Tag Archives: International Members Audience

International Members Audience

Planting seeds in Somalia

By Bethany Bray May 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Personal safety and international work

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Related reading:

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

Nonprofit News: Is international certification right for you?

By “Doc Warren” Corson III April 24, 2017

Prior to 2016, I never gave much thought to becoming certified or licensed in another country. I mean, why go through all the hard work, pay all the fees and have to maintain a credential in a country that I had no plans of living in, let alone work in? And then it seemed like my world changed overnight.

No, I’m not talking about an election, though truth be told, some of my soul died that night, along with my faith in humanity. (How could “Diamond Joe” Quimby from Springfield not at least carry his state? Sure, he is a womanizing, lying, cheating scoundrel, but he is an entertaining one. Plus he has been a TV regular far longer and more consistently than that other guy. His exploits with The Simpsons were certainly worth some votes). I’m actually talking about two other things that happened in 2016 that got me thinking.

First, the American Counseling Association held a joint conference with our neighbors to the north, the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA), giving all of those who presented a chance to engage with an international audience in an international setting (the ACA Conference typically has an international audience with folks from more than a dozen countries attending). My wife and I were honored to be among those selected to present, and we found our northern friends to be a delight — as well as founts of information.

I also visited Lubec, Maine, in 2016, a place where some of my kin once lived and a place where you can actually see Canada while walking down the main drag. In fact, Canada is but a short walk, swim or boat ride away (literally hundreds of feet). I was impressed with the sign at the public boat landing asking folks from Canada to take a walk down the street or call a number to let the U.S. agents know they were visiting. I guess there is little chance of a wall being built there anytime soon.

I loved the environment and felt at home. I could envision my partial retirement years being spent there, which got me to thinking about how I could treat those who reside on Campobello Island, which is within sight of Lubec. This island, which is part of New Brunswick, Canada, is very noncommercial. In fact, until the 1960s, it had no bridge access; folks needed to take a boat to visit. Even today, it boasts no hospital, clinic or other forms of treatment that I am aware of, and even when entering the United States, you are many miles from such things.

 

What is international certification?

International certification (or licensure, depending on the country, location, etc.) is similar to what we have here in the United States and often has rigorous requirements that must be met and maintained. Having this credential allows you to become an independent practitioner should you so choose. It also allows you to collect fees from third parties such as insurance companies. Let’s face it — folks like me will never work for someone else, so becoming credentialed is the only way to consider making such a move.

Becoming credentialed in another country may be helpful for some clinicians but not all. Here are some scenarios:

  • Those who hope to work in, consult in, present in or one day move to a given country may find that being credentialed in that country eases the transition.
  • Maintaining a credential often can be easier than trying to apply for that credential for the first time 20 or more years after attending graduate school because requirements can change a great deal over time. (I was happy to see that my 17-year-old program still meets current requirements both in the United States and Canada, but many would not.)
  • International certification may provide a bit more prestige in general but especially to those who consult either in the private sector or as an expert witness in court cases. Being able to state that you are certified/licensed to practice not only in the United States but also in another country may give a boost to your perceived authority and possibly enable you to increase your fee.
  • For those attempting to present or publish internationally, review boards may be more comfortable accepting and inviting those whom they know have an investment and understanding of the country in question.
  • In the case of my nonprofit, we are considering expanding into Canada if and when it makes sense from a financial and logistical standpoint. Having prior credentials in the country you wish to expand into can help with some of the permit requirements. Getting this done ahead of time can help smooth the transition.

 

Which countries are best for you?

The answer to this question is highly subjective and depends on several factors, including where you see yourself possibly moving to or working either in the near or distant future. Does the country in question allow for nonresident credentialing? In Canada, you can get credentialed through the CCPA without being a resident. At least one Canadian province also allows a licensure option, but only those who have lived in the country for a substantial amount of time are eligible.

Among other questions to ask: Will this credential benefit you at all professionally? Will it open possible venues that may otherwise be closed to you?

 

How do I get certified in another country?

This answer depends on the country you select. For this discussion, we’ll focus on Canada because I am in the process of becoming certified as a counselor and counseling supervisor. Surprisingly enough, this process is in some ways easier than it is in the United States (although that may change at any moment). Currently, there is no comprehensive exam requirement. Instead, a comprehensive review of education and experience is required.

