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Students Audience

Human rights 101, Part 2: Implications for graduate students and counselor education programs

By Clark D. Ausloos and Taylor Nelson December 2, 2019

Part one of our two-part series provided a foundation of the importance of human rights, the relevance to professional counseling, and practical strategies to use when working with clients who have experienced human rights violations. Part two focuses on human rights, social justice and advocacy related to counseling graduate students and counselor education programs.

Many people enter the counseling profession because they have a desire to help people. They have a knack for listening and possess a genuine curiosity for the human condition. Many students have a passion for mending, repairing and supporting others towards self-actualization. In many introductory graduate classes, students explore the foundations of the counseling profession, learning about psychotherapy pioneers such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Frank Parsons, and Carl Rogers, and learn necessary basic skills in order to best help clients.

However, graduate students are not often given clear direction on how to execute one essential ethical mandate dictated in the ACA Code of Ethics: to “advocate at individual, group, institutional, and societal levels to address barriers and obstacles that inhibit access and/or the growth and development of clients” (A.7.a). Advocacy can seem confusing and challenging to graduate students – some might even think: I didn’t become a counselor to engage in advocacy. Many graduate students are unclear as to the multifaceted roles that counselors have, including the component of advocacy as it relates to human rights issues. This lack of clarity is not unfounded  –  professional counselors often lack consensus on how best to advocate for and on behalf of their clients’ human rights.

Multiculturalism, social justice and human rights

Counseling is a young profession and has seen many developments throughout the years. Starting in the late 1980s, professional counselors saw a need for attention to diversity in clinical and educational settings. Increasingly, counselors were diagnosing and treating individuals who differed culturally from themselves. Therefore, the needs of the profession shifted, however slowly, to meet the needs of consumers. At that time, scholarship focused on racial and ethnic identities in counseling, and mainly examined the relationship between a professional counselor’s ethnocultural identity and that of the client. In the 1990s, Garry Walz and colleagues identified significant trends that should inform future counseling, including developing skills in counseling older adults, counseling family systems, a commitment to multiculturalism, and most salient to this article, the development of advocacy skills.

In 1992, ACA’s first Multicultural Counseling Competencies (MCC) were developed for professional counseling. Becoming competent in multicultural counseling would require counselors to not only understand and honor the diverse customs of different cultures but to recognize the additional barriers many client groups faced. Meeting the needs of disadvantaged clients would require not just knowledge, but action. In 1998, the American Counseling Association (ACA) formed a new division — Counselors for Social Justice (CSJ)— to implement social action strategies aimed at the empowerment of clients and oppressed individuals and groups. With the increasing awareness that social justice concerns must take a prominent role in the profession, the need for individual counselors to gain competency became clear. Because social justice and multicultural issues are inherently linked, the competencies were incorporated into an adapted version of the MCC in 2015, creating the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC). At the same time awareness of the importance of advocacy—both for the profession itself and for counselors’ work with clients—was growing and became a focus for ACA leaders. A task force was created to develop advocacy competencies. The ACA Advocacy Competencies were completed in 2003 to provide guidance for counselor advocacy at the micro (e.g., clients, students), meso (e.g., communities, organizations), and macro (e.g. to reflect the profession’s growing understanding of the use of advocacy with clients and their communities and were updated in 2018.

Still, with all of this information, graduate students may be left wondering, “what exactly does this mean for me?”

As mentioned in part one of our series, human rights are civil, political and/or cultural rights that are afforded to humans regardless of our intersecting identities. When these rights of our clients are violated, there are tremendous mental health repercussions. Counselors-in-training need to understand the complexities of human rights issues, when and how these rights are violated, and the ways they can engage in advocacy around these issues.

There is a clear connection between social justice, advocacy and human rights. At times, social justice can be combined with advocacy, creating social justice advocacy, which can be described as organized efforts aimed at influencing sociopolitical outcomes, often with or on behalf of vulnerable, marginalized populations. Whether direct system intervention or collaborative advocacy with clients or client groups, counselors-in-training and practicing counselors need to be able to conceptualize and execute advocacy and social justice strategies to mitigate health disparities caused by human rights violations.

The impact of human rights on graduate students

Beginning counseling students are asked to reflect upon their own worldviews and to begin to form a framework from which they will work with clients – a theoretical orientation. It is likely that human rights issues have, in some way, affected students’ lives prior to entering graduate school.

Tracy, for example, is a graduate student who has encountered societal barriers due to their non-binary gender identity (non-binary denotes a gender identity that is not defined in terms of the traditional binary of male or female). Tracy has faced discrimination in schools, was forced to use a bathroom that was not congruent with their identity and has encountered challenges with changing their gender marker on legal documents. This pattern of harassment and obstruction has not only impeded Tracy’s pursuit of their right to a quality education—it has threatened their personal safety. As a counselor in training, Tracy’s worldview and the way they approach counseling will be directly affected by these violations of their human rights.

In contrast, Anthony is a counseling graduate student with numerous identities. As a White, heterosexual, cisgender male, Anthony has experienced very few human rights violations. Yet human rights issues have already had an effect on Anthony’s worldview and theoretical orientation. Because Anthony has not experienced discrimination due to gender identity or sexual orientation, has not experienced poverty, harsh criminal sentencing and does not face obstacles related to legal documents or using public restrooms, his understanding of the relationship between human rights and counseling will be markedly different than Tracy’s.

