses.
  • Create a “sweep account” to deposit any earnings from a side job. (This account can help offset fluctuating self-employment income.)
  • Avoid splurging when you make more than anticipated one month.
  • Set up a separate account to pay estimated taxes.

Step 4: Become an informed investor

Singletary discussed three main threats with investing: 1) inflation, 2) inaction and 3) panic over fluctuating markets. “If you don’t invest and keep pace with inflation … you’re going to lose earning power,” she said.

She advised counselors not to wait to invest. “The biggest advantage you have as an investor is time,” she emphasized. By investing your money and letting it compound over time, “you’ll do just as well as trying to find the next great stock.”

She also told the audience that they could become “a 401(k) millionaire” by investing early, contributing a minimum of 10-15% of their paycheck toward retirement, meeting the requirements to get the full employer match (if offered), considering mutual funds that invest in stocks and not cashing out when changing jobs. Counselors can also use retirement calculators (such as AARP’s) to help them determine if they are saving enough for retirement, she added.

Step 5: Be content

Singletary finds that an entitlement mentality often prevents people from being content with what they have. People fixate on the notion that they deserve more, owe it to their children to give them more, or must do whatever they need to do to get what they want. “But the truth is you deserve what you can afford,” Singletary said. “You owe it to yourself and/or your child to live within your means. And that means saying no to yourself and no to your kids.”

“We have blurred the distinction [between needs and wants],” she told the audience. “Need means it’s something that is essential, and [a want] is … [a] desire.” She shared one simple question that can save people a lot of money when answered honestly: “Is it a need or a want?”

Singletary also advised the audience to focus on being grateful. One Sunday at church, her pastor asked the congregation how many people were rich. Only a few people raised their hands. Then the pastor asked a series of questions: How many of you got up this morning and drank a clean glass of water? How many of you can get into your car and drive to your job? How many of you have a job? How many of you have somebody who loves you?

Singletary admitted that she felt ashamed for not having raised her hand after the initial question. She had focused on the monetary value of “rich” rather than seeing and acknowledging all she had in her life. “We’re never content enough to know that we’re rich enough,” she observed.

It’s not just about the money

Singletary expressed her appreciation for the therapists she has had in her own life. Her desire, she said, is for more people to be able to follow their purpose and enter the mental health fields rather than avoiding them out of fear that they won’t make enough. “If you don’t budget well, you might end up doing something or taking a job that really isn’t right for you because you’re trying to make more money,” she cautioned.

Her daughter, who is a social worker, didn’t have to make that choice because Singletary taught her how to take care of her financial health and “to live in the salary for the profession [she had] chosen.”

“Don’t do things just for the money,” she advised. “Figure out what’s … really, truly important and put your money in that. … Know enough [about money] so that you can make better financial decisions, and that will make you a happier person and a better counselor.”

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Read more about the connection between personal finance and mental health in Counseling Today‘s recent feature article, “Money on the Mind.”

 

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This keynote address is part of a month of virtual events, including hundreds of educational sessions and three additional keynotes, that lasts through April 30.

Find out more about the American Counseling Association’s 2021 Virtual Conference Experience at counseling.org/conference/conference-2021

Registration is open until April 30; participants will have access to all conference content until May 31.

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Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@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.

Bassey Ikpi shares her gradual journey toward a healthy relationship with therapy

By Lindsey Phillips April 19, 2021

Bassey Ikpi, a spoken word poet, writer and mental health advocate, opened the third week of the American Counseling Association’s 2021 Virtual Conference Experience by sharing details from her own mental health journey. She recalled that her first encounter with mental health awareness happened in elementary school. An avid reader, she consumed whatever she could get her hands on, including her mother’s psychology textbooks and subscription to Psychology Today.

In particular, Ikpi remembers how Psychology Today’s May 1986 cover story on Howard Hughes shaped her relationship to mental health. The article discussed Hughes’ struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, describing in detail how he locked himself naked in a hotel room, refused to brush his teeth or cut his hair and nails, and wore Kleenex boxes on his feet.

That image would be startling to most anyone, let alone a 9-year-old, but what stood out the most to Ikpi was how no one helped Hughes. “I told myself that if I ever needed help, I’d find a way to get it,” Ikpi related to the audience for her keynote. “I never wanted to get to the point where I was wearing Kleenex boxes on my feet.”

Finding help

Ikpi, author of the bestselling memoir I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying, first had serious bouts of depression during college. She said that she vacillated between being unable to sleep and unable to get out of bed, and she maxed out her credit card.

Even though Ikpi felt OK at the time, she was concerned enough to seek out the counseling services on campus. The counselor sat across from her and just scribbled in her notepad the entire session, Ikpi recalled, which left Ikpi feeling unheard and unseen. “I had walked in nervous but hopeful, and walked out discouraged and determined never to return,” she told the audience. “If this was counseling, I thought, ‘I’m good.’”

