Tag Archives: Mental Health

Finding balance with bipolar disorder

By Laurie Meyers April 24, 2018

Licensed professional counselor (LPC) John Duggan didn’t plan on bipolar disorder becoming one of his specialties, but providing emergency room support gave him a close-up view of the consequences when the disease was left uncontrolled. Duggan, who is also a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), noticed the escalation in manic and hypomanic crises that accompanied the increased light and time change in spring. He also saw people who had been diagnosed with depression but whose manic or hypomanic symptoms had gone undetected until they ended up in the emergency room with full-blown mania, psychosis or dysphoria.

Some of these individuals had no one to help them remain stabilized after leaving the hospital. Seeing the need for, as Duggan puts it, “boots on the ground,” he began seeing more and more clients with bipolar disorder in his private practice in Silver Spring, Maryland. Duggan, who is now the manager of professional development at the American Counseling Association, says some of those clients came as referrals from counselors who didn’t feel qualified to work with individuals struggling with bipolar disorder.

It is not uncommon for counselors to be hesitant to take on clients with a bipolar diagnosis, according to practitioners who specialize in the disorder. At the same time, there are many individuals with bipolar disorder who truly need the support of counselors and other mental health professionals to help them manage their condition. Although the public — and perhaps even some mental health professionals — may think that the disease is rare, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that approximately 2.8 percent of U.S. adults currently have bipolar disorder and that 4.4 percent will experience it in their lifetime. NIMH also estimates that approximately 2.9 percent of adolescents currently have bipolar disorder.

Some mental health practitioners may buy in to the stereotype that clients with bipolar disorder are volatile and resistant to treatment, whereas others may be daunted by the disorder’s elevated risk of suicide. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that for those with bipolar disorder, the lifetime risk of suicide is at least 15 times higher than it is for the average person. However, Duggan and others who treat bipolar disorder say that counselors have a crucial role to play in helping clients manage the disease.

Bipolar basics

Counselors are already trained to obtain a detailed client history that includes, among other things, emotional symptoms, family history and sleep and lifestyle habits, all of which can be crucial to spotting bipolar disorder.

“Bipolar clients often seek help only when depressed. Because of this, their manic or hypomanic symptoms are often not reported or observed,” explains Valerie Acosta, an LPC who counsels a number of clients with bipolar disorder in her Richmond, Virginia, practice.

A first step is for counselors to educate clients. Although they may be familiar with the symptoms of depression, they are much less likely to know how mania or hypomania present, adds Acosta, a member of ACA. Many clients think mania involves feeling very “up” and happy, but symptoms actually include intense irritability, anxiety and distraction, she explains.

Sleep patterns are also instructive when looking for evidence of mania or hypomania, says Regina Bordieri, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York who specializes in bipolar disorder. “If they’re not sleeping, are they feeling energetic or tired?” she asks. Most people feel tired after a short night’s rest, but in hypomanic or manic phases, those with bipolar disorder feel energized despite very little sleep, Bordieri explains.Bordieri also asks clients about times when they weren’t depressed. Did they have high levels of energy and feel like they could get a lot done? Depressed moods that alternate with periods of intense activity and feelings of almost limitless energy may be signs of bipolar disorder.

Because it can be difficult for individuals to recognize their mood and behavioral shifts, family members and partners can also play a significant role when it comes to identifying and gauging symptoms, Bordieri says. Then, of course, there is the other role that family plays in diagnosis — namely, family history. Bipolar disorder is strongly tied to genetics, so clients with a family history of bipolar disorder are more likely to develop the disease.

Duggan urges counselors who are treating clients with bipolar disorder to work closely with medical professionals. Consulting a client’s primary care physician (with the client’s permission) is particularly crucial during diagnosis so that physical causes such as sleep disorders, thyroid disorders or a reaction to medication won’t be mistaken as symptoms for bipolar disorder.

Counselors — and clients — should also be aware of their ideas concerning which symptoms and forms of bipolar disorder are most debilitating, say Acosta and Bordieri.

“Bipolar II is not a milder form of bipolar I, but a separate and different diagnosis,” Bordieri explains. “Bipolar I is also not necessarily more difficult to treat. … While the manic episodes in bipolar I can be severe and dangerous, the depressive episodes associated with bipolar II can be longer lasting, causing severe impairment to the individual. While clients with bipolar II have hypomania and not full manic episodes, their depressive episodes can be more debilitating than the depressive episodes of bipolar I.”

Although the depression of bipolar II may take a greater overall toll and be harder to treat, the mania inherent in bipolar I comes with its own set of “baggage.” In the popular imagination, mania — especially more extreme episodes — is the phase most associated with bipolar disorder and contributes to the perception that those who have the disorder are “crazy.” Mania is also extremely disturbing for clients and is highly stigmatized, especially when it leads to hospital stays, Bordieri says.

Ultimately, however, each client’s experience of bipolar disorder is different, Acosta says. “A therapist might be working with two people with bipolar II, and these individuals may present with very different symptoms,” she says. “Helping clients and their families to understand the individual’s unique symptoms, and have a variety of tools and strategies for managing their moods and specific symptoms, is essential for recovery.”

Managing medication

The counselors interviewed for this article stress that because of the neurobiological nature of bipolar disorder, medication is an integral part of treatment. Cheryl Fisher, an LCPC practicing in Annapolis, Maryland, whose specialties include bipolar disorder, says that counselors should work closely with a psychiatrist when treating these clients. In fact, when Fisher sees new clients with bipolar disorder who are working with a primary care physician, she strongly urges them to begin seeing a psychiatrist. Fisher, a member of ACA, believes that psychiatrists possess the specialized psychopharmaceutical knowledge necessary for prescribing the medication “cocktail” that works best for each individual with bipolar disorder. And because counselors see clients more often (and for longer chunks of time) than their physicians do, Fisher thinks that counselors are in a better position to track the effectiveness and side effects of clients’ prescriptions.

Counselors can also help clients become better self-advocates, says ACA member Dixie Meyer. Sometimes clients aren’t comfortable speaking up at the doctor’s office or are unaware that they are even experiencing side effects, she says. Counselors are in a position to spot such problems.

Meyer gives the example of a client who was showing signs of lithium toxicity. “I asked him when was the last time he had his blood levels checked [lithium requires regular blood testing to guard against toxicity]. He asked me what I was talking about. Somehow, he never knew he needed to have levels checked regularly.”

Meyer, an associate professor in the medical family therapy program at the St. Louis University School of Medicine’s Relationships and Brain Science Research Laboratory, says counselors should also be aware that clients with bipolar disorder might be given antidepressants for depression that can cause the onset of mania or hypomania.

“Clients might feel like, ‘Wow, I’m really starting to have a good mood,’” she notes. “They don’t really think to bring that up to the doctor, but the counselor can easily recognize the difference between remission of depression symptoms versus the development of manic symptoms. [Clients] might become more impulsive, snippier, their motor behavior more agitated … Counselors and family members are often the best [resources] to spot mood shifts.”

Sometimes clients don’t want to take medication for bipolar disorder because they have experienced unpleasant side effects, says Meyer, who frequently gives presentations to counselors on the importance of understanding their clients’ medications. She urges counselors to talk through this decision with clients. Meyer informs her clients with bipolar disorder that all medications have side effects, some of which may be temporary. She then asks these clients to give the medications some time and encourages them to talk to their physicians about which side effects might be permanent.