These two examples demonstrate that when students begin their counselor training, their views on human rights issues have already been shaped by their experiences. A student who has not experienced violations has potentially started to develop a worldview that may not include an understanding of human rights issues. In contrast, a student who has experienced violations not only has an understanding of human rights issues but has been shaped by the difficulties they faced. These divergent experiences will affect the students’ training and may have a significant influence on their work as professional counselors. Thus, it is essential to intentionally address these issues in graduate school.

Learning the effectiveness of clinical interventions in counseling sessions is an established and vital part of graduate students’ training. However, it is equally imperative that counselors-in-training learn how effective—and necessary—it is to work with clients in varying groups and levels, such as families, groups, and at the community or other systemic level. Using a social justice and advocacy approach allows counselors to empower marginalized clients while also working to change the existing external environments for the clients.

For example, as a counselor-in-training, Anthony may work with a 14-year old bisexual, transgender person of color who has experienced time in the criminal justice system. To provide effective counseling, Anthony not only needs to know information about the current justice system, youth under the law, gender, sexuality and racial and ethnic identities and how this impacts his clients health, but also ways to systemically advocate with and on behalf of this client, as an essential part of ethical treatment and attention to social justice.

Anthony can get this critical information by using resources such as Human Rights Watch, an international organization which investigates and reports on human rights-related violations around the world lists several current human rights concerns on their website: Harsh criminal sentencing, racial disparities, drug policy and policing, children in the criminal justice systems, hate crimes, rights of non-citizens, sexual orientation and gender identity, women’ and girls’ rights, and national security, among others.

Human rights and counselor education programs

In many counselor education programs, human rights issues are often introduced in multicultural and diversity courses, as well as in courses that teach about ethical and legal issues within counseling. However, this is not enough. Additional training is needed but is unlikely to be available to students because most education programs do not offer elective courses in human rights issues. It is often the responsibility of course instructors to take the lead by incorporating human rights issues throughout coursework.

Sufficiently educating students on human rights issues will require curricula and systemic change and will also require counselor educators to self-reflect and understand how human rights issues shaped their own worldview, which will, in turn, affect their work with students. If instructors model silence surrounding these issues, students may graduate from counselor education programs lacking the human rights knowledge that is critical to their work as professional counselors. Counselor educators need to teach students that any reflection on the factors that have shaped their worldview is incomplete without examining human rights issues. The extent of the effect of human rights issues on individuals is evident by examining the significant difference in the lived experiences of Anthony and Tracy.

Although scholarly research plays a part in any graduate program, the expectations for master’s level counseling students are different than those in doctoral programs. Some master’s programs may not assign regular research projects to students. In contrast, doctoral students undertake rigorous research into clinical counseling practices and improvement in counselor education and training. Because human rights issues play an important role in these topics, students are likely to encounter clear examples of violations. For example, research examining the counseling experiences of single mothers of color in poverty might explore systemic barriers and oppression these people face, which are direct violations of human rights.

By not giving students significant exposure to research, counselor education programs are missing an opportunity for counselor trainees to be exposed to human rights issues. The old adage “meet clients where they are at” provides a helpful framework for understanding the need to integrate human rights issues into counseling programs. As part of their training, counseling students provide services to a client base that includes members of society who regularly experience human rights violations. Without an understanding of the myriad forms human rights violations can take (see part one of this series for examples) and an awareness of which populations regularly experience issues—and the physical and mental health damage caused—counselors-in-training will be ill-equipped to meet the needs of their clients.

When counselor education programs minimize or outright ignore human rights concepts in students’ training, they could potentially be causing potential harm to future clients. Nonmaleficence — avoiding actions that cause harm — is one of the fundamental ethical principles of counseling set out in the ACA Code of Ethics preamble. Intentionally infusing social justice advocacy and human rights components into the array of coursework will benefit graduate students’ self-efficacy, their clients, and, ultimately, society at large.

 

In the following section, we provide several strategies for graduate students, counselor educators, and counselor education programs to attend to human rights issues and incorporate advocacy and social justice strategies into the classroom:

For graduate students:

  • Mitigate imposter syndrome related to advocacy by managing self-talk, reflecting on accomplishments, normalizing with other graduate students, and practicing self-grace and compassion.
  • Call, text, email, or write to local, state and national legislative representatives on issues that directly impact human rights issues.
  • Engage in continuous self-assessment related to your own advocacy and social justice competency, by using advocacy competency self-assessment tools and surveys.
  • Conduct research that relates to human rights issues and propose/present it at local, regional, and national counseling conferences.
  • Develop and update a list of local, regional, state, and national resources for clients who experience human rights violations.

For counselor education programs and educators:

  • Foster intentional discussions about current human rights issues throughout all areas of counselor training, in addition to diversity, lifespan, and legal/ethical courses.
  • Integrate human rights issues into case studies and clinical examples so graduate students can experience “real world” examples of clients in training programs, prior to practicum and internship experiences.
  • Co-construct specific advocacy and social justice plans as part of coursework that allows graduate students an opportunity to actively participate in these strategies outside of their practicum or internship counseling sessions.
  • Structure clinical experiences that allow students to work with diverse clients and settings. One way to do this might be to work with the program’s clinical coordinator to ensure practicum and internship sites are varied and, if possible, host a variety of clients with a variety of presenting issues.
  • Teach human rights violation assessment as part of a comprehensive biopsychosocial diagnostic evaluation.
  • Allow guest speakers who have experienced human rights violations in the classroom. The personal stories of people who have lived through human rights violations provide a more vivid and compelling understanding than a lecture containing abstract examples. Mentor and model students in research that relates to human rights issues and empower them to propose/present it at local, regional and national counseling conferences.