To get started, you need to become a member of CCPA. To apply for certification, members download the application and begin the typical process of selecting which track they want to take to certification. Each track offers advantages and disadvantages depending on your date of graduation and experience. Once the track has been selected, you will need to get forms signed verifying your experience, letters of recommendation, a comprehensive background check, official transcripts and, for those from other countries, proof that your college was accredited in your country at the time of graduation. You will also need to provide official course descriptions so they can be compared with the Canadian equivalent.

In my case, getting 17-year-old official course descriptions was far from easy — especially given that I went to a college that merged with another college before being sold to yet another and then finally bought large parts of itself back. Thankfully, I had unofficial copies from when I was a student (I save things). I also had access to the then-director, so when I ran into a hurdle at the original school, I was able to proffer the descriptions via email and had the former director verify their accuracy. As of the time of this writing, official descriptions had been submitted for review by CCPA.

On another note, make sure that you get an FBI background check. I was given a background check by my local police department (located in the same place where I was born, raised and have always lived). This did NOT meet the certification requirements. If you are not required to get fingerprinted during your background check, you likely aren’t getting the one you will need.

 

After you apply

Just like in the United States, after you apply for international certification you will need to wait — and then possibly wait some more while the application process progresses or stalls. If you’re lucky, there will be a portal that you can log in to to view the progress, and the organization in charge of issuing certification will be prompt in contacting you should something not meet its standards (such as when my local background check was rejected).

In addition, be sure to follow up with your references. Even the most dedicated of colleagues can sometimes misplace or overlook your reference instead of sending it in, or they might make a mistake on it that results in the reference being rejected. Be prepared to submit and resubmit as needed. Stay calm, stay polite and stay focused.

International credentialing may not be for everyone, but for some of us, it can be well worth the fees and time invested. So sit back, close your eyes and imagine in what country you could see yourself in the future. Once you have a place in mind, start the exploration process. Who knows? You just may change your life.

 

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Dr. Warren Corson III

“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). Contact him at docwarren@docwarren.org. Additional resources related to nonprofit design, documentation and related information can be found at docwarren.org/supervisionservices/resourcesforclinicians.html.

 

 

 

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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.

Establishing a professional international counseling identity

By Karena J. Heyward and Eleni Maria Honderich October 4, 2016

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 branding-images_globepowerful 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.

Resolving differences

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.

Self-reflective processes

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.

 

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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.

 

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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 karena.heyward@gmail.com.

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 emhond@gmail.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Lessons from Lilongwe

By Leah K. Clarke July 27, 2016

The author in front of a statue of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the first president of Malawi.

The author in front of a statue of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the first president of Malawi.

During my first internship as a master’s student, I provided in-home family counseling and quickly became overwhelmed by the needs I thought I saw in my clients’ lives. Most of my clients had low incomes, and some lived in subsidized housing. With excellent supervision, I did my best to provide counseling, but as a new counselor, I was desperate to see that what I was doing was actually making a difference. My clients’ lives continued to be difficult on many fronts.

Perhaps to make myself feel useful and wanting to help others on a practical level, I began volunteering with a refugee resettlement agency — providing transportation, teaching English and helping with paperwork. I lived in two worlds — one where I tried to impact what was going on externally and one where I tried to impact what was going on internally. At the end of my counselor training, a part of me was not convinced that counseling was an effective way to help people with significant day-to-day needs. Was it a counselor’s job to attend to every level of Maslow’s hierarchy? I questioned what impact, if any, I had made on my counseling clients’ lives.

I went on to write my doctoral dissertation on the experiences of the refugees I had gotten to know. They had joys and very real struggles. Meanwhile, questions still lingered for me: Was counseling what they needed? Was I really helping?

It took a trip across the Atlantic to realize that my cynicism regarding the role of counselors had softened. In 2014, I spent three weeks in Lilongwe, Malawi, in southeastern Africa. Malawi calls
itself “the warm heart of Africa,” and indeed it did provide a warm welcome and a tropical respite from a cold U.S. winter. Malawi is the same size as Pennsylvania, where I now live and work as a counselor educator. But Malawi has 4 million more people than my home state, and it is one of the poorest countries in the world economically.