If the side effects of the medication aren’t going to go away, Meyer talks with clients about whether the side effects are something they can live with. In some cases — especially with medications that cause significant weight gain — the client’s answer is no. In those situations, Meyer says that she, the client and the physician go back to the drawing board and look for other medications or explore whether lifestyle changes might help reduce the side effects.

Meyer says all counselors should have a copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference on hand so that they can quickly look up any medication. She also recommends Drugs.com as an excellent online resource.

Sometimes clients with bipolar disorder get stabilized and decide that they don’t need to take their medications anymore. When that happens, Acosta says that she “reflects back” what happened the last time the client stopped taking his or her medication. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t good.)

Fisher tries to educate clients about bipolar disorder, emphasizing that a biochemical reaction underlies their mood shifts and that the medication helps buffer that process.

Medication, however, is not the only tool in the box to help individuals with bipolar disorder. Counselors can provide the emotional and lifestyle keys that help clients manage and, hopefully, decrease their mood and behavior shifts.

Prevention and stabilization

Multiple research studies continue to demonstrate the link between the circadian rhythm and bipolar disorder. Researchers are still teasing out the specifics, but what is clear is that maintaining a schedule — particularly a sleep schedule — that hews to the circadian rhythm plays a key role in controlling the disease.

Research has shown that insomnia is not just a symptom of depression but can also cause it. Likewise, Bordieri says, disturbed sleep can be either a symptom of hypomania/mania or the trigger for an episode.

Sleep is one of the first things that Fisher investigates with all clients, but it is particularly important in those with bipolar disorder. “I ask them what their sleep routine is,” she says. “How do you end your day? How do you prepare your body to rest? What is your sleeping environment like?” Fisher talks about how the blue light from devices such as smartphones and tablets disrupts sleep and advises clients to establish total darkness in their bedrooms.

Some clients reveal that a racing brain regularly prevents them from going to sleep. For these clients, Fisher recommends tools such as guided meditation or performing what she calls a “brain dump” — emptying the mind by writing down all of the thoughts that are keeping clients awake.

Acosta encourages clients with bipolar disorder to go to bed at the same time every night, wake up at the same time every day and take their medications at the same time daily. She has found this routine has a stabilizing effect.

Fisher and Duggan both believe sleep is so essential to mental and physical health that if good sleep hygiene isn’t working, they advise clients to get a sleep aid from their physician.

Duggan has found that the changing of the seasons can also have a profound effect on bipolar disorder. It’s a component of the bipolar resiliency program he came up with called SMART.

S — (Control) stress, sleep, maintain a schedule, seasons: Duggan asks clients with bipolar disorder to track their moods and sleep. He also teaches sleep hygiene and makes note of clients’ responses to the different seasons. Summer, when there is a lot of activity going on and plenty of sun, is usually a good time for many clients with bipolar disorder. But as the season draws to a close, Duggan reminds them that once fall arrives and there is less light, they are likely to start feeling less upbeat and may feel overwhelmed. He urges these clients not to overschedule themselves in summer and to step up their self-care efforts when the calendar turns to September.

M — Medication as prescribed

A — Adjunctive treatment such as yoga, acupuncture, massage or other complementary or alternative practices: Duggan says these are all areas that are outside of his expertise but that clients have found helpful. He also works with clients on self-soothing techniques and meditation. If a client is going through a severe manic or depressive phase, however, he strongly recommends against mindfulness. “I don’t want them to ‘be’ with the bad depression or the bad mania,” he explains.

R — Recreation and relationships: Duggan urges clients with bipolar disorder to stay engaged socially and to “do things that bring you joy, that you love, that give you a sense of flow.”

T — Therapy and counseling as needed

Fisher is a proponent of what she calls “nature therapy.” Research has shown that nature has a beneficial effect on mental health, so she urges clients to find a way to get outside — even if only for a short time — every day.

“Encouraging clients to track their moods can be a very valuable tool,” Acosta adds. “There are a wide variety of apps that clients can download to help with tracking their moods. Daylio is one that a lot of my clients like to use. By recording this information over time, clients learn about how their moods cycle, and this helps them to better understand the nuances of their moods, their triggers, and what helps and does not help with stabilizing their moods. I routinely review data from these apps — or paper mood charts — with my clients. I also routinely review symptom charts with my clients to help them monitor their symptoms.”

Some of Acosta’s clients have also had their own highly personal methods of tracking problematic mood changes. One client monitored her mood elevations by the number of packages that appeared for her in her apartment lobby (overspending). Another client could connect his manic symptoms to times when he would spend several days engrossed in building things (an increased focus on goal-directed activities).

Developing this degree of self-awareness can be beneficial for clients with bipolar disorder. “Linking symptoms to behaviors, thoughts and triggers can help to foster recovery,” Acosta says.

Meyer also teaches clients to spot patterns. She has premenopausal women chart their menstrual cycles so they will be aware, for example, that three days before their periods begin, they will feel more depressed. Meyer instructs clients to note their moods throughout the day and record what was going on. She believes that when clients can identify these patterns and recognize that there was a specific reason they were particularly manic or depressed, it provides them a greater sense of control.

Meyer teaches clients to self-soothe on hard days by going for a walk, going to the park and sitting on a bench or doing whatever else makes them feel good in a healthy way. 

“It’s really important … that our clients be empowered with a strategy for their symptoms,” Fisher says. For instance, if clients with bipolar disorder are having a down day and feel as though they are shifting toward a depressive episode, they could start to manage the switch by making a plan to get together with a friend or even just calling someone close to them.

Acosta tries to equip clients with bipolar disorder against life stressors. “They need to find healthy ways to cope with stress,” she says.

Acosta teaches clients mindfulness meditation and gives assignments outside of session, such as trying yoga or a new form of exercise. She believes that physical activity helps rein in racing thoughts. Acosta also recommends music for relaxation.

Seeking support

In addition to individual therapy, Acosta has found that group therapy is very effective for clients with bipolar disorder. She runs a monthly support group for adults over 18. “Some participants have been living with bipolar disorder for decades, and some have just been diagnosed,” Acosta says. “This is an open group, so members are constantly joining and leaving the group. On average, we have three to 10 participants per group. Because this is a therapy group, participants bring in and discuss any issue that they’re currently dealing with in their lives. Some of the topics of discussion include challenges such as the struggle to be on time for work or losing a job because of their bipolar symptoms, relationship conflicts, the side effects of medication, healthy strategies for managing symptoms, grieving the losses in their lives caused by their illness and building healthy living strategies.”

Acosta also provides education as needed in the group on topics such as understanding symptoms, exploring apps to track mood and locating resources for further education and support. She believes the peer support is what is most helpful to group participants.

“Many people have never met someone else with bipolar disorder, and learning that they are not alone or the only person dealing with the challenges of bipolar disorder can be extremely comforting and helpful,” she says. “Seeing peers recover, build healthy relationships and obtain their goals and dreams is most powerful.”

Support for these clients is essential, agrees Meyer, who recommends that counselors help recruit family members and romantic partners as a kind of support team whenever possible. Loved ones can be there when counselors can’t and are often the first to spot mood changes, she explains. “We also know when clients are in good, healthy relationships, it helps stress levels, and that helps keep them in good health,” Meyer adds.