 

Counselor education programs can also expand outside awareness of human rights issues in a variety of ways:

  • Create statements (with university permission) of support or resolutions that can increase the visibility of and address barriers to human rights issues.
  • Host “days of awareness,” with various human rights topics addressed on different days through flyers, posters or with guest speakers via workshops or panels.
  • Partner with other departments, when possible, in order to cast a wider net of influence and awareness of human rights issues.

 

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Clark D. Ausloos is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toledo. He is a licensed school counselor and currently practices as a licensed professional counselor in a private practice setting in Northwest Ohio. Contact him at clark.ausloos@utoledo.edu.

Ausloos was a member of the American Counseling Association’s Human Rights Committee, as were the authors of the first article in this series.

Taylor M. Nelson is a second-year doctoral student at the University of Toledo. She is a licensed professional counselor in Ohio, working in an inpatient psychiatric hospital setting. Contact her at Taylor.Nelson2@rockets.utoledo.edu.

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

From the President: Sustaining the lifeblood of our profession

Heather Trepal

Heather Trepal, the 68th president of the American Counseling Association

December is here, a time of year (along with the months of May and August) when many colleges and universities hold commencement. The prospect of completing a hard-earned master’s or doctoral degree in counseling is both awesome and daunting. Rightly, graduates are proud of the time and personal and financial investments they have put into earning their degrees. We know that counselors spend roughly four years on their undergraduate degrees and then an average of three years on their master’s degrees.

Even after this robust educational preparation, counselors who wish to become licensed spend another two to three years working under supervision. In addition, counselors sometimes work to obtain certifications in their specialty areas or to become eligible for employment in various settings. We are a well-prepared group of professionals!

We are also in high demand, with severe shortages of behavioral health providers in some states (see “Maldistribution: Mental health care in America,” an online exclusive at CT Online). Although we all know that our profession is robust and that we need to continue to educate our growing behavioral health workforce, there is an important gap. To illustrate my point, I want to share an email that I received:

“I’ve noticed something happening with people graduating from the counseling program, not only at my school but all over the state. I’ve noticed many people graduate and are unable to pursue licensure because they can’t afford supervision or they need a full-time job so they can have medical insurance. I’ve noticed people using the school’s insurance and then panicking when they graduate because they can’t go without insurance and they can’t get a full-time position as a counselor intern until they secure a supervisor and get their license, which can take weeks/months. I would love to do advocacy work for this issue, but I don’t know where to begin. I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction? I don’t know if I need to speak to legislators or the school or the board or the ACA.”

Unfortunately, emails like this one are not uncommon. We have many graduate students and new professionals who are concerned about the prospect of launching their careers. In addition to the practical barriers related to employment, finances and medical insurance, there are the complexities of pursuing licensure or certification, including obtaining supervision.

As a counselor educator and supervisor, I am keenly aware of this pressing issue. In fact, this year, Thelma Duffey is chairing a task force to examine ways ACA can support new professionals and early career counselors. The creation of this task force was partly inspired by a project in Thelma’s career class on advocacy for graduate students and new professionals. The task force is collecting data on such issues as new professional compensation across settings (both geographically and among professions); expanding opportunities for counselors in nontraditional settings; and highlighting transferable skills to corporations, health care organizations, industry, and higher education. Recognizing the great needs of counselors before they are licensed to practice independently, I have asked the task force to also explore the post-graduation licensure internship and supervision experiences of our counselors and recommend advocacy directions. I have also asked our Professional Standards Committee to examine the licensure, certification and practice trends for this group of professional counselors.

I am inspired by the advocacy work of one of our ACA members, Summer Allen, who founded the Texas LPC Intern Association. In Texas, pre-independently licensed counselors, or those who have graduated from a master’s program and are working on supervised licensure hours, are called “interns.” The mission of this organization is to “support the professional development of current and future LPC Interns through free resources, support, community, and advocacy.” In fact, one of its first advocacy efforts was aimed at petitioning the state and licensure board to change the title from LPC intern to LPC associate. Please visit txlpcinterns.com to learn more about the organization’s efforts.

It is often said that graduate students are the lifeblood of our profession. The joy of working with them and supporting them on their journey is one of the main reasons that I became a counselor educator. I implore our ACA branches, divisions, regions, and sister organizations to pay attention to this group of professional counselors. If you know of other organizations and grassroots efforts aimed at supporting new professionals and early career counselors, please reach out and let me know.

 

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Follow Heather on Twitter @HeatherTrepal

Voice of Experience: Looking for honesty in the supervisory relationship

By Gregory K. Moffatt October 24, 2019

Sitting in a workshop for supervisors at the American Counseling Association’s annual conference in 2018, I listened to the presenter discuss cases of ethical violations by licensed counselors around the country. All of us in the room were stunned at some of the flagrant violations that had occurred. Among the examples presented were counselors sleeping with their clients, marrying past clients, and seeing clients regularly in social settings. Some of these counselors were disciplined by their state licensing boards, while others voluntarily surrendered their licenses and left the profession.