I traveled to the African nation as part of the Malawi Counseling Institute, organized by Old Dominion University and NBCC International (NBCC-I), a division of the National Board for Certified Counselors. Institute participants from the United States partnered with the Guidance, Counselling and Youth Development Centre for Africa in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city. The center is run by counselors and educators from all over Africa and serves as a hub for training counselors and professionalizing counseling.

On our first day at the center, the staff greeted the U.S. participants with jubilant hugs and kisses and lingering handshakes. They wanted to know how we had slept, how our travels were, what we needed. On our second day, we again were greeted with jubilant hugs and kisses and lingering handshakes. The center staff already knew all 11 of us by name. The same warm welcome was repeated each day until we boarded our plane home three weeks later. We spent our time in Malawi putting on a conference for local counselors, collaborating with the center staff on professional advocacy projects and providing consultation and encouragement for counselors/teachers and students in primary and secondary schools.

The young people who attended the schools we visited were not referred to as students but as learners. I like this naming tradition because the role of “learner” captures something that “student” does not. To study something is to know more about it, but to learn something is to make it part of yourself. Learning changes how you operate in the world.

When I reflect on my time in Malawi, I see myself as a learner. Being there changed how I saw counseling. It became clearer to me what a counselor’s role could be when the needs are numerous. In Lilongwe, these moments of clarity came to me as lessons (plus I like titles with alliteration: Lessons from Lilongwe).

Lesson No. 1: The relationship is the task

Toward the end of our time in Malawi, the U.S. participants arrived at the counseling center eager to have a productive day of collaboration with our hosts. Our time was ending, and certain tasks felt unfinished. We were there to share our expertise, and I wanted to feel useful and productive.

But a change of plans was announced; we were going to spend the day sightseeing and getting to know our African colleagues better. Complaining about our thwarted agenda, we loaded into the vans.

It turned out to be a wonderful day of simply being together and learning about Malawi’s history and culture. Our hosts knew better than we did that it would be a productive day because strengthening our relationships was the task. Instead of checking things off of my self-affirming to-do list, I found myself truly having to “be” with my hosts and fellow participants.

Task versus relationship orientation has been used as a leadership theory paradigm, but I think it also applies to counseling. When we lean too heavily on a task orientation in counseling, we end up with clients who feel pressured or defensive and counselors who feel frustrated and ineffective. When counseling is only about the relationship, clients and counselors can feel lost and unsure. Techniques such as motivational interviewing help us focus on goals in a relationship-friendly way so that we can attend to both task and relationship.

But there are times when you prioritize one over the other. This lesson was brought home to me recently when we learned that the person who organized that day in Lilongwe — the director of the center — had died. He was a remarkable person who stopped corruption at the center and literally got it out of the weeds. How thankful I am that we accomplished “nothing” with him that day.

Lesson No. 2: Hospitality matters

The cultural value placed on relationships in Malawi means that a significant amount of time and energy is invested in formal hospitality for visitors. This is in stark contrast to American casualness.

Our African hosts dressed formally in our presence, and tea was served every afternoon. Meetings began with elaborate introductions and expressions of gratitude that revolved around hierarchies that were somewhat vague to us. This level of pomp and circumstance sometimes felt embarrassing or superfluous. Then I realized how much Americans eschew ritual and traditions for the sake of efficiency and personal comfort. Formal hospitality sends a message: You are valued and you are important.

Once when I was conducting a family session as a 20-something counselor, a client directed a remark at me to the effect of “why should I listen to this teenager in a hoodie?” The sweater I was wearing did indeed have a hood. Although I am (and was) aware that this client’s reaction was about more than my attire, I now think he was right. I wasn’t dressed in a way that conveyed how important my work was or how important the client was.

There is much we can do as counselors to make our clients or students feel important and valued. How welcoming are the spaces we invite them into? How welcoming are the words we use when we see them? Admittedly, it takes thought, effort and resources to decorate a waiting room or to dress more formally. It doesn’t take much, however, to say, “I’m so glad you are here today.” I see no downside to causing ourselves a little bit of discomfort for the sake of valuing others.

Lesson No. 3: Dependence is dehumanizing

One of the highlights of our trip was a private meeting for our group with Joyce Banda, who was then the president of Malawi. Of course, to say that we met her might be an overstatement; she talked and we listened. Still, I was moved and sobered by what she shared.