Sometimes support can come from the strangest of sources, notes Fisher, relating the story of a woman who was in particular need of connection. “I had a client who had a trauma history in addition to bipolar disorder, and she was engaging in really unhealthy behaviors and self-loathing. She was just not in good shape,” Fisher says. “She came in one day, I did a checkup, and she showed really high levels of depression.”

Fisher didn’t think the client was in immediate danger, but she felt bad leaving her without another source of support, particularly because it was a Friday and Fisher was going away for the weekend.

“I asked, ‘Who can you be with? Who can you talk to?’’ Fisher says. “The client said, ‘No one. There is no one.’”

The woman was estranged from her family, and her only “network” involved her sexual hookups.

Suddenly, Fisher had an idea. She had just bought a betta fish for her office, so she asked the client to watch it for her over the weekend.   

Fisher saw the client the following Monday — sans fish — and asked how she was doing. The client replied that she was feeling better and more upbeat.

“Then she started talking about her weekend and spending time with ‘Olive’ and watching TV with ‘Olive,’” Fisher continues.

She asked the client who Olive was. Olive was the name the client had bestowed on the betta fish. The client had neglected to bring Olive back because she didn’t want to leave the fish in the car but promised to return her later in the week.

Fisher told the woman to keep the fish but was curious as to why she had named her Olive. The client said that Olive made her think of hope — like the olive leaf the dove brought back to Noah’s Ark to show the waters were finally receding after the Great Flood described in the Bible.

What lesson did Fisher take away from this experience? “We have to get our clients to connect — even if it’s just with a betta fish,” she says.

Fisher urges counselors to overcome any reservations they might harbor about treating clients with bipolar disorder. “Get more training if you’re uncomfortable,” says Fisher, who encourages counselors to ask themselves why they might be uncomfortable and then to address those reasons.

Counselors already possess the skills needed to empower these clients, Fisher adds. “We have clients who are walking in the door with this diagnosis and identifying it with who they are,” she says. “Bipolar disorder is not who they are — their diagnosis is not their identity. People think, ‘My body is betraying me. I feel like crap. I’ve alienated all my friends — I am the monster.’ Counselors can exorcise the demon of the [bipolar] diagnosis.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

Podcasts (counseling.org/knowledge-center/podcasts)

  • “Bipolar Resiliency Program” with John Duggan (HT056)

Webinars (aca.digitellinc.com/aca)

  • “Depression/Bipolar” with Carman S. Gill

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Counseling Adults Who Have Bipolar Disorders” by Victoria Kress, Stephanie Sedall and Matthew Paylo

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor:ct@counseling.org

 

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

 

The counselor’s role in assessing and treating medical symptoms and diagnoses

By Jori A. Berger-Greenstein April 4, 2018

Take a moment to imagine the following scene, with you as the protagonist: A few days ago, you woke, went for a run, had breakfast and headed to work, where you attended a committee meeting. The next thing you remember is lying in a hospital bed and being told that you had a stroke. You seem unable to move or feel one of your legs.

You are in a double room with an elderly man who has had many relatives and friends visit, although he seems not to be doing well. You’re not sure, however, because you feel foggy. Is this a side effect of the medication they keep giving you?

You are dressed in a hospital johnny and confined to bed. A nurse checks your vital signs on the hour, often waking you when you’re sleeping. An intravenous tube in your arm is connected to a bag with some sort of liquid in it, and you are hooked up to monitors, although you’re uncertain of what they are monitoring. Beepers sound regularly, prompting the nurses to come check you, look at the monitors or change out the bag.

A doctor visits in the mornings, along with a group of medical students, reminding you of Grey’s Anatomy, complete with looks back and forth and eye-rolling. They talk among themselves as if you aren’t there, using medical jargon that you don’t understand. Your family members are anxious and tearful. You hear them talking to the doctor about transferring you to another facility because your insurance won’t continue to cover your stay in the hospital. You also hear your spouse on the phone with relatives who live across the country but want to come see you.

As the patient, how might you be feeling? What might you be thinking?

Now imagine that instead of being the patient, you are a mental health provider called in to assess the patient for depression. How might you respond?

The above scenario and others similar to it are commonplace for many providers who operate in the field of behavioral medicine, which the Society of Behavioral Medicine defines as the “interdisciplinary field concerned with the development and integration of behavioral, psychosocial and biomedical science knowledge and techniques relevant to the understanding of health and illness, and the application of this knowledge and these techniques to prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation.”

As recognition of the psychological and behavioral factors involved in medical illness has increased, so has our ability as mental health counselors to serve a valuable function in patient care. Providers and researchers alike now recognize the importance of approaching health care more holistically rather than compartmentalizing medical versus psychological well-being.

Understanding context

Primary care providers, the first stop for most people’s health-related complaints, operate under ever-increasing pressures to provide care for more people in less time. The average visit lasts 10 to 15 minutes, with the goal of assessing presenting symptoms (typically while simultaneously entering patient information into a computer system) to ascertain their cause and thereby provide information about how to treat them. There often isn’t time to gather the context of these symptoms, increasing the likelihood that important details can be missed. Likewise, there isn’t sufficient time to fully discuss the pros and cons of treatment options, the potential barriers to treatment and whether a patient is willing or able to follow through on the treatment recommendations.

In contrast, mental health providers often have the luxury of coming to understand patients/clients more fully. This includes understanding and appreciating the contexts in which patients/clients find themselves, understanding how these individuals are coping and making meaning of what is happening, and forming a trusting relationship with them, which is consistently demonstrated to be predictive of adherence to care and improvements in health-related parameters.

As Thomas Sequist, assistant professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, stated in a New York Times article in 2008, “It isn’t that [medical] providers are doing different things for different patients, it’s that we’re doing the same thing for every patient and not accounting for individual needs.”

It can be said that medical providers are trained to identify and treat symptoms in order to identify disease so that a patient can be effectively treated — which is, in fact, their role. In contrast, mental health providers are trained to treat people and illness — illness being one’s experience of disease rather than just a compilation of symptoms or diagnostic labels.

The process of assessing for mental health symptoms

A variety of mental health conditions are characterized by symptoms that overlap with those attributable to medical conditions. For example, symptoms of an overactive or underactive thyroid mimic anxiety and depression, respectively. Psychosis can mimic neurological conditions, mood disorders can mimic endocrine disease, anxiety can mimic cardiac dysfunction and so on.

Through training mental health clinicians to identify symptoms that may indicate a medical cause and knowing how to assess for the possibility of a medical workup, we can make earlier referrals for medical care. This, in turn, helps us to identify diagnoses more quickly, leading to easier/more efficacious treatment and better validating concerns.

One’s cultural identity and the resonance of cultural norms are also important to assess and monitor. For instance, a patient may be reluctant to engage with an English-speaking provider, may have a vastly different conceptualization of illness as punishment (in stark contrast to the Westernized biopsychosocial model) and may need validation for his or her reliance on faith and spirituality.

Collaboration

Collaborating as mental health clinicians directly with medical professionals toward the common goal of helping those who need our care can be invaluable. Examples include ruling out mental health disorders, identifying appropriate treatments in the case of comorbidities, providing emotional support to patients who have been diagnosed with a medical disorder and supporting physicians who may be overwhelmed. For instance, medical treaters may not know or understand the presentation of symptoms associated with trauma or the intricacies of providing trauma-informed care.