It’s a good thing that none of them lived in Georgia, the state where I practice, or they could have gone to jail. In Georgia, it is a felony to sleep with your client or to terminate with a client for the explicit purpose of engaging in a sexual relationship.

The 25 or so supervisors in the room were surprised at the risks these counselors had taken. The obvious question was: “How did it get that far?” We were stunned that any professional would throw all of their education and training away so casually, not to mention the damage they might have done to their clients.

Around the same time, I was managing a situation in which one of my supervisees had committed an unintentional ethical violation right before being fully licensed. This counselor, whom I’ll call Pat, had made a mistake and realized the error within a few days. Without hesitating, Pat called me to ask how to correct it.

We worked through the scenario and came up with a plan. Then came the question I had anticipated from Pat: “What does this mean in regard to you signing my paperwork next month for licensing?”

The harsh answer was that I would not be able to sign off on the paperwork at the time. This particular ethical violation served as clear evidence that Pat wasn’t ready yet for a license, or else the lapse wouldn’t have occurred. Such a scenario is exactly why we undergo supervision as counselors. Supervision isn’t a formality.

My decision wasn’t the end of the line for Pat though. Pat accepted the consequences of the breach and the remediation that I required. As a result, just a few months later, I was happy to sign off. Pat is now fully licensed and in a successful private practice, and I haven’t an iota of concern that Pat will make such a blunder again.

Sitting in that ACA workshop, I realized how fortunate I was that Pat had trusted me enough to risk a delayed license by telling me what had happened. I realized that I must have done something right as a supervisor, although it wasn’t deliberate in regard to Pat’s particular issue.

After that incident, I started speaking more overtly with all of my interns and supervisees about what they would do should they commit an ethical violation that might delay them getting their license. I told them I was wondering whether I had created an appropriate environment (as I must have done with Pat) so that they would be willing to tell me about any violations. This opened up a discussion that continued for several weeks.

My story here isn’t meant only for supervisors. If you are currently a graduate student or counselor in supervision, I hope that you have a trusting relationship with your supervisor. If you don’t — if you couldn’t go to her or him and say, “I messed up,” even when knowing that your licensing process may slow down — you need to either adjust that relationship or find another supervisor.

If you are a supervisor, you must make this an overt part of your discussions with supervisees. Since that 2018 ACA Conference, I have had conversations about this issue on a regular basis with all of my new supervisees and interns, and I believe it has strengthened their trust in me. My situation with Pat was one of only a very few serious ethical issues I have had to manage as a supervisor. Even so, we must be prepared for them, and we must prepare our future counselors for them.

Perhaps most importantly, if you are licensed, you must have a confidant or mentor in the field whom you trust enough to confide in when you make mistakes. This person can guide you through sticky ethical situations and must also be willing to tell you when you have messed up. This brings the risk of being reported to a licensing board, but taking that risk is crucial to our professionalism as counselors. The greater risk in an ethical breach is to the client. What it costs us is secondary.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

 

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

Breaking the silence

By Charmayne Adams, Jillian Blueford, Nancy Thacker, Kertesha B. Riley, Jennifer Hightower and Marlon Johnson October 3, 2019

Painting racial slurs in public spaces. Welcoming hate-affiliated groups. Defunding safe spaces on campus for minority groups. Hanging Confederate flags in campus organization housing. These are just some of the examples of acts of hate that have taken place on college campuses and, more specifically, that we witnessed taking place on our own college campus. Even though the authors of this piece are now at different institutions, at the time this article was written, we were all graduate students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

This past spring, hate struck our community once again. An image surfaced denoting racial intolerance and ignorance about the economic barriers that African American students face at predominantly white institutions. The text messages, phone calls, emails, and face-to-face conversations that followed the incident reminded us of a pain that is all too familiar — one that pulls us to try and take care of our community while simultaneously taking care of ourselves. Often, we take care of our community while neglecting to take care of ourselves. As professional counselors, we are able to conceptualize violence in a way that makes it feel less personal, but the constant reminder that this form of hate is personal makes it difficult to externalize.

This is not the first time that an act of hate motivated by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other minoritized identity has happened on a college campus — and it certainly will not be the last. There was something about this incident, however, that pushed us to ask a question: What is our role as professional counselors and counselor educators in helping to support growth, healing and reflexivity when our learning communities experience hate acts targeted at individuals who hold minoritized identities? 

Campus-based hate crimes

There are many reporting organizations for hate crimes in the United States, but three of the largest are the FBI, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The FBI reported 280 hate crimes on college campuses in 2017, which was 23 more than in 2016 and 86 more than in 2015. Of those hate crimes, roughly 83% occurred against multiracial victims, African Americans, or individuals who identified as Jewish. Those hate crimes happened on a total of 110 college campuses, of which 60 had a graduate-level counseling program. That means that more than half of the college campuses had counselors-in-training and counselor educators embedded in their communities at the time of the hate crime.

Colleges and universities are not required to report their hate crimes to the FBI, but under the Clery Act, they are required to report them to the Department of Education. In 2017, 6,339 institutions (with 11,210 campuses) reported 1,143 individual hate crimes to the Department of Education. The FBI, the Department of Education and the ADL have all indicated an increase in the number of campus hate crimes. In addition, the ADL found that instances of white supremacist propaganda on college campuses increased by 77% in the 2017-2018 academic year as compared with the prior year.

