Tag Archives: human rights

Counseling survivors of human trafficking

By Lamerial McRae and Letitia Browne-James October 9, 2017

Millions of human trafficking victims exist across the globe. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of victims experience trafficking. As society expands and evolves, human trafficking perpetrators find new ways to recruit and victimize others. The evolution of perpetration ensues because of increases in accessing technology, shifting state and federal laws, and changing criminal investigation methods within communities. Human trafficking continues to evolve into a new way of enslaving human beings, stripping individuals of basic rights and freedoms, while skirting the legal issues of slavery and ownership.

Human traffickers often recruit individuals by offering the fantasy of increased happiness, stability, relationship success and financial freedom. Human traffickers, often referred to as “pimps” or “playboys,” may recruit a female or male victim with promises of a better quality of life, including, but not limited to money, security and safe shelter. These perpetrators often present as charming and recruit their victims using lies and manipulation. They prey on victims from vulnerable populations, including those with low socioeconomic status (SES), biological females, children and adolescents, immigrants and LGBTQ+ youth. The fact that these vulnerable populations often remain dependent on others or experience institutionalized marginalization allows for perpetrators to paint the picture of a better life, both in terms of finance and social support. Thus, counselors must understand the cycle of perpetration and victimization to pinpoint potential victims among clients.

As a starting point, counselors must understand the nature of the phenomenon and seek ways to identify potential risk and protective factors. Counselors must learn to assess and address possible victimization with effective rapport building and intervention. For example, youth may display delinquent behavior (e.g., truancy, sexual misconduct, drug use) as a symptom of coercion and threats by a perpetrator. Perpetrators often experience greater ease when recruiting teenagers because of their tendency to be influenced by others. Sadly, when teenagers fall victim to a human trafficker, they are subjected to the victim-blaming phenomenon.

Thus, to build therapeutic rapport from a nonjudgmental framework, counselors need to understand the true source of teenagers’ behavior rather than labeling them as inappropriate or delinquent. As counselors increase their understanding of risk and protective factors, the profession may be able to conceptualize human trafficking as a systemic problem from a broad perspective.

 

Risk and protective factors

Several risk and protective factors exist for those falling victim to human trafficking. Risk factors include the following demographics and experiences. Risk factors, which are not limited to the list provided, may change over time with the help of counselors.

  • Low SES
  • Previous or current substance abuse
  • Social vulnerability (e.g., children, females, LGBTQ+ individuals)
  • Limited education.

Protective factors, referred to as strengths in counseling, include the following demographics and experiences. Counselors must foster protective factors and strengths in clients to reduce the risk of falling victim to trafficking.

  • Education
  • Family stability
  • Strong social support networks
  • Mental and emotional health

Counselors should understand these risk and protective factors to assess potential risks for human trafficking and to focus on increasing protective factors in counseling. For example, counselors may use a family counseling approach when working with survivors to increase their connections to loved ones and family. Throughout the process of recruiting and selling human trafficking victims, counselors may notice several risk and protective factors playing a role in the process.

 

Human trafficking business model and counseling implications

Human trafficking remains a mysterious and misunderstood phenomenon. Because of a lack of understanding about the effects of human trafficking on our society, counselors are charged with educating themselves to best address and assess individuals for victimization.

Counselors should recognize that survivors of sex trafficking require additional techniques (to those used with other clients) to build rapport with them and to reduce the mistrust that they commonly have about people. To best serve survivors, treatment approaches need to remain centered on survivors, empower them, provide safety and involve a multidisciplinary approach. In addition, professional counselors working extensively with sex trafficking survivors hold legal and ethical responsibilities to provide appropriate services and identify strategies to overcome barriers to their treatment, including specialized and intensive training.

To begin, counselors must understand the human trafficking business model to conceptualize the systemic issue and the moving parts that contribute to the continuing cycle. To highlight some of the societal and professional impacts, consider the parallel of the human trafficking business model to the process of manufacturing goods. The human trafficking business model includes the following stages of grooming and distribution:

1) The supplier recruits the victim.

