The counseling profession continues to grow and develop at both the national and international levels. Yet compared with psychology and other health professions, counseling might be considered to be in its adolescent years of development.
The psychology profession is well-established, enjoying worldwide recognition. At the same time, many people outside of our profession of counseling still question who we are. As Erik Erikson might say, counseling is in its identity formalization stage. In this stage, we are grounding and conveying our professional identity for others to understand. This time can be powerful and transformative. However, it can also be scary to reflect on questions related to identity because we are speaking not only to our known Westernized conceptualizations of what it means to be a counselor, but also to global perspectives.
In the United States, contingent on one’s social circle or environment, the word counselor can mean a plethora of things, from a camp counselor to a financial counselor to a counselor at law. How many times has our profession been faced with questions such as “What is a counselor?” and “What does it mean to be a counselor?”
As we answer those questions, we must acknowledge the larger picture at hand. Namely, counseling identity spans the globe and transcends a Westernized view of conceived professional identity. How a counselor is defined will vary depending on culture. Although communal philosophies bond us (e.g., wellness-based models), differences still exist in terms of application (e.g., theoretical preferences). Cultural differences don’t make one way of doing things the “right” way or the “better” way. Instead, they speak to individualization of the treatment process with respect to cultural needs and norms, and continued professional growth and evolvement.
Another question arises: Why even consider internalization? If some counselors are still in the process of formalizing their own identity on a national level, why consider a holistic identity? In conversations with peers around the globe, some opponents of efforts to internationalize counseling have noted that:
- An international counseling identity is nearly impossible to define because counseling looks fundamentally different through a global lens.
- Individual countries may lose their voice within an international identity if a Western perspective to counseling dominates the field.
On the other hand, proponents have reflected that unification has the potential to:
- Make the profession stronger and increase its credibility
- Reach and help more clients
- Help counselors continue growing and learning from one another
As the authors of this article, we are vested in this very topic. We are influenced both by our own cultural backgrounds (German and Greek descent, respectively) and by cultural immersion experiences abroad that opened our eyes to the world of counseling within different cultures. These experiences shaped us, leaving us thirsty for more. In conducting literature reviews, we found a variety of scholarly articles examining what counseling means through specific cultural lenses from around the globe (e.g., Italy, South Korea). Our appetite was not satiated, however. We wanted to learn what an integrated counseling identity might look like. We believe such an identity is quintessential to the counseling profession continuing to establish credibility and distinction as a unique and valuable mental health profession.
Although the literature spoke on cultural perspectives of counseling in different countries, we found that this research tended to use a monocultural lens (“Counseling in [insert country]”). Monocultural lenses can be integral to breeding understandings of culture-specific conceptualizations. Such analyses leave the resolution of multicultural differences and similarities untouched, however.
Hence, our next step toward possible internalization of a counseling identity involved ongoing cross-cultural conversations with peers around the world. These conversations focused specifically on concepts of counseling identity and the idea of global identity integration. The remainder of this article summarizes some of our findings related to these cross-cultural conversations. We conducted interviews with 18 counselors from around the globe to help begin this dialogue about an international counseling identity.
Acknowledging the good and the bad
The cross-cultural conversations about the formation of an international counseling identity revealed both potential challenges and benefits. Noted challenges included cultural differences related to the practice of counseling that might be undermined through a unified definition, difficulty capturing multiple voices or perspectives in one identity and fear of monocultural domination (e.g., Westernization).
The primary argument and challenge raised against unification was the fear of multicultural denunciation. As one colleague noted, “Each country — and even each jurisdiction in a given country — has differing histories, approaches and orientations that would make it very difficult to create one all-encompassing identity.” Another counselor elaborated further, saying that “even if it were possible, [I’m] not sure if we would want this. [It] could be too reductionist.”
While acknowledging these challenges, participants stated that the benefits of a unified international identity might include increased credibility and a stronger professional identity for counselors; subsequent results from the incorporation of a multi-international cultural lens into professional practices and standards; and more standardized practices geared toward best serving clients across countries (some counselors also considered this to be a drawback). In general, these benefits were grounded in advancing client practices and professional credibility.
One counselor remarked that the counseling profession could continue to move forward if “standards are equal all over the world, taking out the illegal, underqualified people who could seriously damage people’s lives.”
Similarly, another colleague noted, “While I think some things will always have to be accounted for as different between cultures, some basic ethical and educational principles can and should be maintained universally.”
One participant asserted that “the counseling field lacks a certain level of organization, therefore losing some respect.” We believe these claims can be ameliorated through a universal counseling identity.
When we speak about a unified and integrated counseling identity, we do not assume this means that we will all be one and the same. Instead, it means we will stand together. Unification does not equate to a strict identity of the “right way.” Rather, it builds on phenomenological similarities of the counseling profession across cultures while respecting cultural diversity. We must have mutual respect for one another and be willing to listen to and learn from each other even as we acknowledge cultural differences.