These trends signal a shift in campus climate and psychological well-being at collegiate institutions — a shift that calls on the ethics and skills of our counseling community. We believe it is important to look at the ACA Code of Ethics and other counseling competencies to better understand how to develop intentional awareness and action to address the hate being witnessed on college campuses.

Our ethical responsibility to act 

Professional counselors are trained to promote wellness while attending to the developmental needs of our clients. Additionally, our responsibility to advocate with and on behalf of clients is embedded in our ethics code. In addition, the ACA Advocacy Competencies state that advocating on behalf of clients becomes especially important when clients hold a minoritized identity or an intersection of minoritized identities.

It is our responsibility as professional counselors to view these acts of hate on college campuses as attacks on our clients, students, community members, colleagues and friends who hold minoritized identities. We are trained to use skills such as empathic and active listening, reflection, and minimal encouragers to hold space for individuals to explore their feelings, behaviors and cognitions. We possess skills such as conflict resolution and crisis intervention that are especially important when considering the nature of this topic and the need for individuals of all perspectives to be heard. What better way to engage those skills than by standing against hate and creating safe spaces for individuals affected by these horrendous acts. We believe that all counselors — faculty, students, community professionals — can and must act.

Faculty responsibilities

To effectively address the manifestation of and respond to instances of hate and discrimination in our campus communities, counseling faculty must be proactive and reactive. This includes engaging in personal reflexivity, modeling tough conversations with colleagues, and intentionally structuring learning activities to increase student personal reflection. 

  • Personal reflexivity: This is an active and consistent reflective process in which faculty examine their internalized beliefs, values and biases. This might involve reflecting on your own cultural identity and any bias you may hold toward a particular group, or recording your thoughts, feelings and behaviors to bring greater awareness of your own responses when an act of hate happens on campus.
  • Modeling: Counseling faculty can readily engage in open and sensitive dialogue with their colleagues. As faculty model cultural norms by engaging in reflexivity and debriefing with one another, students can follow suit. Faculty could also engage in community dialogue if there are events for faculty and staff to process acts of hate on campus.
  • Intentional pedagogy: Counseling faculty can also be proactive by incorporating inclusivity throughout the curriculum. This includes facilitating learning environments in which students confront their biases and respectfully hold space for discomfort, or creating learning opportunities around diverse ways of thinking and being.

Counseling faculty can lead the way in being active responders to instances of hate and discrimination on campus. A strong first step is to respond and denounce acts of hate in a timely manner through the release of a collective statement from program faculty. Additionally, faculty can offer support to students at individual and group levels, both within and outside of the classroom. This may include having discussions with students on ways to respond and advocate as a unit for the greater campus community. It is important to remember that any collaborative campus effort should include other departments (e.g., student life, campus counseling centers) and helping disciplines, especially when offering debriefing or processing sessions with students, staff and faculty across campus.

Counseling students’ responsibilities

Students in counseling programs hold a similar but unique vantage point — navigating dual roles as members of the student body and as emerging professionals in the field.

As doctoral students, we felt the tug to dive in and start facilitating the healing work for our campus before we had processed what the hate act meant to us. We realized early on, however, that the first step we needed to take was to assess how the event had impacted our thoughts, feelings and beliefs about ourselves and our peers. It is important to have these conversations — both ongoing and in moments of crisis — within the counseling program. However, another way that we gained support as we processed these incidents involved tapping into campus affinity groups outside of the counseling department.

We also understood that we couldn’t engage in advocacy in a healthy manner if we weren’t taking care of ourselves. It was important for us to stay physically and psychologically healthy by:

  • Seeking personal counseling
  • Maintaining a nutritious diet
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Taking breaks from social media

These and other tips from the Immigration, Critical Race, and Cultural Equity Lab, founded and co-directed by Nayeli Chávez-Dueñas and Hector Adames, helped us manage our own mental health as students while remaining engaged in both our program and greater campus community.

Ultimately, counseling students serve as a bridge to campus and can provide fresh insights into current cultural and societal dynamics. This means that we are equipped to both guide and participate in conversations around instances of hate on campus. At times, this charge may be as macro as serving on a university committee that focuses on bias on campus or as micro as sharing frustrations and concerns with classmates. The key is finding what works for you so that you can sustain your practice of advocacy while maintaining your academic progress.

Together, as faculty and students in counselor education programs, we can contribute to a shift in campus climate by advocating for inclusive dialogue and reflexivity among students, staff and faculty across the higher education community. This is a process that will be ongoing and adaptive as the campus community evolves. Remaining silent and absolving ourselves of responsibility runs counter to our professional value of advocacy.

Community professionals’ responsibilities

Although we have seen an uptick of hate crimes on college campuses, these events certainly are not limited to our academic communities. These crimes occur every day in our cities and towns and affect countless individuals, including students, family members, community leaders, business owners and first responders. Some of these incidents are quite public; others are less visible and demonstrative.

As professional counselors, we need to broaden our understanding of the emotional, mental and physical tolls that hate crimes have on others. Communities of individuals who have endured discrimination for decades carry deeply rooted pain and are distrustful of society, often believing that others cannot understand their experiences. Long term, our lack of connection to marginalized communities threatens to further separate individuals, creating an “us versus them” mentality. People no longer want to understand and walk in the shoes of others; people begin to retreat behind fear and ignorance. To combat this trend toward division and isolation, professional counselors can become a unique and supportive force to help individuals heal and learn.