Banda was Malawi’s vice president when her predecessor died in office, leaving her in charge of a government that was being accused of corruption. Her opponents claimed she was part of the corruption, whereas she claimed she had helped to eliminate it. The corruption scandal, called Cashgate, triggered an audit that brought international donors, including the U.S. government, to Banda’s door to demand house cleaning and, in some cases, to stop funding. Roughly 40 percent of Malawi’s budget is dependent on foreign aid. One thing Banda said about this reckoning was that she hoped one day she could meet with foreign leaders and “just have tea in the garden.”

What I took away from this encounter was the dehumanization that occurs when a relationship is based solely on dependency. When roles are constrained to “giver” and “taker,” no one feels satisfied. The “giver” feels frustrated if the gifts are not used as intended, whereas the “taker” feels oppressed and belittled.

There are more eloquent speakers on the problems of foreign aid, but I see this dynamic playing out on the micro level. When counselors get into the mindset of “us” helping “them,” we have started on the path to dehumanization. Although there are times when clients and students legitimately need us in healthy ways, as counselors, we should be looking to put ourselves out of business. We work not just to heal wounds but also to equip. Yes, we pass along skills and ideas that are useful for the client’s or community’s goals, but we should also know when to get out of the way. We should be alert to when “helping” is actually making things worse or simply benefiting the helper emotionally or monetarily.

Lesson No. 4:  There is no hierarchy of needs

The idea of a hierarchy of needs, proposed by Abraham Maslow in a paper in 1943, was among the first things I was taught as an undergraduate psychology major. I think it has stuck in my memory because the idea is alluringly intuitive.

Maslow believed that people’s behaviors would drive them to satisfy one need before focusing on the next. In the pyramid-shaped illustration of the concept, physical and survival needs make up the base of the hierarchy, and then at the small top is self-actualization.

Although many scholars agree that the needs themselves exist in people, there is almost no empirical support for the hierarchy. Yet it is referenced frequently. Recently, at a gathering of counselors, someone mentioned working with clients with limited resources and followed it up by saying something like, “It’s Maslow’s hierarchy — you can’t do counseling with someone who doesn’t know where they will sleep tonight or get their next meal.”

So, what is a counselor to do in a country full of people experiencing daily threats to their survival — high rates of HIV and maternal mortality, floods and food shortages? In that context, is counseling irrelevant? Is it only for those who are privileged enough to move toward self-actualization? Or should counselors work only to feed the hungry while ignoring their emotional needs?

Counseling was born out of meeting both practical and emotional needs. The first counselors did vocational development for soldiers returning from World War II. There is still a strong force within the counseling profession that reminds us not to ignore the daily realities of those we are serving. We are called to pay attention to those realities and get involved in them. I certainly advocate for advocacy, but I also know it is tempting to substitute it for good counseling.

As counselors, I think we should be about what we are about. Counseling is what we are good at, and counseling is a tool useful to people with all different kinds of needs. Physical and practical needs are not necessarily unrelated to emotional needs. A mother is better able to provide food for her children if traumatic flashbacks are not stopping her from going to work. Parents can better support their child with a learning disability if they figure out how to value each other’s strengths. A fifth-grader can focus on taking an exam when he is not worried about being bullied.

I have come to fully value counseling and have made peace with its limits. It might feel good at times to try, but I cannot be all things to all people, nor can the profession of counseling. When it comes to other cultures, I want to be a learner who takes in how other groups of people care for and help one another. I hope this will allow me to be a really good counselor for those who cross my path as I pass along the tools I have learned.

I hope that in southern Africa or anywhere else, counselors who know the needs of their communities can draw on what counseling has to offer. And if you are ever in central Pennsylvania, I hope you will stop in for tea.

 

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Leah K. Clarke, a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor, is assistant director of the graduate counseling program at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Contact her at lclarke@messiah.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Professional trip to India opens eyes, fills hearts

By Bethany Bray June 20, 2016

Counselors around the world have more in common than you might think.

Angela Coker, an associate professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL), found herself talking about some very familiar issues with international colleagues recently at a conference in Bangalore, India. Challenges that American counselors face – workload, pay rate and questions of counselor identity – are the same for colleagues around the world.