2) The manufacturer grooms the victim.

3) The retailer determines price and then markets the victim.

4) The retailer sells and the consumer purchases the victim.

The human trafficking business model is a sophisticated process, not always linear in nature, and it functions as a well-established industry. Thus, the need exists to explore each of the model to better understand how to help victims and break the cycle.

Stage 1: Supplying victims. The supplier, also known as the initial human trafficking perpetrator, displays high levels of mental health concerns (e.g., antisocial personality traits) and shows little concern for the basic human rights of others. When victims enter this stage, counselors may find that these individuals report troubles at home, low SES, depression, anxiety and truant behavior. These factors contribute to their need to survive. Unfortunately, this may result in a perpetrator using charm or manipulation to attract the victims. Perpetrators remove victims’ identification, passports and other valuables to trap them in the world of human trafficking.

Clinical assessment is vital at this stage and remains an ongoing process. Counselors may want to ease survivors into telling their stories, paying special attention to the therapeutic relationship. Thus, the most valuable interventions at this stage include active listening and reflection. When administering specific assessment instruments, counselors will want to measure attitudes about victimization and perpetration and prevalence rates of violence. Counselors must use both open- and closed-ended questions to directly address potential victimization. Nonverbally, counselors will want to avoid direct eye contact and limit their use of touch because of victims’ trauma and abuse history.

Stage 2: Grooming victims. This stage involves moving human trafficking victims from the supplier to the manufacturer. Perpetrators continue to display high levels of antisocial behaviors and major mental health concerns; survivors present with mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety and addiction. Substance abuse concerns usually present when perpetrators force their victims to engage in substance use to coerce and control their behaviors, often resulting in addiction.

Counselors must use clinical assessment and maintain that ongoing process. In addition, because survivors have been manufactured as a human trafficking product, their levels of abuse and mistrust often appear high when they present to counseling. Therefore, counselors must focus on the therapeutic relationship as victims provide information about their experiences in trafficking. Counselors should pay special attention to reducing the stigma of substance use and mental health concerns, especially considering that victims develop these concerns because of coercion and violence.

Stage 3: Marketing victims. This stage involves moving survivors from the manufacturer to the retailer. At this stage, human trafficking perpetrators focus on the marketing and sales aspect of their exploitation. For example, based on the quality of their goods (i.e., victim age, appearance) and market demand, perpetrators determine the price for selling each of their victims. At this stage, survivors present with major depressive, dissociative and addiction disorders.

At this stage, counselors again use clinical assessment to understand the survivor’s story while maintaining a trustworthy therapeutic relationship. As previously stated, severe mental health concerns present because of the violence and abuse that victims experience. Thus, counselors need to use evidenced-based practices to treat depression and dissociative symptoms. Some of the most helpful interventions to treat these mental health concerns include grounding and relaxation techniques.

When focusing on grounding, counselors must engage the client’s physical world to assist the person in becoming present in the moment. For example, counselors may ask clients to locate an object in the room and provide an in-depth description. Relaxation techniques to practice include deep breathing and mindfulness meditation. Both types of techniques allow clients to practice coping skills during sessions that can translate to their everyday life experiences.

Stage 4: Selling victims. As retailers push survivors toward the consumers, the perpetrators continue to focus on marketing strategies and targeting potential consumers. Perpetrators often target large events (e.g., the Super Bowl, national political conventions) to take advantage of the crowds and high demand for paid sexual services. Those paying for the sex services, the consumers, exhibit low levels of depression and anxiety. These consumers often report avoiding relationship concerns or other mental health concerns, resulting in a desire to seek out sexual activity.

Because survivors have been a part of ongoing abuse and a cycle of victimization that they cannot break, counselors must use a systemic approach to providing services. For example, counselors need to provide information on shelters and building connections with family. Counselors may incorporate the use of technology and location services, safety words and discussing location with loved ones at all times.