For us to engage with marginalized communities that have been hurt by these hate crimes, we must first look inward and then move outside the walls of the counseling office. We have an ethical obligation to do no harm to our clients, but first we must recognize and identify our biases and assumptions and recognize that traditional counseling settings are often inaccessible to minoritized populations.

All human beings carry implicit biases that direct how they engage with others — and particularly with individuals of different cultural identities. Professional counselors are not exempt from this natural human tendency, but settling for this often automatic response will create barriers for those needing services. If we do not challenge our own misconceptions, we will struggle to build authentic relationships with our clients and lose the meaningful connection needed to make change.

After reflecting on the preconceived notions that we carry into the counseling relationship, we must humbly and intentionally seek to join with communities to offer services in spaces that minoritized populations utilize. These spaces could include religious organizations, schools, community gardens, recreation centers and community centers. Do not let the burden of seeking services rest on the shoulders of the wounded. Go out and offer your skill set with humility, patience and genuine compassion to the communities affected by these acts of hate.

After we have engaged in the hard work of self-reflection and moving outside of the traditional counseling office, then we are better equipped to support clients from marginalized communities and to begin understanding their experiences. Supporting clients means seeking to understand rather than respond. Even if we hold minoritized identities ourselves, we have to continually strive to see how our clients are experiencing acts of hate and not speak for them but rather alongside them.

By educating ourselves on events happening in our communities, states and nation, we can gain insight into what is happening in the world of our clients. Although it is painful to see the hate occurring all around, we owe it to ourselves and to our clients to be proactive about educating ourselves, learning both within and outside of the counseling session. It is important to remember that the burden of enlightening the majority should never rest on the shoulders of the wounded minority. We must take responsibility for our blind spots as professional counselors and actively seek information that will better prepare us to support clients who hold identities that have been subject to power, privilege and oppression.

Education can lead to empathy and provide motivation to advocate and act. As professional counselors, we have certain privileges available to us, including access to administrators, law enforcement personnel, legislators and community leaders. We can also share our clients’ experiences with others. It is one thing to support our clients within the counseling session and another thing to recognize injustice and take action. Becoming involved with the community means:

  • Attending town hall meetings
  • Volunteering with community organizations
  • Writing letters to legislators
  • Voting
  • Holding office space for leaders to meet and have discussions
  • Not remaining behind the safety net of our counseling environment

We are advocates, and no act of advocacy is too small. What is small is expecting others to step in even though we possess the talents and resources to play a part in bringing about systemic change.

What we need from fellow counseling professionals

As individuals who hold minoritized identities, we need the support, action and advocacy of our community, faculty members and students. We do not have the privilege of feigning ignorance in the face of hate crimes, hate speech, discrimination or microaggressions because these actions are targeted at us. We must stay alert and assess each of these acts in an effort to ensure that we keep ourselves safe. We ask that you join our efforts to make our campuses and communities safer for individuals who hold minoritized identities.

The following is a list of action items that we see as important to combating these incidents and increasing a sense of safety for those with minoritized identities.

1) Examine your biases and prejudices. Our beliefs and values greatly influence our work with clients and students. As professional counselors and counselor educators, we are tasked with examining our biases and prejudices. Similarly, the ACA Code of Ethics requires that we attend to the welfare of students in our training programs, with a particular focus on the needs of students who hold minoritized identities. In examining our biases and prejudices, we communicate that we value our clients and students enough to do our own work, even when it is difficult.

2) Educate yourself. As we begin to uncover the biases and prejudices that we hold, it is our responsibility to seek education and accountability to further combat these harmful beliefs. Too often, the responsibility of educating and holding others accountable falls to minoritized students, further burdening them by making them speak for an entire group of people and tasking them with correcting long-held beliefs. While we (minoritized individuals) want to see this process take place, the responsibility should not fall solely to us. We need allies who are committed to staying educated and who resist shifting that heavy burden onto us, especially when our communities are hurting.

3) Be willing to make mistakes. We do not expect you to be perfect. In fact, we are still learning and growing ourselves and recognize that there will be times when mistakes are made. When those times happen, we ask that you remain open to hearing our perspective and choose to put down your defenses, seeing mistakes as opportunities to grow. Pause when you notice yourself becoming defensive or offering an explanation; simply stating that you are sorry is far more comforting to us than hearing any reason why the behavior was justifiable.

4) Seek to understand our experiences. It is inherent in the counseling profession to relentlessly seek to understand the experiences and perspectives of our clients while providing them empathy. Similarly, we can use these skills to better understand the experiences and perspectives of minoritized students. In doing so, we show these students that we are invested in them and that they matter. By providing this space, we allow students to process their experiences, and we learn more about what needs are not being met and how we can advocate with and for minoritized students.

5) Advocate. Advocacy is a core piece of our professional identity as counselors and counselor educations. Our advocacy efforts apply not only to our clients but also to students in counseling programs, and particularly to those who hold minoritized identities. We challenge you to advocate with us and for us when needed, recognizing that there are times when your position of power may allow you greater access and more authority. We need you to challenge your colleagues to join in this process as a way of uniting our profession to help support vulnerable populations. Please keep in mind that it is important to first understand the experiences and needs of those for whom you are advocating. Be sure to check in throughout the process. Without these check-ins, your advocacy efforts can feel disempowering to the population for which you are advocating.

