Tag Archives: Students Audience (Grad/post-grad)

Students Audience

A note of encouragement for counseling students during COVID-19

By Dana M. Cea April 7, 2020

The current situation with COVID-19 and the effect it is having on counseling students’ lives can cause stress, anxiety and uncertainty. In my role as a doctoral student supervisor, I am hearing these stories from supervisees and their classmates. Thankfully, my department, the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation Studies at East Carolina University, has jumped to action to support all of its students, especially the practicum and internship students. However, the faculty are limited in what they can do based on decisions made by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Keep in mind that there are more than 800 CACREP-accredited programs, which could mean over 10,000 counseling students. All of you are in the same boat and are doing your best to stay afloat. Without flexibility in standards, we could find ourselves with an even larger shortage of mental health professionals over the next couple of years.

As graduate counseling students, you have no control over CACREP, of course. What do you have control over? The following recommendations may not be new to you, yet they are helpful. In fact, you may already be sharing some of these with clients.

Keep your schedule. We all know how helpful schedules and routines are in maintaining our mental health. Although you may not be going to classes or work sites right now, keeping the schedule you had previously or adjusting to a new reasonable schedule is wise. Include a morning routine and a routine for bedtime. If you find that you suddenly have a little extra time each day, explore options for how you can use that time, such as sleeping in, exercising, meditating or doing crafts.

Check in with classmates and colleagues. My Ph.D. student cohort has a group chat, and the Navigate Counseling Clinic where I provide counseling services does too. One day during our “spring break 2.0,” I realized how much I missed seeing my cohort and needed a check-in. When I scheduled a video conference, the other members of my cohort found this funny because I am not known to be the most touchy-feely person. But seeing their faces was so helpful for me. We also host weekly video conferences with the Navigate clinicians, internship students and practicum students. Group chats are great, especially for pet photos and memes, yet video conferences take that connection to the next level.

Check in with your progress. Now is a great time to figure out what you need before you take that next step, whether it be for practicum, internship or becoming licensed. Seek help from faculty, supervisors, webinars and other learning opportunities. I created a “counselor dunking booth” in which supervisees are able to play a short clip of a TV show, movie or counseling tape or create a case study and challenge me concerning how I would address the situation or client. Even if you are unable to go to your site or do telehealth, there are many opportunities to sharpen your skills, knowledge and abilities.

Check in with yourself. How are you holding up under the current stress? Is it affecting your ability to work with clients or complete necessary coursework? If you are having a hard time answering these questions, ask those who know you best. Now may be a good time to find a counselor for yourself if you have not done so already.

Many counselors are indicating their ability to provide telehealth on their personal websites or on Psychology Today’s Find a Therapist directory. The Pandemic Therapists website is compiling a nationwide list of counselors providing support during the current situation. Keep checking back because new resources are being added. If money is a concern, some counselors may offer sessions for free or for a small fee to counseling students. Also check out Open Path Collective and Give An Hour. Do not forget to connect with your state’s National Alliance on Mental Illness organizations and affiliates. The national organization has a helpline that can assist you in finding counselors.

The bottom line is that as a counseling student today, you will be even better prepared than some licensed clinicians once you enter the counseling field. You will be able to show great empathy to clients when they seek services to manage the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. You likely will have gone through a crash course in telehealth or, at the very least, learned how to quickly shift your learning online. You will have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the human connections that we offer to clients as counselors.

You will emerge stronger for having gone through this experience.

 

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Dana M. Cea, pronouns she/her or they/them, is a volunteer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a mental health professional, a survivor of suicide loss, and a doctoral student at East Carolina University. She focuses her research on mental health and suicide, the LGBTQ+ community, youth, and autism spectrum disorder. Dana lives with mental health disorders, her spouse, and their three dogs. Contact her at danamcea.com.

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

Learning from highly effective counselors

By Sidney Shaw March 10, 2020

The term “supershrink” has been used to refer to counselors and other mental health professionals who are very good at what they do and who attain significantly better client outcomes than average. It is perhaps not surprising that such a witty and playful term would come from an adolescent.

In the early 1970s, David Ricks conducted an analysis of the long-term outcomes of “highly disturbed” adolescents treated in a metropolitan guidance center. In this center, some of the youth had labeled one provider “the Supershrink.” Upon subsequent data analysis, Ricks found that adolescents who received treatment from this provider had significantly better long-term outcomes than did those who saw another provider. Turns out that the teens were right; the provider was a supershrink.