 

Case example         

Toney, an 18-year-old multiracial, cisgender male, moved away from his caregivers’ home about one year ago and currently lives with a friend. He moved because of safety issues in his home and within the nearby neighborhood. When Toney was 16, his father died during a gang-related shootout at their home. Thus, Toney often felt afraid of engaging in a similar lifestyle and enduring similar consequences. Toney’s mother suffered from a severe substance use disorder that led to eviction from their rental home because she could not afford the rent. Toney and his mother became homeless.

While Toney was homeless, Kevin, a childhood friend, suggested that Toney come live with him temporarily as long as Toney obtained a job and contributed to the rent and utility bills. One day, Toney answered the front door, and a young adult male appearing to be about Toney’s age attempted to sell him a magazine subscription. Toney disclosed to the salesman that he was financially strapped. The young man told Toney about the large sums of money he made while selling magazine subscriptions and offered to put him in contact with the owner. Toney was intrigued by the idea of alleviating his financial troubles, and the young male immediately scheduled a meeting with the owner for later that night.

That evening, Toney met with the young salesman and the business owner in an abandoned parking lot, bought their sales pitch and decided to go to work. The business owner told Toney that he would need to move six hours away to another state because there was a high demand for work there and he would not have to pay any rent or utility bills. The business owner promised Toney the opportunity to travel and see many areas of the country while working in the job.

Thus, Toney left a day later to live in a weekly hotel in a new city with his new manager and several others. Upon arriving, the manager took them to a warehouse to pick up the product. They all began working the next day.

After a few weeks, Toney began grasping the reality of his situation. The job of trying to sell magazine subscriptions was strenuous and exhausting. He often worked 10- to 12-hour days while receiving limited rest and food. When Toney voiced concerns about the number of work hours he put in each day, his manager threatened him. The threats later escalated to physical assault when Toney again voiced his concern and when the manager perceived him to be underperforming at the job.

No matter how hard Toney tried, he could not meet the daily sales goal that the manager set for employees. When Toney failed to meet the daily sales quota, the manager either denied him his nightly meal or forced him to sleep outside of the hotel on the streets. As a result, Toney rarely ate and often did not receive the money he had earned while working. He was told that he would receive the money once the team had completed its sales goals for the area and had moved on to another city.

One day, while trying to sell magazines to a homeowner who declined to buy anything, Toney became agitated and started crying. He told the homeowner that he was in trouble and begged her to help him get home, across state lines. The homeowner had recently watched a documentary on human trafficking and invited Toney to use her phone to call the authorities.

The police arrived and took Toney’s statement about his work experiences. Fortunately, the responding officer had recently attended a departmental training on human trafficking, and she took Toney to the police station for further questioning and support. The officer connected Toney with a local nonprofit organization that provided multidisciplinary services, including professional counseling, to survivors of human trafficking. The organization offered shelter and provided Toney with career development services to help him obtain legitimate work. The shelter’s ultimate goal was to move Toney back to his hometown.

In counseling sessions with Toney, the counselor focused on direct questions to assess the nature of the human trafficking Toney had experienced. For example, “Did anyone threaten you or your loved ones?” and “Did you have difficulty leaving the work that you did selling door-to-door merchandise?” While initially reluctant, Toney eventually responded with answers that indicated his victimization. For example, he reported that his manager used threats and power and control tactics (such as denying Toney food, money and shelter) to force him to work.

Following assessment, Toney received counseling services focused on recovering from the abuse he had endured. Toney felt validated because he was not alone while accepting that he had fallen victim to human trafficking. The counselor and Toney focused on crisis intervention and stabilization in the beginning, which included discussions about adjunct services and basic needs assessments (e.g., food and clothing, job obtainment). Next, the counselor and Toney addressed the trauma, focusing on decreasing anxiety-provoking cues and scaffolding into addressing more severe cues and triggers. All the while, Toney and the counselor developed several grounding and relaxation techniques to use both in their sessions and in Toney’s real-world experiences.