Conclusion

This is a call to all counseling professionals working on and around college campuses: Be attentive, alert and active when incidents of hate occur. We are not only ethically mandated to step up, but we are well trained to do so. Our skills allow us to confront hate and discrimination with empathic communication and conviction for social justice. These unique qualities complement the needs of our campus communities in the aftermath of these acts of hate.

When we lean in together and speak with a unified voice for equity and justice, we embody our professional values of advocacy and holistic wellness. This is the time to act because our silence speaks volumes.

 

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Charmayne Adams is an assistant professor of clinical mental health counseling at the University of Nebraska at Omaha with research interests in crisis, trauma, and counselor education pedagogy. Contact her at charmayneadams@unomaha.edu.

Jillian Blueford is a clinical assistant professor for the school counseling program at the University of Denver.

Nancy Thacker is an assistant professor of counseling and counselor education at Auburn University.

Kertesha B. Riley is a third-year doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with research interests in graduate student mental health and STEM career development.

Jennifer Hightower is a second-year doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with research interests in suicidality and multicultural issues.

Marlon Johnson is an instructor at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, with research interests in diversity recruitment and issues of burnout and persistence for underrepresented counselor trainees.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Related reading: See the October Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development (JMCD) for a special issue on diversity and inclusion in higher education.

 

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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.

The pretend professional

By Jamie McNally July 9, 2019

W hen I served in the military, we would call cadence as we marched. Those call-and-response songs helped to build camaraderie amid challenge and established a rhythm that brought comfort and familiarity.

Similarly, in my role as a clinic manager, clinic director and site supervisor, I have heard an exasperated expression of uncertainty repeated by dozens of supervisees and interns — “I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.” Those nine words have become as familiar and comforting to me as a cadence. In fact, the expression has transformed in my mind from something despondent into an indication of growth because self-doubt is a seemingly necessary step in the taxing process of professional development.

Doubt as part of development

I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I have come to recognize those words as a sign that the person speaking them understands the gravity of our profession and desperately wants to be able to help the clients in front of them, even if in that moment the person has little to no faith in their ability to do so. Although I empathize with the discomfort of that phase of development and growth, I also celebrate counselors-in-training’s awareness of their internal struggles and their willingness to confront the hard truth that the work we do is as intensely complicated as the human beings we’re called to help. As a supervisor, I’ve learned to cherish the opportunity to meet developing counselors in this place of doubt and help them understand — and even embrace — the normalcy of their insecurity and its role in our profession.

I feel confident in saying that we, as mental health professionals, have all been there — that place where our professional identity intertwines with the hesitancy embodied by those nine words: I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. We so easily get lost within that phrase and the enormity of its implications.

What if I chose the wrong career?

How could I possibly start over in a different field after spending so much time and money on this one?

What if I cause harm to this client because I say the wrong thing? What if they find me out and tell people how awful I am?

In good company

Self-doubt is part of the human condition and can plague professionals in any field. The term impostor syndrome, coined in the late 1970s, encapsulates the idea that regardless of our accomplishments or skill, we can feel fraudulent in our own skin and fear being exposed as such. This fear becomes exacerbated in the counseling profession, where confronting the complexities of the human condition is a daily (OK, an hourly) requirement. In the face of such complicated realities, it is only natural to be uncertain about how to move forward and then to conclude that the confusion one feels is a sign of inadequacy.

During my own five-year supervisory journey, in which time I have trained more than 100 counselors, I can recall encountering two individuals who didn’t admit to having these struggles. Two. That means that, at best, in my small nonempirical sample, roughly 2% of the early career counseling professionals I have supervised have not vocalized doubts indicative of impostor syndrome.

Perhaps those two students just didn’t feel comfortable telling me about their difficulties, or maybe they were too fearful to disclose this truth to anyone, let alone their supervisor. It’s also possible that they truly never had experienced insecurity as a professional, in which case they were the enviable two who genuinely made their way through the early phase of their professional development unscathed. That would make them the exception, of course, and not the rule.

Diversity and discrimination

I find it critically important to also highlight that other aspects of our identities can influence how we experience impostor syndrome. For example, if a person has faced discrimination throughout his or her life, this can have a dramatic impact on the intensity of impostor syndrome’s doubts.

As a white person who has benefited from systemic privilege in certain ways, I may have an entirely different perspective on my accomplishments and credentials than does a colleague who acquired those credentials in the presence of prejudices against them. I therefore recognize that each person’s doubts and identity are affected in very different ways on the basis of cultural differences. For that reason, we cannot assume that impostor syndrome will affect each person similarly, and it is wise to self-reflect on how our personal experiences might mitigate or exacerbate our struggles with impostor syndrome.

Overcoming self-doubt

“I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.” With this whispering refrain of insecurity in mind, the question now becomes, “How do I unbury myself from the weight of this doubt and find self-confidence?”

To answer this question, it helps to start thinking like a counselor because, let’s be honest, often we have to therapize ourselves and practice what we are preaching to our clients. Remind yourself of the difference between thoughts and feelings, and acknowledge that “I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing” is not actually reflective of a feeling. This gentle challenge reminds us to check in with ourselves and acknowledge the emotion we are actually experiencing, which is almost always the same for everyone: fear. Sometimes intense and paralyzing fear.

Having acknowledged that we are fearful, I find it helpful to then assess one’s perspective — why the fear is present — and test it against reality. This step can be made easier by recalling that all emotions have a purpose. Anxiety’s job is to prepare us for daunting or intimidating situations. Next, I find that a little rudimentary reframing, self-grace and reassurance make the process smoother.