The idea that some counselors are exceptional and have very high success rates with clients is not new. In fact, this phenomenon has been verified empirically. Research over the past several decades has demonstrated that some counselors consistently achieve higher client improvement rates than do other counselors. With that in mind, it is important to consider what we can learn as counselors from so-called supershrinks and how we can embody the characteristics and actions of highly effective counselors to improve our own effectiveness.

Counselor effects and outcome research

The term “therapist effects” or “counselor effects” refers to variation in counseling outcomes that are attributable to the counselor, in contrast to other factors such as techniques or theories that contribute to counseling outcomes. Findings of counselor effects appear in a variety of study settings such as naturalistic clinic settings and in randomized clinical trials (RCTs). Counselor effects in RCTs are particularly intriguing because these studies are tightly controlled. In RCTs, counselors commonly adhere closely to a treatment manual (i.e., following specific steps in adherence to a specific theory), and there is also control for client severity. RCTs are the gold standard for comparing efficacy of specific treatment approaches for specific disorders.

Although there have been important findings about the efficacy of different treatment approaches or theories from RCTs, another finding that has received less attention over the years is that counselor effects are the better predictor of counseling outcomes. In other words, who the counselor is makes more of a difference in terms of client improvement than does which theory the counselor professes to use. It is impossible to completely disentangle counselors’ characteristics and actions from the theories that they use, but meticulous research and meta-analyses by renowned researchers such as Bruce Wampold have indicated that counselor effects are up to eight times stronger at determining client outcomes.

As Wampold and others have pointed out, these findings about the relative strength of counselor effects in comparison with theoretical approach are not justification for tossing out counseling theories. Framework, structure, a road map for navigating clinical territory, and conceptualization are just some of the benefits of grounding our work in theories of counseling. That said, outcome researchers have for decades focused predominantly on comparing different theoretical approaches while giving relatively little attention to a more powerful factor — the characteristics, pan-theoretical practices/actions, and attributes of the counselor.

Five characteristics and actions of highly effective counselors

Although the existence of counselor effects in outcome research has been around for several decades, empirical attempts to discern pan-theoretical characteristics and actions of highly effective counselors are rather new. There are limits to developing a list of such characteristics because new research is frequently emerging. In fact, it is noteworthy that the five characteristics highlighted in this article are just some of the major characteristics and actions of highly effective counselors.

The list contained here is composed of qualities that counselors can actively cultivate in their current practice. In other words, there are some strategies for growth with each of these five qualities. There are other characteristics of highly effective counselors in the research literature for which it is not currently clear how to increase or enhance those characteristics (e.g., attachment history, facilitative interpersonal skills). Thus, this list focuses on characteristics and actions that can be enhanced to improve counselor effectiveness. Accompanying the descriptions of these characteristics are some tips for developing each of them in your own counseling practice.

1) Presence and
2) countertransference management

The counselor’s “way of being” serves as a vehicle through which therapeutic actions and interventions take place. Two related concepts from the counselor effects research that speak to the counselor’s “way of being” and “way of relating” are presence and countertransference management. Both concepts have theoretical roots.

For instance, in the existential-humanistic tradition, presence refers to counselors being “in the moment,” connected with clients’ experiences and their own, and fully engaged in the I-Thou relationship with a client. Presence can also be defined by identifying it as the opposite of absence (e.g., distraction, boredom, disconnectedness, remoteness).

Countertransference, of course, has theoretical roots in psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud considered it to be when a client’s transference activated a counselor’s unresolved childhood conflicts. More broadly, a totalistic view of countertransference is that it encompasses all the counselor’s reactions to the client. Although countertransference reactions are commonplace, the impact of countertransference on counseling outcomes is largely due to how the countertransference is managed. Meta-analytic research by Jeffrey Hayes and colleagues has indicated that successful management of countertransference predicts better counseling outcomes. Similarly, presence has been described by Shari Geller and Leslie Greenberg as a “prerequisite for empathy,” and counselor empathy is a strong predictor of client improvement.

Multiple factors can lead counselors toward increased presence and better countertransference management, including self-insight (e.g., awareness of self in relationship, cognitive and emotional awareness), anxiety management, intentionality and mindfulness. Given all these factors, counselors can be left feeling a bit overwhelmed by methods to strengthen their presence and countertransference management. Fortunately, research evidence supports a few overlapping practices to enhance both of these qualities.