One of the most valuable grounding techniques made use of a rock that Toney could hold whenever he felt distressed. The counselor taught Toney how to become present, while holding the rock, through discussions about the texture, shape and weight of the rock. Discussing these tactile experiences allowed Toney to focus on the here-and-now rather than attempting to escape feelings and thoughts.

Toney and the counselor also used a breathing method in which Toney would take a deep breath through his nostrils for at least three seconds and exhale through his mouth for three seconds. They determined that he needed to take at least three deep breaths during the exercise so that he could calm down.

In the final stages of counseling, Toney and the counselor developed an action plan to help him avoid falling victim to trafficking. That does not mean, however, that Toney took responsibility for the actions of others. Toney and the counselor reviewed the different needs he may have and how to meet those needs in a helpful manner.

While focusing on the trauma from human trafficking victimization, the counselor worked with Toney on obtaining a job at a local fast food restaurant. They chose this restaurant so that he could easily transfer to another store in his hometown once he felt comfortable with the transition. After three months, Toney finally returned home and moved back in with his friend, Kevin. He remained employed as a fast food line cook and began seeking education at a local culinary institute.

 

 

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Lamerial McRae is an assistant professor at Stetson University and a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. Her research and clinical interests include counselor identity development and gatekeeping; adult and child survivors of trauma, abuse and intimate partner violence; marriages, couples and families; LGBTQ issues in counseling and human trafficking. Contact her at ljacobso@stetson.edu.

Letitia Browne-James is a licensed mental health counselor, clinical supervisor and national certified counselor. She is a clinical manager at a large behavioral health agency in Central Florida and is in the final year of her doctoral program at Walden University, where she is pursuing a degree in counselor education and supervision with a specialization in counseling and social change. She has presented at professional counseling conferences nationally and internationally on various topics, including human trafficking.

 

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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.

 

Homelessness: A counselor’s role in alleviating a complex systemic issue

By Zach Bruns and Cody Andrews July 10, 2017

How would you know if your client is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless? For counselors working in school or community settings, this seems like a simple question to answer. In reality, homelessness is a complex status that may be layered with shame, guilt, addiction, trauma, family strife, legal pitfalls, economic and employment barriers, and inadequate physical and mental health treatment.

As professional counselors, we are challenged with trying to meet the psychological and emotional needs of our clients. How do we properly treat individuals with mental health symptoms whose needs are so intricately interwoven into personal and environmental factors, especially housing instability? The professional research correlating homelessness and mental health counseling is surprisingly minimal (although not nonexistent), whereas the efficacy of current popular psychotherapy techniques (e.g., cognitive behavior therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, motivational interviewing) has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout research literature. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask: Is psychotherapy alone enough to adequately help individuals living in homelessness or without permanent housing? We will attempt to answer that question in this article while emphasizing the importance of instilling hope in the lives of our clients.

As an American Counseling Association member and a licensed professional counselor and substance abuse counselor in Wisconsin, I (Zach Bruns) have the privilege of working as a mental health clinician on a multidisciplinary team that serves individuals who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in Milwaukee County. Our nonprofit agency, Outreach Community Health Centers, receives funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to run a Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program (see bit.ly/2hcldEg). We do not have all the answers and resources to solve the systemic societal issues of homelessness, but I would like to share my insights on practical ways to help individuals who are living in homelessness or at risk of homelessness.

Let’s start with the basic concepts of homelessness. Each community in the United States has different access to resources for people experiencing homelessness. Smaller rural communities may rely heavily on faith-based organizations to assist individuals experiencing homelessness or economic hardship. Larger urban communities such as Milwaukee often have emergency shelters, open year-round or seasonally, that cater to specific populations (e.g., survivors of domestic violence, single women, women with children, families, single men). Depending on a shelter’s funding source — i.e., private or governmental — shelters may enforce their own rules or be required to abide by certain rules and regulations that dictate who can and cannot be admitted into their shelter, how long residents can stay and what services are offered to individuals or families during their shelter stay. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also organizes collaborative countywide Continuum of Care programs throughout the United States. These programs seek to provide services to those who are homeless, including helping individuals, unaccompanied youth and families transition into housing (see bit.ly/27ioSpd).