“In interacting with many of the counselors I met at the conference, [I found that] the issue of professional identity of counselors is a worldwide issue. I met a counselor from the U.K. who talked about how most people don’t know what a counselor is, or what we do,” says Coker, a licensed professional counselor (LPC). “It really just hit home again that most people don’t know … We have a lot of work to do, in terms of educating people who we are.”

Coker and Sachin Jain, an LPC and associate director of Counselors Without Borders, led a group of six masters-level graduate students from UMSL and George Mason University to India in January. The group attended and presented at the International Counselling, Psychotherapy and Wellness Conference at Christ University in Bangalore.

Many of the students who went on the 10-day trip said the experience spurred both personal and professional growth; for one student, it also allowed her to overcome past trauma she associated with Indian culture (see sidebar, below).

The conference, jointly organized by Christ University and the University of Toronto, was a gathering of university educators and professionals from around the world. While on the Christ University campus, the group was able to interact and share meals with Indian counseling students.

George Mason student Alexander Hilert remembers this experience as a highlight of the trip.

“I found a great deal of similarity between myself and the (Indian) students, sharing their motivations and aspirations for making a difference and helping others,” says Hilert.

Jain has been leading groups of counselor educators and students on professional work/study trips to his native India for years, including a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2013. This time, the trek was a chance for students to present at an academic conference, as well as be exposed to culture and perspectives they might be missing in an American graduate program, he says. In India, there is a shortage of mental and physical healthcare, while the needs are great – due to stressors such as poverty, class struggles, rampant corruption and high rates of suicide, says Jain.

“Students are the future leaders for the field. But their [American] training explicitly does not identify the most vulnerable populations living in developing countries, [which] severely limits advocacy and social justice efforts,” says Jain. “My hope is that some of these students return back to India or other developing countries to serve.”

Coker agreed, saying the trip was a chance to “expose some of our students to international thinking.”

“The whole purpose of this trip was international immersion and to increase multicultural consciousness,” Coker says. “A person can get a whole PhD (in the U.S.) without reading a text by anyone who isn’t an American, which I think is crazy.”

 

 

In their own words

Here are some thoughts from the counseling graduate students who traveled to India this winter:

 

“Deciding to make the trip to India was a very challenging decision for me to make personally. Not just because of logistics or the fact I had never been out of the country before but because I had a traumatic experience when I was 14 years old when a man who was from India sexually assaulted me. In court he used his cultural background as a defense. At a young age I became fearful of Indian culture, believing his words that his actions were considered normal in his country. From that point forward I generalized and shied away from the culture; India was one country I told myself I would never visit in my lifetime.

When I first learned about the opportunity to travel to India I knew it was a wonderful opportunity, but it was just something I told myself I could not do. Over the next several months I did a lot of self-reflection. When the day came that I got the email announcing the trip I decided in that moment, YES, I was going. It was the perfect time for me in my personal journey towards healing and growth and I just knew it was something I had to do and I would forever regret passing on this opportunity. I sought out supervision from my supervisors and professors; they were all very encouraging and gave me some tools and coping skills to help me on my journey.

One moment in particular was monumental for my personal growth. There was a cultural (dance) performance I was able to witness and I was in complete awe as the group started to perform. It was breathtakingly beautiful and I found myself tearing up. This was a culture I feared for so long, a culture I shied away from, and in that moment I felt genuine appreciation and admiration as I watched this performance and I felt myself take a huge step towards my recovery.

Being immersed into a culture is completely different than reading about it in a textbook or watching a movie. Being able to experience the sights, sounds, tastes and feel of a culture brings my understanding of cultural awareness to a completely different level. By personally overcoming my fears and biases held from a traumatic experience in my youth and by witnessing firsthand the struggles of poverty, racism and cultural norms I know I will be better equipped personally and professionally as a multicultural and social justice [focused] counselor.”

— Eliina Belenkiy, George Mason University

 

“The highlight of the trip for me was attending class and meeting the counseling graduate students at Christ University. This gave me the opportunity [to] see how counseling theory was taught there. For example, mindfulness-based therapy was being taught from a broader cultural and historical perspective. We discussed parallels between our training and perspectives as counselors (there was a great deal of overlap) and learned about the challenges counselors face in promoting the mental health profession in India. I found a great deal of similarity between myself and the students, sharing their motivations and aspirations for making a difference and helping others.