> Meditation/mindfulness practice: Sustained and consistent meditation practice has been shown to increase effective countertransference management, promote emotion regulation and nonreactivity, sharpen awareness and increase presence. Many different types of meditation and mindfulness practice exist. Counselors are advised to investigate these practices, to choose a practice aligned with their own preferences, and to maintain a consistent mindfulness practice.

> Self-insight and anxiety management: Counselors should work on their own psychological health and consistently practice self-observation and self-reflection. This can be done in supervision, in one’s own experience as a client, and through deliberate planning aimed at increased self-awareness.

Relatedly, anxiety management is an important component of countertransference management and presence. Although it is not unusual for counselors to experience anxiety within sessions, unmanaged anxiety can have untoward effects on a counselor’s presence, ability to manage countertransference reactions, and the therapeutic alliance. A first step is developing sensitivity to noticing anxiety when it appears. Second, counselors likely already have anxiety management skills (e.g., behavioral, cognitive, mindfulness-based) that they use with clients. Counselors can apply these skills to themselves.

> Pre-session centering: A study by Rose Dunn and colleagues revealed that counselors perceived themselves as having higher levels of presence when they engaged in a brief mindfulness centering exercise within five minutes of a counseling session. Additionally, clients perceived the sessions to be more effective when the counselor used the mindfulness exercise prior to the session. The basics of the centering exercise are consistent with acceptance and commitment therapy principles.

In this case, counselors would simply sit comfortably with a straight spine, take and notice gentle and full breaths, notice physical sensations, notice thoughts that emerged, acknowledge the existence of those thoughts and allow them to be present, imagine creating additional space for the thoughts with each breath, and then let go of focus on the thoughts to broaden attention to the environment around them. In this mindfulness approach, counselors aimed to accept the thoughts and experiences as an observer rather than clinging to or pushing away those thoughts. For more detailed information on mindfulness and acceptance centering, I recommend the work of John Forsyth and Georg Eifert.

> Self-care: This term is frequently discussed in our field, and self-care activities can vary greatly among individual counselors. It is important for presence, countertransference management and multiple other reasons that counselors engage in consistent self-care actions. One self-care behavior that seems relatively universal, and which has an impact on attention (i.e., presence) and emotion regulation, is sleep. Practicing healthy sleep hygiene (keeping room temperature at 62-68 degrees, sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, maintaining a dark environment, having technology limits at night, etc.) can provide conditions that are favorable for increased presence and greater countertransference management.

3) Professional self-doubt

The essence of this quality of highly effective counselors is captured in the title of an article by Helene Nissen-Lie and colleagues: “Love yourself as a person, doubt yourself as a therapist?” At first glance, the idea of professional self-doubt may seem like an unproductive place to be as a counselor. However, if we consider just a basic definition of “doubt” (i.e., to be uncertain), then the benefits for clients become clearer.

Counselors who possess certainty that they are helping a client are likely closing the door to self-critique and thoughtful consideration of ways to improve their work. Indeed, several studies by researchers such as Corinne Hannan and others have indicated that counselors consistently overestimate the effectiveness of their work with clients. Regarding self-doubt, two studies of experienced counselors by Nissen-Lie and colleagues revealed that counselors higher in professional self-doubt had stronger alliances with clients and higher levels of client improvement than did counselors lower in professional self-doubt.

Importantly, a third study by Patrizia Odyniec and colleagues showed that increased professional self-doubt among trainees/students resulted in poorer client outcomes than did lower professional self-doubt. One explanation for these findings is the difference in developmental stage of the counselors. Experienced counselors likely have higher confidence in their basic skills as counselors. Thus, professional self-doubt about their effectiveness can be beneficial as they strive for improvement due to their own uncertainty about client outcomes. In contrast, high professional self-doubt among trainees may be debilitating because of their earlier stage of counselor development and lower confidence in their basic counseling skills.

All that said, there appear to be clear benefits for clients when experienced counselors cultivate professional self-doubt. Here are some strategies for doing that.

> Prevent the “overconfidence effect.” This concept from social psychology is particularly relevant here due to numerous studies that have shown that counselors commonly overestimate whether and how much their clients are improving. Just being aware of this tendency to inflate their own client success rates can help counselors become increasingly humble and self-reflective about their effectiveness. Consciously questioning our own self-serving biases is an important step in maximizing client improvement rates.