A few years later, however, Ikpi found herself in distress again when, during a hypomanic episode, she took a spontaneous trip to New York City and ended up dropping out of college and moving to Brooklyn. She hoped the move would keep her moods at bay, but it didn’t work. Ikpi sought help, but like her first experience, the therapist mainly wrote notes on a legal pad and asked clinical, nonpersonal questions. Once again, Ikpi left feeling that seeking therapy had been a waste of time.

After joining the Tony Award-winning Broadway show Def Poetry Jam, Ikpi found that her previous coping methods no longer worked, and she started to deteriorate quickly. She was losing weight, not sleeping and withdrawing. After having a breakdown backstage, the stage manager told her, “If you don’t get help, Bassey, you’re going to die.”

Ikpi left the tour the next day with a list of doctors, determined to get help. “Because of my past experiences with counseling, I walked in with an agenda. I wanted to be helped, but only as far as I would be able to accept,” she said. Her goal was to get enough help that she could return to her job.

After receiving several misdiagnoses, Ikpi walked into the office of the last doctor on her list. This therapist didn’t have a notepad. She instead had a conversation with Ikpi, and for the first time, Ikpi felt heard.

“That meeting was what began my journey toward a healthy relationship with therapy. It taught me the kind of therapy that works best for me,” she told the audience. This therapist also introduced her to another psychiatrist who gave a name to what Ikpi was experiencing — bipolar II disorder.

Overcoming the shame of mental health

Ikpi admitted that her first instinct was to keep quiet about her diagnosis out of a fear that it would change the way others perceived her. But she noticed that the shame also meant she wasn’t able to fully take care of herself.

Shortly after being diagnosed, Ikpi was watching an episode of the TV series Girlfriends in which one of the characters finds out her biological mother had bipolar disorder. Ikpi remembers thinking, “They’re going to have a conversation about bipolar disorder. That’s going to make it so much easier for me to have this conversation when I need to have it.” But the series dropped the ball, Ikpi said, because when the character asks a friend if she has inherited the disorder, the friend quickly dismisses the possibility, saying that the character is amazing, not “crazy.”

“The juxtaposition between ‘crazy’ and ‘amazing’ was trying to dispel all these things that I knew to be true about myself and my experience and my diagnosis,” Ikpi said.

Frustrated by this experience, she wrote about her diagnosis on her blog. She acknowledged to the keynote audience that this was in part a selfish act because she didn’t want to feel alone anymore and hoped to find someone else living with a bipolar disorder.

That blog post was the beginning of Ikpi finding ways to create “space for other people to name what they were experiencing, get encouragement from people and then do something about it.” Ikpi, founder of the Siwe Project, a nonprofit aimed at promoting mental health awareness in the Black community, started the global movement #NoShameDay to encourage people of African descent to share stories about mental health issues without shame and to seek help if needed.

She credits the success of #NoShameDay with the fact that “people are given permission to deal with this out loud as opposed to quietly where you can talk yourself out of it or … where you can ‘other’ yourself in a way that makes it uncomfortable to live in your own brain.”

Ikpi also told the audience it’s no coincidence that #NoShameDay falls on the second Monday in July, which is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. While #NoShameDay day exists for everyone, it’s especially for the Black community because they are the ones who are consistently penalized for their mental health, she noted. “Our mental health is criminalized; our mental health is legislated in ways that others aren’t so [this movement] … bring[s] attention to that,” she said. The movement humanizes mental health by making “it about people’s lived experiences and their stories and not a collection of texts or a list of diagnoses.”

Growing through therapy

Ikpi compared living with an untreated mental health diagnosis with “living in a run-down house in a bad neighborhood,” where she learned how to survive and cope with what she was given. Continuing this analogy, she said that medicine allowed her to move to a better neighborhood, and therapy taught her how to traverse this new neighborhood.

“Your instinct … is to fall back on the habits that worked before. Therapy teaches me a new way to navigate when the old ways are no longer working or no longer serving my needs,” she explained.

Ikpi also shared that some people have aligned her diagnosis with her artistic ability, telling her that if she didn’t have bipolar disorder, she wouldn’t be the writer that she is. To which she responds, “I would rather not be a writer. I would give it all up. I don’t write because of bipolar disorder. I write despite it.”

“Having bipolar disorder isn’t who I am; it is what I have,” she told the audience. “It doesn’t define me anymore than being short or wearing glasses. It’s just a part of what … I have to navigate the world with.”

Ikpi concluded by reminding mental health professionals of how important their job is. “It’s a service that I don’t think is rewarded enough,” she stressed. “I would not be here — literally would not exist — if it wasn’t for the people who have made it their job to care about people like me.”

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This keynote address is part of a month of virtual events, including hundreds of educational sessions and three additional keynotes, that lasts through April 30.

Find out more about the American Counseling Association’s 2021 Virtual Conference Experience at counseling.org/conference/conference-2021

Registration is open until April 30; participants will have access to all conference content until May 31.

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Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@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.

Yalom discusses power of therapeutic relationships at ACA Virtual Conference Experience

By Lindsey Phillips April 12, 2021

Dr. Irvin Yalom, an American existential psychiatrist and emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, is renowned for his ability to probe into the human psyche and for his interpersonal therapy groups. During the keynote to kick off the second week of the American Counseling Association’s 2021 Virtual Conference Experience, he offered a peek into his own life, sharing how therapeutic relationships have helped him personally and professionally, including in processing his grief over his wife’s death.