Emergency shelters that receive funding through HUD are expected to track the types of services they provide to individuals and the dates of shelter stays. HUD also funds permanent housing programs such as the Rapid Re-housing (see bit.ly/1MtqB19) and Housing First (see bit.ly/1HGeOsl) initiatives, which are required to provide documentation of a client’s homeless status before enrolling an individual or family in services. HUD created criteria for classifying homelessness into four categories (see bit.ly/1Ir9R9v): literally homeless, imminent risk of homelessness, homeless under other federal statutes and fleeing domestic violence. Individuals are placed into housing programs based on their category of homelessness, the length of time they have been homeless (e.g., 12 months or more in the past three years) and their documented disability status.

With this general background of homelessness in mind, how can counselors provide hope and encouragement and help our clients who are struggling with housing instability?

Primary health care. Help your clients get connected to a primary care doctor. This is vitally important because many (but not all) individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness have not had a recent physical exam or have unaddressed medical issues. You may be able to make an internal referral if you are affiliated with a medical clinic. Otherwise, you may need to help these clients research clinics that accept their insurance (if insured) or clinics that accept uninsured clients or work on a sliding fee scale. 

Psychiatry services. Not all clients’ mental health symptoms rise to a level requiring medication management just because they are homeless or at risk of being homeless. However, many individuals can benefit from the therapeutic effects of psychotropic medications as prescribed by a psychiatrist, advanced practice nurse prescriber or other credentialed prescriber. Depending on where you practice as a counselor, psychiatric services may be difficult to access or feature long wait lists. A primary care physician may be an alternative option, depending on your client’s mental health needs. A primary care doctor may be able to prescribe psychotropic medications for common mental health diagnoses such as mild to moderate mood disorders. Consider asking your clients to sign a release of information so that you can communicate with their doctor and coordinate appropriate services for them.    

Public benefits. If your clients are living in poverty and struggling to secure consistent employment and stable housing, they may benefit from public benefits. Help your clients enroll in and utilize benefit programs such as Medicaid or state-based health insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and unemployment insurance. If you are not the right person to assist clients with these tasks, refer them to an agency in your area that helps with public benefits. Also consider researching additional special benefits that may be available in your area. For example, SAMHSA’s SOAR program helps individuals who are homeless and living with a mental illness apply for and increase their chances of successfully obtaining Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits (see bit.ly/2eM4YPr).

Emergency shelter. If your community has a coordinated entry system for shelter, you may need to help clients make calls for shelter services, especially if this is their first time experiencing homelessness and they are feeling scared, ashamed or hesitant to ask for help. In Milwaukee County, most shelter bed openings are currently coordinated through IMPACT 2-1-1, which can be accessed via phone or online chat. Private shelters follow different rules and often accept individuals who present to a shelter in person. We recommend that you call the shelter in advance to check for current bed openings.

Disability documentation. Unless it’s your initial intake session with your client, you likely have already completed a formal intake process, including using relevant evidence-based screening tools, so you now have a sense of the mental health needs and issues that affect your client’s quality of life. The next step to helping your client is to vouch for your client in writing. Many supportive housing programs require documentation from a medical or mental health professional noting the individual’s current medical or mental health diagnosis. Work with your client to obtain housing application paperwork, and offer to write the client a letter on your agency’s letterhead documenting any disabilities that you are qualified to diagnose.