> Monitor your effectiveness. Counselors should use some type of outcome measure (e.g., Outcome Rating Scale, Clinical Outcomes in Routine Evaluation-Outcome Measure, Outcome Questionnaire-45) to assess the degree to which their clients are improving or not. Routine outcome monitoring has repeatedly been found to improve client outcomes, and concrete client reports of their improvement level can help keep counselor overconfidence in check. Additionally, outcome monitoring can promote the beneficial stance of professional self-doubt because awareness of clients who are not improving or who are deteriorating
can lead counselors to act intentionally to improve.

> Love yourself as a person. An important caveat in the studies by Nissen-Lie and colleagues is that counselor self-doubt can improve client outcomes more when coupled with what is referred to as a “self-affiliative introject.” In general, this refers to higher levels of self-affirmation, self-love and self-acceptance. When a self-affiliative introject or self-affirmation is an area of struggle for counselors, it can affect their work with clients and their capacity to embrace professional self-doubt. Steps to build and strengthen a self-affiliative introject or stronger self-affirmation could include self-help, support groups or personal counseling.

4) Deliberate practice

Deliberate practice, a concept that originates in the expertise literature from researchers such as Anders Ericsson, refers to intentional and individualized exercises and actions aimed at strengthening specific areas of one’s performance. Early research on deliberate practice examined its effects in noncounseling domains such as chess, music and sports, to name a few.

In counseling, a promising study by Daryl Chow and colleagues of more than 1,600 clients working with 17 counselors found that the top quartile of counselors (i.e., those whose clients showed the most improvement) spent nearly triple the amount of time engaged in deliberate practice than did counselors in the lower quartiles of client improvement. Consistent with some previous research, Chow and colleagues found that the following factors were not significantly related to client outcomes: counselor age, professional discipline, gender, years of experience, highest qualification level and theoretical orientation. Below are some core components of deliberate practice combined with recommendations for integrating them into your counseling practice.

> Establish your baseline. To improve as a counselor and to determine if you are increasing effectiveness over time, you need to know how effective you already are with your clients. Routine outcome monitoring is a way to establish a baseline. Using an outcome measure and then tracking your client improvement rates over time is an initial step in deliberate practice.

> Record sessions with difficult or stalled cases. While not intrinsically motivating, we stand to learn a lot about areas for improvement with cases in which our weaknesses are most evident. Video recording is simple these days, and it is an indispensable tool that is not just for practicum students. Video recording can help counselors identify gaps in awareness and skills that simple self-reflection alone is unlikely to reveal. Relying only on our self-assumed clinical wisdom by mentally reflecting back on a session is unlikely to interrupt and change unhelpful patterns that may have emerged outside of our conscious awareness.

> Work with a consultant or consultation group. Stepping out of our own perspective and potential for self-serving biases is a critical ingredient of deliberate practice. By working with a competent consultant or consultation group, we can obtain diverse perspectives on our areas of weakness as counselors and thus develop specific goals and plans for growth while receiving ongoing support and feedback.

> Develop clear, targeted goals. Our goals need to be very clear and specific. It is not very effective to set a goal to “improve as a counselor.” Instead, a first step here would be to identify specific areas for potential growth as a counselor. This could be done in collaboration with your consultant/consultation group. With deliberate practice, the real growth takes place outside of actual client sessions. Outside of session, you have time, support and opportunity for reflection and practice as you engage in intentional efforts to develop new therapeutic skills or “ways of being” with challenging cases.

The specifics of deliberate practice are very detailed. Thus, counselors are encouraged to read the works of scholars such as Daryl Chow and Scott D. Miller on this topic for a more comprehensive review.

5) Multicultural orientation

Multicultural orientation is a rather new construct that differs  from multicultural competencies. As described by Jesse Owen and colleagues, multicultural competencies are considered a “way of doing,” whereas multicultural orientation is a “way of being.” Multicultural orientation is a way of being that communicates the counselor’s
attitudes and values about culture to the client. Specifically, multicultural orientation consists of three overlapping pillars. Each of the pillars is described below and accompanied by recommendations for strengthening it in your counseling practice.

> Cultural humility: This refers to an interpersonal stance that is “other oriented” and open to understanding the client’s cultural experience and background. In addition to this interpersonal dimension of cultural humility, there is also an intrapersonal dimension in which counselors have an openness and eagerness to reflect on their own limits and blind spots in understanding the cultural experience of another. Four studies with more than 3,000 clients have found a significant positive correlation between client ratings of their counselor’s cultural humility and counseling outcomes. An important consideration here is that the “client’s perception” of their counselor’s level of cultural humility was related to client outcomes.