Being knowledgeable as mental health clinicians about medical-related symptoms, the language and jargon of medicine, and strategies for navigating the medical system provides us with critical credibility. This credibility can make or break our ability to collaborate as mental health clinicians.

Providing care

At its best, behavioral medicine functions as a prevention-focused model with three levels of care:

1) Primary prevention refers to preventing a problem from emerging to begin with. Examples of this might be establishing obesity prevention programs in public schools for young children or working with high-risk families to promote safety practices. The idea is to work with groups that may be more vulnerable to risks at some point in the future and to prevent those outcomes from occurring.

2) Secondary prevention involves working with people who have developed a problem of some sort, with the goal of preventing it from worsening or becoming a larger problem. Examples include working with people who are prehypertensive in order to prevent hypertension and subsequent cardiovascular disease or stroke, and working with people with HIV to increase their adherence to antiretroviral medication to reduce viral load, making them less infectious to others and providing them with more healthy years of life.

3) Tertiary prevention refers to helping people manage an already-existing disease. This might involve increasing quality of life for people enduring a condition that won’t improve, such as a spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis or late-stage renal disease, and supporting people in the later stages of a disease that is imminently terminal.

Transtheoretical model (stages of change)

Although mental health clinicians may be familiar with efficacious interventions for a given condition, we may not be perceived as credible if we do not understand and respect the client’s/patient’s motivation. No mental health provider’s repertoire is complete without an understanding of the transtheoretical model and how to utilize it to increase an individual’s motivation for positive change.

Assessing where a client/patient might be in the stages of this model (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance) helps us to better target our interventions in a respectful way by taking context into consideration. Clients/patients in the precontemplation stage might benefit most from education and are less likely to be receptive to recommendations for lifestyle changes, whereas those in the action stage may not need as much of an emphasis on motivation. For a thorough description of the transtheoretical model, I would refer readers to William Miller and Stephen Rollnick’s seminal work, Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change.

Concrete needs and specific skills

The majority of causes of death and disability in the United States are those caused or treated, at least in part, by behavior. Nationally, the top 10 causes of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015), include cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, cancer, pulmonary disease, unintentional injuries, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and suicide. Changes in lifestyle, knowledge/education and interpersonal support can be successfully utilized as part of all three levels of prevention. In fact, these are areas in which mental health providers can be extremely valuable.

Primary prevention: Data suggest that the single most preventable cause of death is tobacco use, which can dramatically increase the risk of developing cancer, pulmonary disease and cardiovascular disease. Comprehensive smoking-cessation programs can be quite effective in managing this, as can education to prevent young people from initiating cigarette use.

Sedentary behavior (and, to a lesser extent, lack of exercise) is also strongly associated with health problems, perhaps most commonly cardiovascular disease and cancer. Concrete strategies for introducing nonsedentary behaviors (using the stairs, standing up once an hour, walking) can be incorporated into one’s lifestyle with less effort than a complex exercise regimen.

Getting proper nutrition, practicing good dental hygiene and consistently wearing sunscreen, helmets and seat belts are other examples of primary prevention in behavioral medicine. Motivating people who have not (yet) experienced the negative consequences of their risk behaviors is an approach that mental health providers are trained to provide.

Secondary prevention: The rates of obesity have risen dramatically in the past decade and are associated with a wide variety of serious medical complications, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer. If treated effectively, the risk of such complications can be reduced significantly. Examples of interventions found to be useful include aerobic exercise, dietary change (such as adhering to a Mediterranean diet and managing portions) and monitoring weight loss.

Although the specifics of these interventions may be most appropriately prescribed by dietitians and physical therapists, mental health providers can add value by helping to increase clients’/patients’ motivation and adherence, providing more thorough education about recommendations and collaborating with other providers.

Tertiary prevention: Spinal cord injury, most often caused by motor vehicle accidents, falls or violence, can have a devastating effect on a person’s life. These injuries are not reversible, but mental health providers can prove valuable in tertiary prevention efforts. These efforts might involve providing existential support; helping patients to navigate the medical system and ask for/receive support from significant others; and identifying strategies for improving quality of life and accessing tangible resources to sustain some aspects of independence.

Getting started

So, how might clinical mental health counselors “break into” the system? The ideal is an integrated care model in which mental health providers are colocated within the medical setting. This serves a dual function of facilitating mental health referrals and making it easier for patients/clients to see us because we’re just down the hall or up a flight of stairs from the medical providers. It also ensures that we remain visible to medical providers and allows for us to easily demonstrate our value.

Short of this, and for those who are less interested in focused work in behavioral medicine, the following suggestions may be helpful:

1) Attend trainings. This is a crucial first step before mental health counselors can ethically market themselves as being knowledgeable about behavioral medicine. As an example, with rates of diabetes increasing, and associated adjustment and psychological sequelae common, learning all you can about the disease and strategies for managing it provides you with some expertise and a valuable referral option. This is consistent with current recommendations for branding a practice.

2) Develop a niche. Your services can be all the more compelling if you have developed a niche for yourself that fills a gap. Research your area and the specialties that mental health providers are marketing. Is there something missing? For instance, many providers may be offering care for people who are terminally ill, but are there providers specializing in working with young people in this situation? Are people who specialize in working with pediatric cancer also advertising services to treat siblings or affected parents?

3) Being mindful of your competence and expertise, connect with medical providers and let them know that you are accepting clients. For instance, if you work with children or adolescents, consider reaching out to pediatricians. Research consistently finds that the only linkage to care someone with mental illness may have is through his or her primary care physician. Providing these physicians with literature about your services makes it easy for them to pass along your information to anyone they think may benefit. Mental health counselors can connect with medical providers via personal visits to physicians’ offices or through direct marketing to professional organizations. Note that approaching small practices may be the better option because they are less likely to already be linked with another service (hospitals often have their own behavioral health clinics/providers).

4) Connect with specialty care providers. These providers tend to have greater need of mental health professionals who are familiar with a given diagnosis.

5) Don’t be afraid to contact a medical provider treating one of your clients. This can provide a means for collaborative care and could also serve to gain you credibility, while indicating that you are glad to take referrals. Clearly, this should be done only if clinically indicated and only with the client’s permission.

6) Finally, be prepared to describe your experience, training and competency areas in a brief fashion. In the busy world of medicine, time is quite valuable. Mental health providers’ skills in waxing poetic can get in the way of communicating the essence of what we want to get across.

Ethics

This article would be incomplete without a mention of ethics. Behavioral medicine is a field rife with ethical concerns. Perhaps the most salient of these is competence. From an ethical lens, it is critical that we, as mental health counselors, recognize the limits of our competencies — that is, we are not trained in medicine and thus cannot ethically diagnose a medical condition, recommend treatments that could be potentially harmful or assure patients/clients that medical evaluations or treatments are unnecessary. All of these actions require the input and monitoring of medical treaters, who can guide our efforts in care. Patients/clients also need to be clearly informed of both our benefits to and limitations in their care. The world of medicine changes rapidly, and the half-life of training in medicine and medical care is short. Ongoing education is critical.