Something critical I learned about myself was how I react to being in an unfamiliar environment culturally. Thankfully I was supported by Dr. Sachin Jain and the students and faculty at Christ. But I think it will help me moving forward, having more empathy for clients navigating culturally unfamiliar environments. I also realize the difference race, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexuality and socioeconomic status play in terms of this experience and the treatment you receive. I would say I’m learning to keep these factors in mind in how I relate to others and the stand I take for social justice.

I think my struggle and ‘aha moment’ was learning to be more present and open-minded. In my mind this is what makes cross-cultural dialogue possible and where the learning occurs.”

— Alexander Hilert, George Mason University

(Left to right) Tosha Pearson-Royston, Eliina Belenkiy, Dr. Angela Coker, Dr. Sachin Jain, Ngozi Williams, Deborah McGhee, Alex Hilert and Meaghan Lakes pictured at the Mysuru Palace in Southern India.

(Left to right) Tosha Pearson-Royston, Eliina Belenkiy, Dr. Angela Coker, Dr. Sachin Jain, Ngozi Williams, Deborah McGhee, Alex Hilert and Meaghan Lakes pictured at the Mysuru Palace in Southern India.

“My trip to India was nothing short of miraculous. I met so many wonderful people during my visit. I was first struck by the noise, dirt, trash and amount of people on the streets at any given time. However, I became so entranced by [the] life I saw on a daily basis. The people were so colorful, energetic and full of life. I was shocked to notice how prevalent colorism was in the country. I noticed most, if not all of the skincare products had bleaching cream, and I felt sad. I felt sad because I began making direct parallels between the people of India and Black/African-Americans and how colorism has affected us. I became very close with a young Indian woman; she explained it this way: ‘families want their daughters to marry men of European decent to have fairer children and grandchildren.’ I’m so thankful for this opportunity, and have used it to help me grow while working with international people during my internship. When working with [clients] I will be aware of similarities that different cultures share and use what I have learned to be the best professional counselor I can be. My [Indian] friend and I have kept in touch since my return to the U.S., and our friendship is growing. I’ve been invited to her wedding and we speak weekly. I wouldn’t trade my time in India for the world, and I can’t wait to return!”

— Tosha Pearson, UMSL

 

“While I had no clear or definite expectations for our trip to India, admittedly, some of my experiences surprised me. My most significant personal reflection is the feeling of Otherness I had while there. That is to say, I felt a different type of ‘other’ than I feel when I am at home in the U.S. As an African-American woman, I am very experienced with being a minority or being viewed as atypical to my surroundings, however, my India experience gave it a different flavor. Not only was I, and a few of my peers, atypical, we broached on the verge of being novelty. Public response to our presence varied from discreet stares and pointing to requests for pictures and being followed by groups of schoolchildren on a field trip. While it did not feel rude, it definitely felt strange, as if I were suddenly under the scrutiny of standards I did not know or understand. As a result, I had a sense of vulnerability throughout my trip, though not feeling unsafe, just uncertainty about where I stood in the grand scheme.

Understanding social justice, multiculturalism and the multiple forms of oppression is essential for every counselor and counseling student because these issues are relevant all over the world. Bangalore, as one of the fastest growing cities in India, must handle issues with pollution, construction and other logistical and socioeconomic problems. For example, the city had some of the busiest and congested traffic I had ever witnessed, but I did not observe many pedestrian crosswalks, despite seeing numerous construction projects in progress. How do these things affect the disabled? The ill? The elderly? As counselors, we must be aware of the wants, needs and obstacles of the minority as well as the majority.

Another area of interest that I observed in India was the standards of beauty promoted by the media. My first observation was that the individuals featured did not match [or] reflect the features of general populace. While somewhat expected, the extent of these differences were sometimes surprising with some models even appearing to have significant European heritage vs. Indian/Asian heritage. Most of the ad models had light eyes, narrow noses and lighter or olive tone skin, while most of the residents in the city did not. Furthermore, many beauty products were promoted as a means of obtaining these features. All throughout the city, we saw billboards for plastic surgery, cosmetic procedures and products, including numerous ads for skin whitening cream. As counselors, we should ask the following questions: How do standards like these affect a culture? How can we understand –isms (such as racism, colorism, sexism, etc.) in a different cultural context than our own?”

— Meaghan Lakes, UMSL

 

 

 

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

 

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