There are some strategies and actions that counselors can take so that clients are more likely to experience them as being culturally humble. First, given the intrapersonal domain of cultural humility, counselors are encouraged to self-reflect upon and analyze their own areas of potential biases and cultural blind spots. Pamela Hays’ “ADDRESSING” model can be a useful framework for determining domains in which a counselor has a privileged status because these domains of privilege are likely sources of blind spots.

Second, counselors are encouraged to broach the topic of culture at the intake session with clients in an open-ended manner. This strategy also overlaps with the pillar of “cultural opportunities” (broaching strategies will be described in that section).

Third, counselors should check in with clients frequently to ensure that they accurately understand the client’s cultural perspective. This “cultural check-in” should be one part of a broader culture of feedback that is created by the counselor in the session. Specifically, counselors need to acknowledge with clients that they strive to understand clients’ perspectives and cultural experiences, but despite their best efforts, they may sometimes misunderstand. Openly and repeatedly inviting clients to provide candid feedback (especially negative feedback) is a way to express humility and to make repair attempts if and when a counselor misunderstands or unknowingly commits a microaggression.

> Cultural opportunities: This pillar refers to opportunities in sessions for the counselor to broach the topic of culture with a client. Importantly, research on this topic indicates that “missed cultural opportunities” (i.e., the client’s perception of the counselor missing and not acting on opportunities to discuss/broach culture) are negatively correlated with client outcomes. In other words, as the counselor misses more cultural opportunities, client improvement declines.

One way to enhance the positive effects of cultural humility and cultural opportunities is for counselors to broach the topic of culture at the intake session. For example, “How does culture influence the problem?” The purpose of such an open-ended question is to better understand the client’s perception of culture. If clients are unclear about what is meant by “culture,” alternative phrasing ideas can be gleaned from the “Cultural Formulation Interview” in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The interview offers numerous examples for asking open-ended questions about clients’ cultures.

Broaching or inquiring about the influence of culture should not be limited to the intake session. Counselors need to attentively engage with clients to understand how they
see the role of culture as sessions progress. This can lead counselors to sensitively seize upon cultural opportunities in sessions in a way that resonates with clients.

> Cultural comfort: The final pillar of multicultural orientation is counselors’ level of openness, ease and comfort in working with diverse clients and engaging with clients about the topic of culture. In a 2017 study, Owen and colleagues found that counselor cultural comfort level predicted client dropout rates. Higher levels of counselor cultural comfort were associated with lower client dropout rates. This is particularly important given that a high dropout rate is one of the more pernicious challenges for our field to address. Indeed, a 2012 meta-analysis by Joshua Swift and Roger Greenberg found that the average dropout rate in counseling is 20%.

In terms of counselors increasing their cultural comfort levels, some of the strategies mentioned for cultural humility and cultural opportunities (e.g., intentionally reflecting on/analyzing biases and blind spots, broaching the topic of culture in sessions) can apply. One additional strategy that can help in this regard is role-playing and rehearsal — specifically, role-playing with colleagues in which the counselor practices engaging with mock clients around the topic of culture. Counselors are advised to practice broaching the topic of culture in situations that represent a wide range of challenge. For example, if a counselor has had little or no contact with clients who are transgender, then role-playing a scenario in which the counselor broaches culture with a mock client who is transgender would be a way to expand the counselor’s cultural comfort. Inviting and receiving feedback from colleagues in such mock sessions is essential for counselors to expand and enhance their broaching skills and increase their level of cultural comfort.

Conclusion

The number of factors that contribute to effective counseling is vast and incalculable. As research continues to evolve on this topic, we develop a richer understanding of some of these factors. We now have abundant research support for counselor effects and the relative strength of these effects in comparison with theoretical techniques.

The lines between counselor characteristics, common factors (e.g., therapeutic alliance, placebo effect) and specific factors (e.g., treatment interventions, techniques) are not neat and discrete. Instead, each of these has some overlap with and multidirectional influence on the others. That said, recent research indicates that the characteristics, qualities and pan-theoretical actions of counselors are prominent in potentiating the therapeutic alliance and theoretical techniques to improve client outcomes.

 

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Sidney Shaw is a core faculty member in the clinical mental health counseling program at Walden University and a certified trainer for the International Center for Clinical Excellence. Contact him at sidneyleeshaw@gmail.com.