Let’s return to the scenario described at the beginning of this article. The shared goal for all providers — medical, psychological and other — is to provide efficacious and meaningful care in a way that improves the patient’s health and quality of life. By utilizing our respective areas of training, competencies and strengths, we can better understand the context of symptoms, which can guide our care. This is the cornerstone of providing ethical care.

 

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Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Jori A. Berger-Greenstein is an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and a faculty member in the mental health counseling and behavioral medicine program. She is an outpatient provider in adult behavioral health at Boston Medical Center, where she serves on the hospital’s clinical ethics committee. She also maintains a private practice. Contact her at jberger@bu.edu.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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

Five strategies to develop mental health models in schools

By Dakota L. King-White March 12, 2018

Over the past 13 years, I have dedicated my career to developing mental health services and models within the academic setting as a school counselor, mental health therapist and now as an assistant professor in counselor education, where I engage in community action research to develop mental health models in schools from pre-K through 12th grade. From my research and experiences, I have observed that students’ ability to learn is significantly affected by their mental health.

Many of our nation’s students have been exposed to traumatic events and regular life stressors that act as barriers to their success. Exposure to violence and other traumatic experiences can have a lifelong effect on academic achievement. Within the school setting, this can be manifested in a number of ways, including trouble concentrating, low grades, a decline in test scores and students avoiding school or dropping out of school entirely.

Making an investment in prevention and intervention services can help to address students’ overall development and thus enhance their ability to succeed socially, emotionally and academically. The school setting is an ideal place to provide mental health support to students. However, it is extremely important for schools to align mental health support with academic achievement goals. This calls for greater collaboration among mental health professionals, teachers, administrators, parents, students, staff and other stakeholders in school settings.

Based on the work I have done in developing mental health models in schools, as well as guidance from the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model, I believe that the following five components are key to effectively supporting both the mental health needs and academic achievement of our students.

1) Create mental health programming based on data-driven decisions.

2) Collaborate to address the mental health needs of students.

3) Provide a tiered system of mental health support.

4) Evaluate mental health services to ensure they are addressing the academic achievement gaps.

5) Communicate the outcomes to key stakeholders.

Make data-driven decisions

Developing mental health models in schools is a preventive measure by which mental health professionals analyze data ahead of time and design programming based on need. This approach allows stakeholders to assess the needs and develop services that truly address the academic, social and emotional gaps. Schools have an obligation to create programming based on their students’ needs.

When developing mental health models in schools, it is imperative to analyze data from several sources. One key component involves looking at data that focus on academic achievement. Report cards, test scores and other instruments that measure academic achievement must be considered. The main priority when addressing mental health issues in schools is to identify barriers that are affecting students’ academic achievement.

Once the needs have been identified, the next step is to create measurable goals to address the gaps. This step involves a collaborative approach that should include school counselors, mental health therapists, parents, teachers, administrators and students. Measurable goals provide a means for stakeholders to evaluate programming and help to ensure that it is supporting academic achievement.

Collaborate to address student needs

In a 2010 article for the Journal of Interprofessional Care, Elizabeth Mellin and colleagues identified collaboration among colleagues as being imperative when developing mental health models in schools. School counselors, mental health therapists, school psychologists and school nurses are the professionals most often tasked with delivering mental health services to students in schools.

School counselors are an excellent resource to support mental health models in schools. Quite often, however, school counselors are still labeled as “guidance counselors” in educational settings and are not always considered when schools are developing mental health services and models. Administrators and other stakeholders must be informed that the practice of school counseling has evolved, with “guidance” being only one component of the services that school counselors provide. According to the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors, the school counselor’s role is to address all students’ “academic, career and social/emotional development needs.” School counselors must actively engage and advocate to inform stakeholders of their titles and responsibilities, which are based on their skill set and training. Their skill set and training include addressing many of the social and emotional barriers that affect the ability of students to succeed academically.

Mental health therapists are another valuable resource. When licensed as a clinical counselor or social worker, these professionals are able to diagnose mental health disorders and provide treatment to students. Another invaluable component of their skill set that often goes untapped is an ability to provide consultation to staff, teachers, parents and administrators. It is also important that mental health therapists collaborate with teachers, administrators, other staff members and families to demonstrate the correlation between mental health and academic achievement.

School psychologists are integral to the collaboration process when developing mental health models in schools. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the school psychologist’s role includes providing assessments, providing interventions to address mental health concerns and working with teachers, staff, administrators and other stakeholders to create programming to address gaps. As noted by Joni Williams Splett and Melissa Maras in their 2011 Psychology in the Schools journal article, school psychologists who are trained as research practitioners offer a unique skill set that contributes to bridging the gap of research and actual practice of services to support academic achievement.

School nurses can also play a central role in developing mental health models in schools. Quite often, school nurses have mental and physical health records provided by school personnel, parents and outside health care providers. Because of the time these professionals spend with students addressing other health concerns, they are frequently able to screen for mental health concerns. This relationship provides school nurses opportunities to develop rapport with students. It is during these interactions that school nurses can detect changes in a student’s physical or mental health. School nurses can also provide insight to their colleagues about the mental health concerns they have observed within the school setting.

Teachers and administrators are additional important contributors to the development of mental health models in schools and must be equipped to identify mental health concerns in the school setting. In an effort to ensure that all school stakeholders are collaborating and properly equipped, regular meetings are essential. The more collaboration that takes place among the mental health team, teachers, parents, students and administrators, the more likely it is that students will succeed.

Provide a tiered system of support

Kelly Vaillancourt and colleagues described the benefits of a tiered system of mental health support in their 2013 article for the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Nurses. A tiered system of support for delivering mental health services also provides different levels of care to support students to succeed academically. Keep in mind that schools must use evidence-based strategies. This ensures that the most effective, empirically supported practices available are being used to help students succeed.

Tier one is the universal level of support in which all students have access to mental health services in a school setting. Within tier one, trauma-informed classroom methods are introduced to teachers, administrators and staff. Tier one includes implementation of a social/emotional curriculum for all students that is preventive in nature and that supports academic achievement by addressing social and emotional barriers. It is also imperative to use a strengths-based approach that looks at the positive attributes of the students and builds upon those attributes to provide services for the students. To further support students, families should be made aware of the services and information being taught at school.

Tier two is where targeted interventions are identified for students who need additional mental health support to eliminate barriers that are affecting them academically. Selective interventions are provided to students who exhibit behaviors that are hindering them. Mental health and other services provided at the tier-two level consist of small groups, classroom behavior management strategies for teachers and staff, individual counseling and additional professional development for stakeholders related to social and emotional barriers to academic achievement. Collaboration among the team is extremely important.

The third tier is the most personalized, with intensive strategies provided based on the student’s needs. Typically, this is done through a comprehensive process in which key stakeholders gather to collaborate and strategize about the needs of the student. The team should consist of the mental health team members, the student, the student’s parents or guardians, teachers, administrators and outside agencies that work with the student and family. As highlighted by Kenneth Messina and colleagues’ 2015 article in The Family Journal, family buy-in is crucial at this level because of the importance of collaboration between home and school to support the student’s academic achievement and to identify the student’s strengths. Mental health and related services at this level include, but are not limited to, individual counseling provided by a mental health therapist, crisis intervention, outside counseling services, small group counseling, behavior plans and additional professional development for stakeholders.