Food and clothing (and maybe a sleeping bag). As counselors, sometimes we forget about the physiological and safety needs at the bottom of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid. Consider obtaining or creating a list of local community resources, including food pantries, free meal sites and clothing banks, to share with your clients. Many secondhand clothing stores, such as Goodwill and St. Vincent de Paul, offer voucher programs for people in need of clothing and furniture. Consider reaching out to local churches, temples, mosques, synagogues or other nonprofits to request donations of material goods that your clients may need, such as personal hygiene supplies, coats or jackets, boots, blankets or even sleeping bags. 

Transportation. Transportation can be a major barrier to a client obtaining and keeping employment and attending regular appointments such as counseling sessions, supervised visits with children and apartment showings. In Wisconsin, individuals with Medicaid can qualify for assistance with transportation for medical-related services, usually via public transportation (if available) or contracted transportation services. Some cities also offer discounted public transportation for seniors, individuals with Medicare or persons with qualifying disabilities. In Milwaukee, our PATH team helps qualifying individuals apply for a GO Pass, a discounted bus pass for county residents older than 65 or for younger residents who receive SSI or SSDI, or who have a veterans disability designation and also have Medicaid or SNAP benefits.

Cell phone. A cell phone is a simple everyday device that most of us take for granted. However, if your client is living on the streets, under a bridge, in his or her car or even “couch surfing” with friends or family, a phone can be that client’s lifeline to the outside world. If your client is enrolled in public benefits, he or she likely qualifies for a free government-issued phone. You can help clients apply for a cell phone online through programs such as SafeLink Wireless (see bit.ly/1ISUYOD) or in person at local cell phone retail stores (call first to check availability).   

Long-term case management. We all have worked with difficult clients — individuals with complex mental and physical health needs whose level of care may extend beyond the scope of outpatient counseling treatment. To better support these clients, consider submitting a referral to a long-term case management program in your county. In Milwaukee County, the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division contracts with community agencies to offer three different types of case management programs for people whose primary diagnosis is related to mental health (see bit.ly/2q1uGSl). For individuals whose main diagnosis relates to physical health, there are additional agencies and case management programs, such as Family Care programs (see bit.ly/2hKeRg8), that offer services.      

In conclusion, psychotherapy is not enough to treat all the mental, social, emotional and environmental aspects surrounding individuals or families who are experiencing homelessness. By stepping outside the traditional boundaries of a counselor’s role, you can greatly benefit and encourage your clients as they progress along their recovery journeys. By using your person-centered counseling skills, you will encourage and build up hope in your clients, especially if they are struggling with issues surrounding homelessness. Remember the beloved Carl Rogers, who urged us all to treat our clients with genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard.

 

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Zach Bruns, a licensed professional counselor and substance abuse counselor, has been practicing community-based clinical counseling since 2013. He serves as the mental health clinician for the multidisciplinary Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness team at Outreach Community Health Centers in Milwaukee. He also works through Dungarvin Inc. and the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division’s Community Consultation Team to provide mobile crisis services to individuals diagnosed with intellectual/developmental disabilities and mental illnesses, their providers and loved ones. Contact him at zacharyb@orchc-milw.org.

Cody Andrews has served as the lead service provider for the Street Outreach Team at Outreach Community Health Centers since June 2015. He is starting graduate school this fall to obtain a master’s degree in social work and from there hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in social welfare. His research interests include housing interventions, social support systems of people experiencing homelessness and homeless outreach. Contact him at codya@orchc-milw.org.

 

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

Preparing for the mental health impact of climate change

By Debbie C. Sturm and Lennis G. Echterling May 10, 2017

Around the globe, coastlines are encroaching on communities, summer days are sweltering and reports of weather catastrophes often dominate the news media. These examples represent only a few of the monumental and pervasive environmental effects of our changing planet.

Climate change may be the most crucial issue confronting the inhabitants of our world today. The dramatic consequences that scientists have been predicting, such as rising sea levels, record-setting high temperatures and an increase in devastating natural disasters, are no longer theoretical. Although some still argue the point, climate change is now a grim reality, not a vague possibility in the distant future.