 

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

From Combat to Counseling: Getting started in counseling military clients

By Duane France January 29, 2020

We want to help people. It’s a common reason many choose to become professional counselors. Maybe we’ve been told we’re good listeners. Maybe we have lived experience with overcoming mental health concerns. Whatever led us to counseling, we want to use our skills to help people. At some point, we may decide we want to help people in the military population: service members, veterans and their families. Perhaps we want to help military kids because we have a couple of our own, or we were one. Or, we want to support military spouses in post-military life because they’re an underserved and under-resourced population.

Having a clinical focus on serving the military population is admirable. More importantly, it’s necessary. With critical mental health access shortages in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DOD), and studies that show that community providers are not as culturally competent with the military population as VA and DOD clinicians, it’s essential to increase the military population’s access to timely and competent mental health services.

Counselors often ask me: How do I do it? I may want to serve veterans and their families, but how do I get there from here?

Here are some critical points to consider if you’re interested in working with the military-affiliated population.

 

Know why you’re doing it

Understanding your motivation for serving veterans is critical. More importantly, it’s an ethical responsibility for counselors. In order to give the highest quality of service to those we work with, as well as to be true to ourselves, we need to understand what it is that got us into this work and why we want to do it.

What are your personal and professional motivations to serve this population? Like me, are you a veteran yourself, or (also like me) a child of a veteran? Are you a military spouse who has the lived experience of your partner’s service? Or do you have no prior direct affiliation with the military, but happened to work with the population during your clinical training? Regardless of your background, it’s essential to understand why you chose this particular population to serve.

Photo by U.S. Army Master Sgt. Alejandro Licea/defense.gov

Understand your limitations

Along with why you’re doing it, it’s important to understand your limitations. This could mean that you may have some familiarity with one aspect of military culture but recognizing that you’re not an expert in all military culture. Or that you may come up against some things in your clinical work that you’re not prepared for, and you didn’t know would bother you. I remember several years ago when working with a veteran, a session in which they were recounting significant racial discrimination while they were in the military. This discrimination was the source of their depression rather than PTSD as most people (including the client) assumed. As I was listening to the veteran recount their story, I found myself getting angrier and angrier, to the point where I started to lose concentration and therapeutic objectivity. The former senior noncommissioned officer in me was offended at the experience.

What I didn’t realize was that this was a psychological reaction on my part to two different things: the blatant disregard for the military values that I hold dear shown by the veteran’s leadership, as well as my own unresolved emotional response to racial discrimination in my childhood. A classic example of countertransference. Counselors like me, who identify as military-affiliated, must assess for and address potential countertransference. Just because a counselor is a veteran doesn’t make them the best counselor for veterans, and we need to be aware of the limitations of our own personal experience.

Where do you start?

So understanding why we want to serve veterans is essential, and it’s also important to understand the limitations that we may face, but what about the practical aspects of serving this population? As in, specifically, how do you help? I often hear how difficult it is for professional counselors to serve in the VA (although the department is currently putting a lot of effort into creating more licensed professional mental health counselor positions). And if you’re not in the VA or DOD, but want to help veterans, where do you go? How do you find internships, post-graduate placement or positions for a fully licensed counselor?

There are several suggestions that I often give to those counselors who reach out to me, asking about how they find positions in the community that serve veterans. First, do some research in your area. Are there mental health clinics that primarily serve the military population? Organizations like the Cohen Veterans Network may be a useful resource for internships or to get your pre-licensure hours, or clinics like the one I work for, the Family Care Center, in Colorado Springs. Even if they are not currently taking interns, they may have some advice for you.

Another potential source for positions is to see if there are other veteran services in your community that would be willing to add a clinical component to them. For example, the Veterans Village of San Diego, a nationally recognized leader in serving homeless veterans since 1981, has 27 mental health interns as part of their staff. Organizations that provide employment, housing, legal and financial resources to veterans may be willing to include a mental health component to their services.

And finally, there is a national program that may be of some benefit. Give An Hour is a national network of volunteer clinicians who serve the military population. I often recommend it as a resource for those veterans and family members looking for support outside of my local area. It is also a way to connect with other like-minded professionals serving the military population. If you’re looking to serve veterans in your area, it’s a good idea to reach out to those who are already doing so and network with them. You can find a list of clinicians in your area who are working with the military by searching for providers in your zip code, and reaching out and connecting with them on LinkedIn or through email. It’s likely that you will find one or two who would be willing to sit down and talk and give some professional advice on what serving the military looks like in your location.