Evaluate and communicate

In an effort to improve academic achievement, mental health services provided in the schools must be based on data-driven decisions and evaluated to ensure that progress is being made to address the needs. Vaillancourt and colleagues noted that an effective mental health model includes consistent monitoring of student and program outcomes. This includes reviewing outcome data and analyzing the data to measure gaps, successes and areas of limitation. Evaluation of services is a continuous process.

Once programming or services are provided, it is critical to analyze the data and review the goals that were established for the student. It is imperative to have an outside reviewer provide feedback on the data and assess the outcomes of programming. The outside reviewer could be a mental health professional, teacher, curriculum director, administrator, local college professional or another professional within the district who has experience analyzing data.

Once the data are analyzed, it is vital to communicate the results to the stakeholders. Communicating the results to stakeholders has been found to build rapport and transparency among the team. Communication also allows for stakeholders to understand the impact and correlation between mental health and academic achievement.

Conclusion

There is a need to develop effective mental health models in schools because of the mental health challenges that affect students academically, socially and emotionally. Students will continue to be faced with these challenges, but it is important that schools address the barriers that affect students’ academic achievement. Mental health professionals, teachers, parents, students, administrators and school staff play a vital and collaborative role in the development, implementation and evaluation of mental health services aimed at maximizing students’ academic success. Through the five strategies discussed in this article, I believe that school districts will realize the success of mental health models being implemented within schools to support academic achievement.

 

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Dakota L. King-White is an assistant professor in counselor education at Cleveland State University in Ohio. She is a licensed school counselor and licensed professional counselor. Her areas of research include the development of mental health models in schools, children of incarcerated parents and 21st-century school counseling. Contact her at d.l.king19@csuohio.edu.

 

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

 

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

The high cost of human-made disasters

By Lindsey Phillips March 1, 2018

The stories of the aftereffects of human-made disaster have become all too familiar: a refugee forced to make a dangerous journey to find a new home; the soldier deployed thousands of miles from home for months at a time; the person who finds his or her world turned upside down when a shooter enters the room and begins firing. It’s not surprising, then, that according to a report by the American Psychological Association, in 2017, 60 percent of Americans felt stressed about terrorism and 55 percent felt stressed about gun violence.

In addition, refugees fleeing war-torn countries have created an international crisis, and, among other things, they aren’t getting the mental health care they need. The International Medical Corps found that 54 percent of Syrian refugees and internally displaced populations in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan suffered from severe emotional disorders, including depression and anxiety.

The increase in human-made disasters raises a question for counselors and others: Does the type of disaster — natural, human-made or technical — affect the severity of the trauma or the counseling approaches used to treat it? Devika Dibya Choudhuri, an associate professor at Eastern Michigan University, says sufficient research indicates that when human agency is involved, the disaster has a more traumatizing effect. Although natural disasters are traumatizing, there is often a huge response of communities taking care of one another, which tends to be a restorative factor, she explains.

“With human-made disasters … the aftermath is also conflicted,” says Choudhuri, a licensed professional counselor and American Counseling Association member who presented at the ACA 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco on group interventions in the aftermath of violence, terrorism and dislocation. “Most [refugees’] … traumatizing stories are not just [about] the original trauma. … The journey after is so profoundly traumatizing as well because not only are they ungrounded from the loss of home, but then all of these additional wounds are made. There is no safety anywhere, as opposed to that sense [after a natural disaster that] people are coming forward to help.”

Rebuilding trust, regaining control

Choudhuri, who worked with Cambodian and Bosnian refugees in the 1990s and has worked with Iraqi and Karen refugees since the 2000s, points out that survivors of human-made disasters are fighting on two fronts: struggling to survive in their environment and engaging in an inner conflict where the original strategies for survival during the trauma are no longer helpful. Thus, when it comes to trauma and human-made disasters, counselors should focus on restoring a client’s sense of control, not safety, she advises.

Hannah Acquaye, an assistant professor of counseling at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, works with refugees from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq and parts of Africa. She finds that for refugees from countries where neighbors are fighting neighbors, the trauma is unique in terms of feeling a sense of betrayal. If the person holding the gun and causing the devastation is someone they know and used to play with growing up, then the trauma becomes especially troubling, she says. “It affects the way they trust people … and makes it harder to build a community back,” explains Acquaye, an ACA member whose research focuses on refugee trauma and growth.

Thus, rapport and trust are crucial for survivors of a human-made disaster. According to Mark Stebnicki, professor and coordinator of the military and trauma counseling certificate program in the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation Studies at East Carolina University (ECU), empathy and listening are critical elements of establishing rapport and gaining the trust of these clients.

Establishing a therapeutic alliance can be problematic, however. Counselors often learn to build a therapeutic alliance by offering warmth and connection and by encouraging clients to tell their stories, Choudhuri points out. But for individuals who have experienced a “traumatizing offense through human agency … the betrayal and abandonment and loss of trust during the process gets triggered by the very warmth of the connection,” she explains. Counselors will often experience that after making a connection and getting the client to open up, the client never shows up again or ends up in the hospital, Choudhuri says.

Before uncovering the trauma, counselors must help rebuild and ground clients so that they will have resources to address the trauma, Choudhuri argues. “Rather than creating a therapeutic alliance, it’s about rebuilding the kinds of ways in which people can take care of themselves so that they don’t require the therapist to do that,” she explains. In fact, she advises that counselors should work with survivors of human-made disasters as if they will have only one session together. The first few sessions should focus on techniques that will help clients function in case they don’t return, she says.

One way counselors can help clients become autonomous is by providing them with tools to regulate their emotions. Somatic and emotion regulation techniques allow survivors of human-made disasters to notice their triggers on a sensorial basis and use their brain to counter this negative trigger, says Choudhuri, a certified eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapist. In a sense, their brain becomes an ally, rather than an obstacle or hindrance, in their recovery.

One of Choudhuri’s clients suffered trauma after being held captive and tortured for several days. Smelling the cologne worn by one of his captors would trigger the client. After identifying this sensorial trigger, Choudhuri set out to counter it. She discovered that the client found lavender essential oil calming, so she directed him to take in the lavender scent anytime that he encountered the smell of cologne. The process works on two levels, Choudhuri notes, because “it’s addressing the sensorial piece, but it’s also giving control back [to the client].”

Choudhuri also finds that traumatic resilience is important when working with survivors of human-made disasters. Many resourcing and grounding techniques that counselors use can also make clients more resilient in the face of ongoing trauma, she notes. For example, Choudhuri finds the container technique helpful for her clients: She tells clients to think of a container with a secure lid (e.g., a jar, a jewelry box) and then to use that container to mentally store the parts of the trauma that get in their way and prevent them from moving forward.

Group work is another resource that can help survivors of human-made disasters rebuild a sense of trust. At the same time, Choudhuri says, “group work is really challenging, particularly for [people] who have had human-made disasters, because other human beings are a source of threat [to them].”

In fact, Choudhuri is careful to avoid touching clients who have been hurt by other human beings. Instead, she teaches clients how to give themselves a comforting touch. For example, she uses the butterfly hug method (clients cross their hands over their chest and alternately tap their hands to a heartbeat cadence) while she facilitates thoughts of being safe and loved. This technique works well with children and is one that clients can do themselves when they are upset, she adds.