As devastating as these consequences are on our physical world, climate change also poses enormous threats to our psychological well-being. In a report released in 2012 by the National Wildlife Federation’s climate education program, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, researchers predicted a sharp rise in mental health issues resulting from events related to climate change in the coming years. These issues include depression and anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, suicide and outbreaks of violence. The elderly, the poor, children and members of the military (and their families) were identified as being among those who will be most psychologically vulnerable.

We believe the counseling profession, which has its conceptual roots in the promotion of human growth and development, must play a more active role in addressing the mental health impact of climate change. For many decades, counselors have worked closely with countless individuals to help them achieve fulfilling careers, realize self-actualization, strengthen personal resilience and seek social justice. Recently, counselors have gained greater acceptance as valuable members of crisis and disaster response teams.

Our extensive training and experience in enhancing well-being enable us to serve as effective catalysts for positive change. Now more than ever, counselors are in a position to shape messaging and lead the way in effective prevention and intervention related to the psychological implications of climate change. This includes promoting climate resilience, strengthening disaster response programs and advocating for vulnerable populations.

Climate resilience and climate refugees

In January 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a $48 million grant to move an entire indigenous community from Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, before the land disappears into the Gulf of Mexico. This marks the first allocation of federal dollars to permanently move an entire community impacted by climate change. These displaced people are now known as climate refugees. The main purpose of the grant is to work closely with the inhabitants of this community through a process that will honor their choices. By empowering the people and giving voice to their preferences, choice builds resilience.

Although this tribe is the first to be formally identified as climate refugees within the United States, climate refugee status is not a new phenomenon. The crisis in Syria, for example, has become so complex and tragic that it often eclipses the fact that a climate-related drought was the catalyst for mass migration to the cities, instigating intense cultural and economic conflicts.

Climate change threatens to become a tipping point in more and more areas of the world. Between 50 million and 200 million people could be displaced by 2050, according to the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security. Populations that are economically and culturally vulnerable, such as those whose livelihoods depend on farming and fishing, will feel the impact most especially.

Climate resilience is the notion that we should not wait until there is no choice and people are traumatically displaced by the effects of climate change. Instead, we can help create resilience plans so that those who are impacted have both choice and voice in the matter. The International Red Cross has embraced the notion of climate resilience as a necessary element of preparation for what is to come, and as an opportunity to anticipate the physical, psychological and cultural needs ahead. Climate resilience, which is an integral component of disaster response within the International Red Cross, places significant emphasis on trauma and mental health response.

Place attachment

Consider again the people of Isle de Jean Charles. Although efforts are in place to help with the transition, residents still feel a deep attachment to their home. This isle holds their cultural and spiritual history. Their identity is deeply rooted to the story of this place.

Just as we are connected to our early attachment figures, we also share a deep and abiding attachment to our early places, both individually and culturally. In a 2016 article in The New York Times, Chief Albert Naquin of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, the ancestral residents of Isle de Jean Charles, observed sadly, “We’re going to lose all our heritage, all our culture.”

Place attachment is the powerful bond that links a person to a place. It develops throughout one’s lifetime and even evolves over centuries throughout the history of a culture. This sense of connection to a specific place provides a profound source of meaning, belonging and sustenance. Simply put, this place is one’s home. Place attachment and sense of place are often interchangeable. Place identity considers attachment in terms of emotional or symbolic meanings, as internalized and integrated into a person’s identity.

Much like other aspects of attachment that we explore with clients struggling with any number of issues, place attachment is seated in a deep part of ourselves that connects to ancestry, early recollections, sensory experiences and story. It relates to the larger question of Who am I? — a question that can be partly answered through place identity.

In North Dakota, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe recently engaged in a battle of culture and human rights against the Dakota Access pipeline, the construction of which threatens tribal land and clean water. Many have called Standing Rock a new civil rights moment encompassing a convergence of environmental rights, human rights and cultural rights. Tribal representatives from all over North America joined the Standing Rock Sioux in an empathic and familiar stand to protect culture and identity.