Serving those who served

Dedicating your professional career to serving those who served and those who care for them is admirable and not to be taken lightly. Like many other underserved populations, it is necessary to understand the unique culture of the military and how it impacts our clients. Through diligence in our preparation, we can make sure to provide the best care possible for those who sacrificed much on our behalf.

 

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Duane France, LPC

Duane France is a retired U.S. Army noncommissioned officer and combat veteran who practices as a licensed professional counselor in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the director of veteran service for the Family Care Center, a private outpatient mental health clinic specializing in service members, veterans and their families. He is also the executive director of the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is professionally affiliated with the Family Care Center. In addition to his clinical work, he writes and speaks about veteran mental health on his blog and podcast at veteranmentalhealth.com. Contact him at duane@veteranmentalhealth.com.

 

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

Reconciling disability studies with mental health counseling

By Emily Cutler January 21, 2020

Growing up Jewish and queer in a conservative part of Birmingham, Alabama, I faced some pretty severe bullying as a child and teenager. It was a common occurrence for me to be called anti-Semitic slurs and mocked for looking and acting different. I was excluded by almost all of my classmates and had very little social support.

As a result, I struggled a great deal with my mental health. I felt depressed and anxious almost every day, and there were times when I felt sheer panic and terror about the prospect of attending school. Because I never seemed to fit in, I was convinced that I was fundamentally unlikeable and that the only positive quality I possessed was my near-perfect academic track record. So, on top of the anxiety and depression I felt as a result of being bullied, I also put enormous pressure on myself to score perfect grades. Any score less than 100 would send me into a spiral of shame and self-hate.

I cried a lot, and this worried many of the adults around me. I was sent to a number of therapists throughout my childhood. Most of them focused on figuring out ways to get me to stop crying so much. I was prescribed medication, exercise and an array of breathing techniques. Some of the therapists worked on encouraging me to act more “normal” — perhaps if I didn’t talk about my academic interests so much, or if I stopped trying to be the teacher’s pet, or if I were just less sensitive, then more of my classmates would like me.

Although some of the advice was useful, there were many times I walked out of therapy continuing to feel like something was wrong with me — that it was my fault that I was being bullied because I was just too weird and different to understand how to act like everyone else. More than anything else, I was frustrated with myself for not being able to stop crying or feeling depressed.

 

An empowering approach

My experiences with and perspective on therapy changed drastically when I went away to college. After struggling considerably with the transition to a new city and new environment, I reluctantly sought counseling from my university’s mental health center. I can still remember my first session. After answering some questions about my childhood during the intake, I said, “I know I must seem really messed up. Everyone hated me in high school, and now I just started college and I still don’t fit in. There’s something wrong with me. I know it. I just can’t fit in anywhere.” I could feel myself starting to tear up, so I immediately apologized for crying. “And on top of that, I am so overly emotional! I must be your worst client.”

My new counselor raised his eyebrows and looked up from his notes. “I was actually about to say that the way you’re reacting seems normal to me. It sounds like you had a pretty difficult time in school, and that was hard for you — it would be for anyone. And the transition from high school to college is hard too, which is also normal. I don’t know if I’ve met anyone who didn’t struggle to make friends in the first few months of college. I think it shows that you have a lot of resilience to get through all of that and to reach out for help.”

I was shocked. Here was a counselor who was not saying that anything was wrong with me or that I needed to change myself to fit in better. In his opinion, I was having a natural reaction to the circumstances I had been through. I’d never heard anything like it before.

Over the next several months, I went from viewing myself as an unlikeable weirdo to a person who is different (and perhaps weird in a good way!) but still deserving of acceptance and belonging. I started to see my uniqueness as a strength. Instead of encouraging me to change myself to fit in, my counselor empowered me to seek out on-campus groups and spaces where I would be accepted. As a result, I joined my campus Hillel as well as Active Minds, a student mental health organization. My counselor also encouraged me to stand up for myself in instances of bullying. Above all, he never pathologized my emotions or told me it was wrong to feel sad or depressed. I finally felt that I was being given the space to process and react to some of my experiences as a child.

 

Finding my path

Later on, I began to get involved with initiatives and organizations that focus on combatting prejudice and social injustice. I interned at the Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia during my senior year of college, and I completed an honors thesis on weight-based bullying (bullying due to a child’s weight or size). Eventually, through my coursework and through my involvement in different advocacy communities, I found my way to disability studies, a discipline that centers the voices of people with disabilities and explores philosophical, cultural and sociological perspectives on the experience of disability.