Rather than asking individuals to share their trauma in groups, Choudhuri suggests having them process it in a way that allows group members to provide comfort to each other, thereby helping restore a sense of control, trust and efficacy. For example, counselors could have individuals teach each other how to engage in deep breathing. “It allows for people to feel empowered to … not just be on the receiving end but also on the giving end,” Choudhuri explains, “and then they’re giving something that they themselves are learning, which helps them learn it better.”

From Stebnicki’s perspective, groups not only allow counselors to identify people who need more individualized treatment but also provide a safe space to verbalize and normalize survivors’ feelings (e.g., anxiety, depression, grief, sleeplessness) about an event and prepare them for the forthcoming weeks. “If you get [clients] to open up and share feelings [in a group], then the group itself is your own best source of support because they can normalize what that scary event was like,” he says.

Bridging cultural differences

Stebnicki acknowledges that working with people who are culturally different from the counselor can be challenging. Clients who are refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers may pose an even greater challenge because American counselors are often far removed culturally from individuals from war-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, he adds. But successful treatment relies on understanding clients’ cultures and how they heal, he asserts.

In some cultures, counseling as generally practiced in the Western Hemisphere doesn’t exist, so counselors shouldn’t force clients to share their stories, Acquaye says. Instead, counselors should focus on providing a safe, supportive environment and inform clients that they are in the moment with them, she advises.

Stebnicki, a member of both ACA and one of its divisions, the Military and Government Counseling Association, says that he distinguishes between civilian and military responses to human-made disasters. “Military is a culture unto itself,” he says. “Military personnel experience person-made disasters differently in that instead of detaching, isolating, running and going into shock like civilians do, they adapt and survive, and they aggress … [not] stress.” Unlike civilians, who typically respond to a shooting by running away, military personnel are generally running toward the gunfire, he points out.

At the same time, civilians and military personnel experience similar physiological, psychological and emotional responses to human-made disasters. However, military personnel also experience ongoing trauma stressors (such as multiple deployments) and generally do not undergo the full range of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms until after their deployment or military service ends, Stebnicki says. Thus, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders “measures PTSD, but mainly in civilian life because it doesn’t take into account this … repeated exposure to trauma which military [personnel] are exposed to,” he argues.

In addition, military personnel often cannot easily take advantage of mental health services in the same way that most civilians can because of the stigma that military culture places on it, Stebnicki says. Using these services can sometimes put their security clearances at risk, cause them to get demoted or have others in the military lose faith in them and their ability to lead, he explains.

Despite these difference, many counselors try to treat military personnel as civilians and do not recognize the distinctions between civilian and military mental health, Stebnicki says. To help address this issue, he developed the certificate in clinical military counseling at ECU. The course trains professional counselors on some of the unique cultural differences in diagnosis, treatment and services for members of the military.

Making meaning of human-made disasters

In the face of a human-made disaster or a large-scale political event, people often feel helpless, like a small cog caught in a big wheel, Choudhuri says. In such cases, the counselor’s aim is not to help clients find an answer to existential/spiritual questions of why the disaster happened but to help them figure out a meaning to these events that they can live with, she says.

Meaning making should also involve some degree of personal growth, Stebnicki notes. He says that counselors can determine whether clients have experienced posttraumatic growth by their actions: Are they taking their medications? Are they going to counseling? Have they reconnected socially? If the answer is no, then there is no growth, he says.

The counselor’s job, Stebnicki contends, is to provide tools and resources to help clients take responsibility for finding meaning and growing from the trauma. However, he points out, growth is painful, so counselors must prepare clients to take small steps toward identifying ways of feeling safe and ultimately finding meaning.

Acquaye actively celebrates her clients’ small victories because she believes it encourages them. She had one client who was a refugee who was depressed because she didn’t know how to communicate in her new culture. Acquaye asked her to try to leave her apartment each day and walk around for five minutes. When her client was successful, Acquaye jumped up and down in front of the woman to celebrate her progress. Taking this small step forward helped her client begin to sleep regularly again, Acquaye says.

Choudhuri looks for ways to address clients’ despair without trying to change their beliefs about what happened. She finds EMDR helpful because it allows people to process internally without having to give the counselor details about their trauma. At the same time, clients are able to arrive at a meaningful narrative about their experience. “It may not be my answer, but it’s their answer,” Choudhuri adds.

Choudhuri provides an example of a Syrian refugee who participated in EMDR therapy that involved drawing and processing his trauma. At the end of the session, he said that regardless of the terrible things that had happened to him, he realized that every night has a morning. “It wasn’t that he got an answer or that he had a solution,” Choudhuri says, “but he got what he needed — hope.”

For many clients, spirituality plays a large role in meaning making. If the client’s and counselor’s spirituality differ, then the counselor should find common ground to discuss spirituality, Acquaye advises. The majority of her clients are Muslim and Acquaye is Christian, so in session, they discuss the general concept of God and who is in control of everything. “We can’t explain why people do what they do, but we can hold on to somebody who is greater than people and know that some good may come out of that,” she explains.

Self-care and counselor fatigue

Clients’ stories of trauma, suffering and loss can take a toll on counselors, resulting in counselor burnout, compassion fatigue or empathy fatigue. The cumulative effect of seeing multiple survivors of human-made disasters and other traumas can start to deteriorate counselors’ spirit to do well and damage their own wellness, Stebnicki notes. For that reason, counselor self-care must become a priority when working with survivors of human-made disasters.

Stebnicki differentiates between empathy fatigue, a term he coined, and other fatigue syndromes such as burnout and compassion fatigue. He explains that empathy fatigue results from a state of physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and occupational exhaustion that occurs as the counselor’s own wounds are continually revisited through a cumulation of different clients’ stories of illness, trauma, grief and loss.

The major difference between these types of fatigue syndromes is that empathy fatigue has an added spiritual component, Stebnicki notes. Horrific experiences such as genocide and torture go beyond the range of ordinary human experience and affect the mind, body and spirit, he explains. Thus, it is crucial that counselors are properly trained to be empathetic and compassionate, he says. In addition, because people experience and define spirituality in their own individual ways, counselors must understand their clients’ views of spirituality to assist them in cultivating hope and psychosocial adjustment to their trauma.

Acquaye acknowledges that she didn’t initially realize how much the stories of her refugee clients would affect her. If counselors are struggling with counselor fatigue, they need to seek help to avoid harming their clients, she advises. “It’s not about me. … If I claim I’m an advocate for my refugee clients, then I should get over myself and ask for help, so I’ll become a better person for them,” she says.

Choudhuri says counselors must also guard against making another common mistake. Because refugees often have little meaningful support, they are incredibly grateful when they do receive it, and there can be a danger in that for counselors. “If [counselors] work long enough with [refugees], it gets really easy to feel like a savior,” Choudhuri admits.

“One of the things that trips [counselors] up is this belief of indispensability — that there is nobody else, so I have to keep doing it even if I don’t want to,” Choudhuri adds.

She also finds that working with clients who have survived a human-made disaster can bring out something of a competitive nature in counselors: They assume (often incorrectly) that if the client can deal with the trauma, then they can too because they are the counselor.