These are points and themes that emerged from our cross-cultural conversations with counselors. They also serve as philosophical pillars to current international initiatives taking place through the International Registry of Counsellor Education Programs (IRCEP) and NBCC (National Board for Certified Counselors) International (NBCC-I). These initiatives are vested in professional internationalization and feature a strong emphasis on cultural respect and understanding. These programs don’t project a counseling identity but rather listen to the voices and needs of the associated country in terms of accreditation (IRCEP) and personal credentials (NBCC-I).
We believe that for counseling to grow as a profession, there needs to be a willingness to engage in continued conversations related to an international counseling identity even as we remain open-minded and respectful. The field does look different in other countries, and the conversation is not about right versus wrong; it is about how we all can stand together while respecting one another.
As one participant commented, “I believe some more open communication would be great for establishing a better level of trust and understanding between countries.” Similarly, another participant of this study noted that “multicultural barriers need to be observed.”
Through such respectful communications and open dialogue, we can begin to develop an international counseling identity that is grounded in mutual respect and understanding and that benefits all cultures while furthering our professional identity. As this happens, counselors should face fewer questions from outsiders linking us to psychologists and social workers.
Implications for counselors
Although we, the authors, are vested in the concept of integration, we recognize that cross-cultural conversations must first occur so that counselors around the globe can respectfully united. Regardless of whether the profession ultimately integrates on an international level, cross-cultural conversations related to multiculturalism, client welfare and professional identity should take place.
Multiculturalism and client welfare: Engaging in conversations related to integration may be equated to gaining a multicultural perspective and pursuing cultural competence. Thinking about and potentially developing a unified counselor identity should lead counselors from various countries to consider the perspectives of professionals from different parts of the world. These perspectives might vary depending on the dominant religions of the country in which the counselor practices, the races or ethnicities prevalent in the country, the socioeconomic norms of the area, the country’s infrastructure and the systems that govern the country.
These conversations can help counselors from any background to broaden conceptualizations of the self, others and one’s general worldview. In addition, a counselor’s role might be broadened beyond the individual counseling setting to include reflection on the benefits of the counseling field as a whole. Among the other counseling experiences that can help lead to these realizations are working with military personnel or government agencies overseas, working in international schools around the globe or being involved with counseling programs that expose their students to cultural immersion experiences in various countries. Unfortunately, these experiences may not be available for counselors in all countries.
Professional identity: Imagine if people emigrating from one country to another automatically understood what a person identifying himself or herself as a counselor meant and knew what to expect from the counseling process. The potential exists for reaching more clients worldwide if we can establish a clear identity across the globe for the counseling profession.
One of our field’s vulnerabilities in the United States is that counselors have not carved out the reputation and cohesiveness that other health professions have attained. When you hear that a person is a medical doctor, you are immediately aware that this person practices medicine. Although a medical doctor’s approach to fighting illness and healing the body may differ depending on his or her location in the world, it is a universal “known” that when one does not feel well physically, a doctor is needed. Likewise, most people throughout the world understand that their mental health concerns can be addressed by seeking help from a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Unfortunately, the same scenario tends not to hold true with professional counselors, in part because of our relative “newness” in the world. Let’s move past this stage and toward concepts of unity by becoming grounded in cross-cultural conversations and respect. As Abraham Lincoln noted, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Developing a unified counseling profession in countries where mental health counselors practice has the potential to strengthen our professional identity and reputation around the globe.
Cross-cultural conversations are first grounded in self-reflective practices and understanding of self. As noted, these conversations have a multitude of benefits, including the potential for increasing cultural competency and professional identity.
The following macro-level reflections might prove helpful in the self-reflective process. These prompts are similar to the questions we asked research study participants in our cross-cultural conversations.
- How would you describe the counseling profession in the country in which you practice?
- What challenges do counselors face in the country in which you practice related to the establishment of the profession of counseling or the professional identity of counselors?
- How is the counseling profession in the country in which you practice similar to and different from the counseling profession in other countries?
- What do you think about a unified and international counseling professional identity (e.g., do you believe it can or should exist)?
- What would the benefits and challenges of a unified identity be?
- How could counseling organizations, certification/license-granting bodies, professors of counseling and practitioners facilitate the development of an international counseling identity?
Reflect on these questions, thinking about where your beliefs fall. As with any multicultural consideration, note potential positives and negatives (challenges) while also reflecting on your own ideas related to respectful integration. In addition, converse with colleagues and expand such conversations to the macro-level sphere if possible.
We, the authors, would also love to hear your thoughts. Please contact us to continue this needed conversation. Together, as a profession, let’s step forward together.
International Association for Counselling
IAC, established in 1966, is an international association concerned with the interdisciplinary study of counseling. Its vision: “A world where counselling is available to all.” Its mission: “To serve as an international leader and catalyst for counsellors and counselling associations by advancing culturally relevant counselling practice, research and policy to promote well-being, respect, social justice and peace worldwide.” For more, visit iac-irtac.org.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Karena J. Heyward, an assistant professor at Lynchburg College, is a licensed professional counselor in Virginia and an approved clinical supervisor. She serves as an IRCEP ambassador. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eleni Maria Honderich is a contributing faculty member at Walden University. She is an ambassador for IRCEP and is vested in international studies and professional development in the counseling profession. Contact her at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.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.