Generally, the field of disability studies challenges the idea that disability is solely or primarily an individual defect in need of medical treatment. Instead, it posits that disability is the result of a multitude of factors, including societal exclusion and inaccessibility. The perspectives encompassed by disability studies greatly resonated with me as someone who cares deeply about challenging social injustices and exclusion rather than primarily changing individuals. Over the past several years, I have become intricately involved with disability studies research and advocacy.

One of my most pivotal moments has been coming to view myself and accept my identity as a person with a psychiatric disability. Embracing that identity has allowed me not only to accept myself and reduce my shame around having experienced mental health struggles, but also to become connected to a community of people with similar experiences and perspectives. I started working with the National Empowerment Center, an organization led by and for mental health consumers. With the center, I develop advocacy initiatives, educational programming and workshops that center the voices of people with lived experiences of mental health challenges and advocate for increased self-determination and acceptance of people with psychiatric disabilities.

The most meaningful and fulfilling part of my work has been spending time with people who have psychiatric disabilities, sitting with them through difficult times and empowering them to advocate for their rights and self-determination. My work has often included responding to people in crisis and providing space for them to experience strong emotions and extreme states.

 

A ‘fit’ for counseling?

My passion for that kind of intensely interpersonal, relational work sparked my interest in becoming a mental health counselor. As I began to explore the possibility of pursuing a graduate degree in counseling, I became increasingly certain that it was the right choice for me. There is little I care about more than supporting people with psychiatric disabilities to gain agency over their lives and experience community, connection and meaning. However, I also wondered how my disability studies background and perspective would fit with my role as a counselor. Whereas the disability studies field seeks increased acceptance and accommodation of disability in society, the counseling field often seeks to treat or prevent psychiatric disability. Would it be possible for me to reconcile both of these goals and perspectives?

I am only in my third semester of graduate school, so I do not yet fully know how I will integrate my disability studies background with my role as a mental health counselor. However, I believe it will be quite possible to do so.

In my own experience with counseling at my university’s mental health center, I felt that my counselor focused much more on encouraging me to accept myself and to find spaces where I would be accepted than on changing me or “fixing” me. I hope to take this same general approach with my clients. I believe that person-centered therapy and other humanistic approaches to counseling provide an excellent framework to accomplish this. These approaches require therapists to work with clients from a position of unconditional positive regard and to support clients in discovering their strengths rather than operating from a deficit-based model.

I also believe it is important to learn from counseling approaches developed by and for other marginalized communities. For example, while homosexuality used to be pathologized as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, many counselors now practice LGBTQ-affirming therapy. This approach supports LGBTQ clients in accepting themselves and decreasing any feelings of shame they may have related to their identities. Similarly, feminist therapy focuses on empowering women and people from other marginalized groups to advocate for themselves and to challenge injustice in their daily lives. Similar approaches could be applied to counseling clients with disabilities, including those with psychiatric disabilities.

I do not mean to suggest that psychiatric disabilities should never be treated or prevented. Many people with psychiatric disabilities want treatment such as cognitive behavior therapy, dialectal behavior therapy, and medication. Neither should exercise and breathing techniques be discounted because they are very useful for many people. However, there is no reason why the social and systemic factors affecting a person should not also be explored. In fact, professional counselors have an ethical and moral obligation to encourage people with disabilities to advocate for themselves. If clients are facing prejudice or discrimination on account of their psychiatric or other disability (or other difference), it may be helpful to explore ways of addressing that with them. Counselors can also encourage clients to request disability accommodations and link them to organizations such as peer-run wellness centers and peer support groups through which they might find acceptance and social support.

The 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling initiative, sponsored by the American Counseling Association and the American Association of State Counseling Boards, reached a consensus definition of counseling as “a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education and career goals.” I believe that the disability studies field complements and enhances this goal rather than taking away from it. As a future counselor with a disability, I look forward to empowering my clients to accomplish their goals and to stand up to any injustice that stands in their way.

 

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Emily Cutler is a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling at Troy University in Tampa, Florida. In addition to pursuing her studies, she provides training and consultancy on the topics of disability rights, trauma-informed care, suicide prevention, peer-run mental health services, and the Health at Every Size paradigm. Contact her through her website at emilyscutler.com.

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

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.