Journalist Rebecca Solnit, writing for The Guardian, spent time in Standing Rock to cover the movement. She gave eloquent voice to the tribe’s heartfelt commitment and place attachment: “Victors like to forget how they got their spoils, but the despoiled have long memories.” With a growing sense of awe, Solnit observed how the tribe relied on peace and prayer, valued humility and revered their ancestors.

Place matters as an integral piece of cultural, historical, existential and personal identity. The stories of people and their places, whether in Louisiana or the Dakotas, are as important as any other attachment issues or identity concerns that we consider when we counsel our clients.

Environmental justice as social justice

Issues that impact the planet also directly impact the people who live on the planet. At times, it seems as though conversations around environmental justice and social justice are happening with equal intensity and depth of passion but are taking place in two separate silos.

As the climate changes, families, communities and lives are affected. And as is true with so many other aspects of change, our most vulnerable neighbors — individuals with low incomes, communities of color, immigrants, indigenous peoples, children, pregnant women, older adults, people with disabilities and people with chronic medical conditions — are most subject to the impact. Understanding the issue and engaging in advocacy on behalf of the climate is also advocating on behalf of the people whose lives depend on a healthy planet. The global climate is interconnected — environmentally, psychologically, socially, culturally
and spiritually.

In 2010, the Council on Social Work Education declared sustainability and climate issues to be the social justice issues of the new century. In 2011, the American Psychological Association released a report highlighting the broad contributions that psychology could make, with continued research and advocacy, to understanding the power of the human-environment relationship. It included a call to action for scholars to bridge the gap between the science of environmental issues and the study and practice of psychology.

Our moral obligation

In a 2016 article on the ecoAffect website, psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren posed a challenge to those in the helping professions. She noted that we work with people who are faced with fears, traumas, unexpected changes and crises. We help our clients navigate this difficult terrain even as we view larger societal issues through a social justice and advocacy lens. She wonders, then, if we can ethically turn a blind eye to the approaching crises that our changing planet will bring. Do we have a duty to warn, to protect, or, at a minimum, to acknowledge that the changing climate is a significant variable in mental health?

The American Counseling Association has a long-established relationship with the American Red Cross as a model for and partner in disaster response. In 2002, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies established the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre. This organization supports national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in their work to reduce loss of life and damage to livelihoods from climate change and extreme weather events. Goals include implementing information and education activities about climate change and extreme weather events; supporting the development of climate-adaptation activities and disaster-risk-reduction programs; and bringing concerns about the impacts of climate change on vulnerable people to the broader public. Considering the global movement toward acknowledging climate change in disaster response and preparedness, we believe it is vitally important for ACA to expand its vision for the future of disaster response.

As professionals who believe that all individuals deserve basic human and civil rights, we need to challenge ourselves to see the climate crisis as an imminent threat. Counselors are positioned to bring a trauma-informed and resilience-based perspective to the front lines of crisis and disaster response. We must recognize that environmental injustices and environmental racism — such as what we have witnessed in Flint, Michigan; with Hurricane Katrina; with the 2016 Louisiana floods; and with the standoff in Standing Rock — are enormous social justice issues.

Given our knowledge and skills as counselors, we have both the responsibility and the potential to contribute to environmental advocacy, disaster response and preparedness for building resilient communities. It is our basic duty to promote and deepen human beings’ most fundamental attachment to our natural world.

 

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Debbie C. Sturm is an associate professor at James Madison University in Virginia and a licensed professional counselor with more than 10 years’ experience in counseling survivors of trauma and community violence. She engages in research related to nature connectedness and mental health, sense of place, the psychology of sustainability and environmental justice as social justice. Contact her at sturmdc@jmu.edu.

Lennis G. Echterling is a professor at James Madison University with more than 30 years’ experience in crisis and disaster response, supporting first responders, and international stabilization and recovery in war-torn regions. As a doting grandfather to two young boys, he believes it is important that we give greater consideration to the health of our planet and our children.

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