Tag Archives: multidisciplinary

‘But my clients don’t get eating disorders’

By Laura H. Choate January 11, 2021

Almost all counselors encounter clients who engage in behaviors such as extreme dieting, excessive exercising, fasting, emotional overeating and binge eating. These symptoms can be initially mild and overlooked or even viewed as normative in our thinness-and-appearance-obsessed culture. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between a client who is experimenting with the latest fad diet and a client who is quickly spiraling downward on the path toward a destructive eating disorder. There are two reasons this can happen.

One reason is a lack of counselor awareness. Few counselors receive much training in the area of eating disorders treatment, so they might not be aware of the need for further assessment when a client has initial problems related to eating, weight and body image. The problem is that without effective assessment and treatment, these types of symptoms have the potential to escalate into full-syndrome eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Once eating disorders have developed, they frequently become serious, complex, chronic disorders with significant biopsychosocial consequences, including potentially lethal medical complications, poor treatment outcomes, high rates of remission and high mortality rates. Anorexia nervosa in particular is associated with the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders, and both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are associated with suicide attempt rates that are considerably higher than those for the general population. Suffice it to say, even the most highly trained, seasoned counselor is not equipped to work with this population alone; all clinical guidelines call for a team approach to the treatment of eating disorders. Therefore, regardless of whether we are specialists, we need to establish relationships with other providers in our communities and know when to make referrals for specialized services.

The second reason that initial symptoms might be overlooked or dismissed is that we are not just counselors, we are also individuals who live in a society in which we are all bombarded daily with messages about weight and appearance. We are all exposed to cultural ideals that equate thinness with beauty, happiness and success and that dictate strict standards regarding an ideal body shape. We all have to manage these pressures for ourselves, and few of us are exempt from developing biases and blind spots around these issues. Because of countertransference reactions in this emotionally charged area, we might unintentionally misjudge a client’s pain due to our own struggles and experiences. Therefore, when working with clients who present with issues such as body image, chronic dieting and pressures to be thin, it is extremely difficult to separate our own personal values from what is best for our clients.

So, even though you might never intend to work as an eating disorders specialist, all counselors need adequate preparation to recognize disordered eating symptoms in their clients, to know when and how to provide appropriate referrals, to understand the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to treatment, and to effectively manage personal values. To illustrate, I include three scenarios that highlight some of the complex concerns that can arise for counselors when working with clients who have problems related to eating, weight and body image.

Scenario 1: April’s intermittent fasting goals

April attends an initial session with Karyn, a licensed professional counselor with three years of experience. April reports that she has been on an extreme intermittent fasting diet for the past six months, allowing herself to eat only during a two-hour window per day. She adheres to a vegan diet because she believes it is the healthiest option for keeping a low weight. She also engages in binge/purge episodes three or four times per month (during which she does not adhere to a vegan diet but eats anything she wants). Her body mass index (BMI) is in the low to normal range.

Although April is reporting occasional dizziness, she does not want to give up her diet because she still has not reached her weight loss goal. Instead, she wants to get rid of her binge/purge behaviors, improve her body image and improve her self-esteem. She wants to work exclusively with Karyn even though Karyn does not have a specialized background in treating issues related to weight or binge eating.

Karyn believes April’s goals seem reasonable for individual treatment because she does not appear to be underweight. In addition, because April’s symptoms do not meet criteria for a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, Karyn does not consider April’s problems to be severe. In fact, Karyn knows a bit about intermittent fasting and its current popularity, so she believes that she can help April evaluate her diet plan.

Implications for counseling practice:

The ACA Code of Ethics states that counselors must know their scope of competence and practice within their areas of training and experience. Karyn is taking a risk in her agreement to treat April because without additional medical assessment, she has no way of knowing the extent of April’s disordered eating behaviors or how her symptoms are affecting her physiologically. It is likely that April is experiencing medical complications even though she does not appear to be underweight.