As part of the keynote, Jude Austin, an assistant professor and clinical mental health counseling track coordinator at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and a private practitioner in Temple, Texas, spoke with Yalom about his early life, the beginning of his professional journey, his status as an icon of the mental health professions, and his latest book, A Matter of Death and Life.

Discovering existential therapy

After earning a Doctor of Medicine from Boston University School of Medicine, Yalom completed an internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and a residency at the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Yalom said it was during his residency at Johns Hopkins that he discovered the field of interpersonal relationships and became “more interested in working with people rather than with medicine,” which set him apart from other psychiatry students.

He credits Existence, a book co-edited by Rollo May, an American existential psychologist, with introducing him to the interconnection between philosophy and psychiatry. It also prompted him to enroll in a yearlong philosophy course at Johns Hopkins while completing his residency.

At the time, psychiatry professor Jerome Franks served as an influential mentor to Yalom, who recalled spending hours during his training observing Franks’ therapy groups through a two-way mirror. This experience taught him that therapy was relational, he told the keynote audience. Franks’ therapy groups focused on how the group members related to one another. “It [wasn’t] about their parents and early life, etc. … It [was] looking at interpersonal relationships,” Yalom explained.

Yalom said that a mistake he made with a client years later served to remind him again of the importance of the client-therapist relationship. He found that he couldn’t connect with this particular client during their session. He felt disappointed and considered it one of the least successful sessions he had ever had, which he mentioned in his session notes. Then he committed a therapist’s worst nightmare: He accidently emailed his session notes to the client, not himself.

The client wrote back, acknowledging that she was hurt by his comments. In their next session, however, things changed because she opened up. Yalom learned that she was training to be a social worker and was reading his group therapy textbook in her class. “I interpreted her behavior in the here and now as being indicative of her inability to relate to people, but in fact it was something else entirely. All these people were praising my textbook, and she just felt very intimidated by me,” he said.

“Working on the here and now is working on the space … between me and patient,” Yalom noted. He explained that when he does single-session consultations, at some point, he will say, “Let’s take a look at how you and I are doing in this session. What’s that like for you?” He finds that the relationship between the therapist and client is often a microcosm of their relationships with other people.

Finding his way through grief

Yalom told the keynote audience that he and his wife, Marilyn Yalom, who was a world-renowned scholar in gender studies and a professor of French and comparative literature, were inseparable from the time they met when he was 15 years old. When they discovered that she was dying of cancer, she asked him to write about the experience with her. He agreed, and they wrote A Matter of Death and Life, which provides a candid description of how she prepared to die and how he struggled (and continues to struggle) to live without her.

After Marilyn’s death in November 2019, Yalom found himself rereading his own books, which he acknowledged has been very good therapy for him. He recently reread his 1999 book Momma and the Meaning of Life: Tales of Psychotherapy, particularly the chapter “Seven Advanced Lessons in the Therapy of Grief,” with renewed interest.

He recalled a former patient who repeatedly complained that he had a “perfect life” and couldn’t relate to how she felt. Yalom said that he would argue with her and ask, “Do we have to be the same for me to treat you?”

After losing his wife, Yalom said, he has reflected on that past experience with the patient. “Now, going through this, I think she’s right,” he admitted to the audience. “I know how she feels. I could do a better job with her now.”

Advice to new professionals

Austin observed that it takes courage to be in the here and now with clients and asked Yalom if he had any suggestions for counselors who are struggling to be present with clients. Yalom’s advice: Go to group therapy.

“Group therapy is an enormously good way for you to really look at how you can present yourself to other people. And if you’re being evasive [and] you’re not letting people in, the group will let you know,” he said.

He also encouraged counselors to enter therapy because it allows them to experience various therapeutic approaches firsthand. That is a great way to learn how approaches work and how they each offer something different, he asserted.

Yalom also shared a technique that he has applied with his own groups. He dictates summaries of what happens in group sessions and emails those notes to the group members so they can discuss that perspective in the following session. Yalom noted that the group members often argue with him about how he got it wrong, but such conversation leads to deeper discussion and insight about how we relate to people.

Yalom told the audience that he has been in and out of therapy several times and is currently in therapy as he processes his grief over the loss of his wife. His honesty about his experiences — both in his professional life and his personal life — is a comforting reminder of the humanity of therapists. It sends an inspiring message to other mental health professionals that they too are still growing and learning, and that is how it should be.

Dr. Irvin Yalom gives the opening keynote address in March 2017 at ACA’s annual conference & Expo in San Francisco. (Photo by Paul Sakuma Photography)

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This keynote address is part of a month of virtual events, including hundreds of educational sessions and three additional keynotes, that lasts through April 30.

Find out more about the American Counseling Association’s 2021 Virtual Conference Experience at counseling.org/conference/conference-2021

Registration is open until April 30; participants will have access to all conference content until May 31.

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

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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.