Here are six important reminders to help you reframe your fear and self-doubt and reassure you that what you’re feeling is normal, all in an effort to combat impostor syndrome.

1) You already have the skills to overcome insecurity. Chances are that you experienced doubt before even enrolling in graduate school, yet you found a way to push through and find yourself face-to-face with actual clients. I would assert that simply by arriving at this stage of accomplishment, you have demonstrated the skills needed to overcome whatever doubts you may feel about your abilities as a professional. When a person’s doubts prevent them from even attempting to pursue their ambitions and career goals in the first place, I call this prodromal impostor syndrome. You found a way to get from prodromal to professional, so try to recall what helped you then and use those same skills to help you overcome your current obstacles.

2) You are in the top nine. Did you know that only about 9% of Americans have a master’s degree? That number will vary slightly depending on your source for statistics, but even so, let that number sink in: the top 9%. When it comes to educational and professional achievement, you are an outlier in the most positive sense. That doesn’t happen by accident or luck; you did that. Trust your knowledge and skills. You know what you’re doing.

3) Our normal is someone else’s goal. We often forget that our version of normal is not where a large number of people — including many of our clients — find themselves. That’s because we have worked so hard and long on our own garbage and made it past many of the obstacles that used to prevent us from being relationally healthy. Through that journey alone, we’ve developed skills and understanding that many of our clients just don’t possess yet or are unable to see in themselves. Sometimes by simply showing up and modeling hope and health, we are doing more for our clients in one hour than they are getting anywhere else in their week.

Sure, we all still have our own “stuff,” but we have to remember that we have earned advanced degrees and chosen a profession that, at its very core, is about achieving better emotional and mental health. You have the tools that clients desperately need. Meet them where they are and reassure them that such development takes time. Through a bit of work, they’ll get there too.

4) We don’t always get to see the results. Just because we shared the same moments in the session room with our clients does not mean that we shared the same reality. Our perceptions are often very different from those of our clients, and that is to be expected, because we’re very different people with very different backgrounds.

Strict adherence to a session agenda or a particular intervention is not a requisite for healing or progress. I have come to learn that during those times when I didn’t adhere to my initial plan for our time together or when I didn’t feel that I was a therapeutic master, my clients often felt differently and had takeaways that I wouldn’t have imagined. Our perfectionism is not reflective of our clients’ process. Our self-denigration is not reflective of their growth.

Additionally, we often work with clients who are only at the beginning of a very long journey toward healing and growth. As professionals, it is tempting to set goals or have expectations for our clients that are overly ambitious. Overcoming our own self-doubts often requires removing the pressure we put on ourselves to work unrealistic objectives.

It can help to try to remember that sometimes we are merely planting the initial seeds in clients’ lives and that these seeds will bloom only after clients have left therapy. We may never be aware of clients’ later successes even when we played a pivotal part in making those successes accessible. Learning to accept that results are not always visible to us can dramatically strengthen our ability to trust ourselves and our interventions.

5) See yourself in context. Having a title, a certification or a professional license doesn’t mean that we should compare ourselves (or our perceived shortcomings) to someone who has been doing this work for 40 years. I often see new professionals striving to be just like the counselors they look up to — those with decades of experience — even though they are so fresh out of graduate school that their degrees haven’t even arrived in the mail.

Measuring yourself against someone who is at such a drastically different level of professional development than you inevitably makes you feel like a fraud. It is important to see yourself in the context of your level of experience while remembering that even on day one, you bring value to clients and to the mental health field itself. Take time to celebrate that now and then — and rejoice that you will only move forward and improve from where you are now.

6) Mastery in mental health is a lifelong process. Confidence often coincides with mastery, and yet, in this field, mastery will always be elusive. As counselors, we do not get the advantage of clear-cut problems, let alone clear-cut solutions. Human beings will always be complex, meaning that our jobs will always be difficult.

It’s healthy to continuously strive to improve and learn more about one’s field; that mindset prevents complacency and arrogance. We can be skilled and competent and will always be privileged to do this work, but mastery is always an ongoing process. Being the “best” (as it may look or feel to most of us) isn’t a destination. Rather, it is an ongoing journey of humility and self-improvement that ultimately yields better client care.

The authentic professional

These six reminders can alleviate some of the uncomfortable symptoms of impostor syndrome. They can also highlight the need for us to accept the reality that some of those symptoms may always be present.

No matter what your background or where you are in your professional development, try to enjoy the thrill and uncertainty of this field’s learning curve. It helps to remember too that you are not alone. Your cohort and fellow professionals have experienced — and perhaps still are experiencing — the very same struggles as you.

It is likely that you will periodically allow that worrying impostor to enter your therapy office, but the trick is not letting it take control of the room. That impostor does not dictate your professional development. In fact, you can learn to accept the normalcy of those nine words — “I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing” — as a comforting cadence and an expected step in your professional growth process. Self-grace and compassion are vital. Remind yourself of your strengths and celebrate victories, no matter how small (or big) they may be. You are a lot better than you think you are, and yet, not as good as you can be. And that’s OK.

 

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Jamie McNally is a licensed professional counselor, a limited licensed psychologist, a certified HIPAA compliance officer, and the owner and clinic director of Sycamore Counseling Services (sycamorecc.com). Contact her at jamie.mcnally@sycamorecc.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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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.