Among the possible signs of counselor fatigue syndromes that Stebnicki notes are having diminished concentration, feeling irritable with clients, feeling negative or pessimistic, and having difficulty being objective or compassionate. “We’re good as counselors at giving advice to others and helping facilitate self-care strategies, but we don’t do it ourselves. We need to take our own best advice and get help,” he advises.

Stebnicki has found peer support helpful when dealing with fatigue syndromes. He and other colleagues meet once or twice a month to vent and share their stories. In fact, he notes that it is common to have ongoing peer support on-site for counselors and first responders at large-scale human-caused disasters. These support groups allow counselors to discuss what they saw, how it affected them, how they are responding and how they are going to overcome it, he says.

Acquaye is thankful for her supervisors and own personal counselor who help her guard against burnout. “I have to remind myself all the time that I’m not God … so I can’t carry my client because sometimes the stories are so heavy that you can’t sleep at night,” she says. She realizes that carrying the burden of her clients’ stories will serve only to make her negative and ineffective as a counselor.

Many counselors are drawn to working with refugees because they want to help, but before jumping in, Acquaye says, counselors should understand what their strengths and limitations are. “Ask yourself [if] you have enough strength for the kind of stories they will throw at you. [If not], it doesn’t mean you are not good enough. It just means that that is not your area,” she says. “When it comes to refugee work … you are going to go through the trauma yourself, so you have to ask yourself, ‘Do [I] have what it takes to go through that?’”

Lessons learned

How can counselors prepare to handle the specific needs of survivors of human-made disasters? “Training to be trauma informed becomes key. … There shouldn’t be counselors coming out of counseling programs who don’t have a basic understanding of trauma,” Choudhuri asserts. Yet, she finds that counselors often report not knowing how to deal with trauma and disaster mental health.

Choudhuri thinks that one area of disaster mental health where training needs to improve is clinical competency. Often, counselor educators aren’t practitioners, which can be problematic because they don’t see the chronic nature of clients’ issues and thus don’t prepare adequately, she contends. She argues that counselor educators should stay clinically active — perhaps even working with survivors of human-made disasters — to keep their finger on the pulse of what is happening.

Of course, Acquaye admits that counselors are never likely to have all of the training they need to handle disaster mental health straight out of school. Many of the skills must be learned on the ground. She recounts a time when despite her training on refugee trauma and posttraumatic growth, a client’s story scared her to the point that she was shaking. She had to remind herself that even though she had no idea how to treat the client’s many issues on the spot, she needed to start by listening to the client and then figuring it out as she went along by researching and assessing the client’s needs.

What people consider to be trauma or traumatizing changes over time, Choudhuri notes, so the symptoms that veterans displayed after the Vietnam War are not the same ones that soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have displayed. Today, counselors also have to take into account the fact that there is more aggression digitally, and digital aggression distances people from the trauma, she adds. For example, drone warfare has changed the rules of war, allowing people to kill from a distance. This makes killing more impersonal and affects the mental health of drone pilots differently.

“As conflict becomes handled differently, [so does] the kinds of betrayals and ways in which people can be hurt electronically. … [People’s] sense of danger and risk become different than if somebody broke into [their] house. They’re related, but they’re different,” she says.

One mistake that counselors often make when working with clients is expecting a more intense early disclosure of the traumatic incident, Stebnicki says. Stebnicki worked as a member of the crisis response team for the Westside Middle School shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1998. In the aftermath, he witnessed a counselor go up to a student, take him by the shoulder and almost shake him to force disclosure of what the student had just experienced. Counselors must remember that everyone heals at his or her own rate, so survivors of human-made disasters may not want to discuss their experiences immediately after the event, he says.

Stebnicki has also found that people’s experiences vary based on their proximity to the disaster’s epicenter. “We all differ in stress and trauma in terms of the pattern, the frequency, the exposure, the magnitude/intensity. So, in other words, we all turn our stress response on differently,” he says.

In working with refugees, Choudhuri has learned that counselors can’t assume to know the trauma. One of her clients had been married off by her parents while in the refugee camp to a man who raped her. Was the worst part of her experience being in the refugee camp, losing her home or being raped? Choudhuri discovered that for the client, it was that her parents didn’t love her enough to have chosen a better husband for her.

“It wasn’t the violence that drove her from her home, it wasn’t the destruction of her life as a schoolgirl, and it wasn’t even the brutality of her experience in the marriage,” Choudhuri says. “It was the sense of being betrayed by her parents.” Thus, counselors should remember that the focus of the work is not about the trauma but about the client, she adds.

Choudhuri has also observed that although disaster mental health professionals have developed ways to work with people immediately after a disaster, they often fail to implement this guidance back home. She argues that counselors don’t respond to the ongoing, everyday disasters happening in their backyards — the microaggressions and microassaults that wear people down as they try to overcome obstacles of systemic racism, chronic poverty, violence and substance abuse — in the same manner as they respond to large-scale events.

“If we can point to the singular event, we can be horrified by it and [respond] with compassion and helping, but when we live in it, we numb ourselves … to it because we feel helpless,” Choudhuri says.

“It’s difficult because we all want a place of safety … so it’s easier to go away somewhere and work on [disaster mental health] and then come back [home] and be safe,” she points out.

Counselors need to resist the urge to let trauma and disaster response fade into the background because of the discomfort these events can generate, Choudhuri argues. Instead, they must keep disaster mental health in the foreground and help rebuild communities and individuals affected by disasters, including those less obvious disasters happening in counselors’ backyards.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a freelance writer and UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. She has a decade of experience writing on topics such as health, social justice and technology. Contact her at lindseynphillips@gmail.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.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.

SAMHSA shutters database of evidence-based practices

By Bethany Bray January 19, 2018

A public database of evidence-based practices for the treatment of mental illness and substance abuse disorders has stopped accepting new entries.

Federal officials announced the discontinuation of the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices earlier this month. Overseen by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the online database lists more than 400 peer-reviewed interventions, the last of which was posted in September.

Established in 1997, the registry served as a source of information and best practices for medical and helping professionals and the public. Its discontinuation was met with disappointment by many across the mental health professions.

“The fact that the administration [of President Donald Trump] discontinued the registry without having a new system in place sends the unfortunate message that science and evidence-based practices are not a priority,” says David Kaplan, chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association.

This month, numerous news outlets reported that the government’s contract with a third party that managed the database had been terminated. The registry remains online while officials try to determine the best way to disseminate information on evidence-based practices going forward.

In a statement posted online, Elinore F. McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, pointed to flaws in the process used to select and vet practices for inclusion in the registry.

“For the majority of its existence, NREPP vetted practices and programs submitted by outside developers – resulting in a skewed presentation of evidence-based interventions, which did not address the spectrum of needs of those living with serious mental illness and substance use disorders. These needs include screening, evaluation, diagnosis, treatment, psychotherapies, psychosocial supports and recovery services in the community,” wrote McCance-Katz.

“This is a poor approach to the determination of evidence-based practices,” she said in the statement. “As I mentioned, NREPP has mainly reviewed submissions from ‘developers’ in the field. By definition, these are not evidence-based practices because they are limited to the work of a single person or group. This is a biased, self-selected series of interventions further hampered by a poor search-term system. Americans living with these serious illnesses deserve better, and SAMHSA can now provide that necessary guidance to communities.”

 

 

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