American Psychiatric Association practice guidelines state that in treating eating disorders, we should always work as part of a treatment team that includes at minimum a therapist, a dietitian and a medical professional. By agreeing to work in isolation and ignoring the need for collaboration, Karyn would not be able to adequately address the medical components of April’s weight loss — and without a medical referral, she would be working outside of her scope of competence, which could cause potential harm to April. In addition, she seems to ignore the fact that April’s behaviors could possibly be progressing to a severe eating disorder.

One way to address these potential problems is for Karyn to inform April that in order to begin treatment, she will need to agree to see a medical professional for evaluation. Based on these results, Karyn might also need to work with a nutritionist, in addition to possibly making a referral to a mental health professional who has more expertise in treating emerging
eating disorders.

Scenario 2: Nila’s secret and Asha’s dilemma

Nila is a 15-year-old who is in counseling at her mother’s insistence. Nila tells her counselor, Asha (a child and adolescent counselor in a general private practice), that her mother is too intrusive in her life, is always telling her that she should lose weight, and tries to control all of Nila’s food intake.

A few weeks into therapy, Asha notices that Nila has swelling in her neck area and has a large scrape on the fingers of one hand. When asked about this, Nila reveals that she has been trying to diet according to her mother’s demands but “just can’t stick to it.” Subsequently, she has engaged in binge eating by sneaking food from the pantry and eating it quickly so her mother will not know. She hides the wrappers in her book bag and throws them away later. Nila then uses self-induced vomiting, a technique she learned from watching YouTube videos, to try to “get rid of the calories.” She begs Asha not to tell her mother because she does not want her mother to become even more controlling of her food intake.

Asha isn’t sure of the next best step to take because Nila is in a normal weight range and seems to be healthy overall. Asha decides not to inform Nila’s parents and keeps working with Nila individually because she wants to respect Nila’s privacy.

Implications for counseling practice:

In resolving the issue of whether Nila’s parents need to know about her binge/purge behaviors, Asha has to balance the parents’ legal right to know what is disclosed in sessions, Nila’s ethical right to privacy and autonomy, and the counselor’s duty to provide effective treatment and protect Nila from future harm. In making this decision, Asha recognizes that Nila does have an ethical right to privacy and could possibly be harmed if her mother becomes even more controlling over her food intake.

However, Asha should also be very concerned about Nila’s emerging diet/binge/purge cycle because this is a potentially high-risk behavior. While the binge/purge behaviors are not currently life-threatening, Asha needs to consider the serious and potentially lethal nature of eating disorders, the chronic and compulsive nature of the diet/binge/purge cycle, and the medical and psychological consequences of any emerging eating disorder. Because Nila is an adolescent, her health could deteriorate quickly due to weight loss and purging behaviors.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry practice guidelines call for a comprehensive medical examination, working with a treatment team, and family involvement in the treatment of eating disorders. For any of these treatment aspects to occur, the parents would need to be informed of Nila’s disordered eating behaviors; Nila can’t arrange for them herself. In this case, therefore, Nila’s parents would need to be informed, even if this goes against Nila’s wishes.

In order to respect Nila’s right to privacy and minimal disclosure, however, Nila should be involved as much as possible when her parents are informed. If feasible, the information should be shared in a family session. If Nila can be in the session when information is disclosed, she is less likely to feel betrayed by Asha. If Asha can establish an alliance with the parents while also maintaining trust with Nila, Asha can start to work with the family system to create better communication. The parents need assistance in allowing for increased, developmentally appropriate autonomy and privacy for Nila. At the same time, Nila will have to accept her parents’ assistance in helping her manage her disordered eating symptoms.

The entire family would benefit from education about the harms of dieting, particularly for children and adolescents, and how food restriction is directly linked to binge eating and
is often the trigger for binge/purge cycles. With Asha’s help, the family can start to focus more on overall health and communication and far less on control over Nila’s eating, weight and body shape.

Scenario 3: Jamie’s diet advice

Jamie is a female counselor who works for a community counseling agency. Jamie’s client Dan reports frequent binge eating that causes him a great deal of distress, guilt and shame. Dan is a 45-year-old man who is in a higher-weight body. Jamie assumes that Dan needs to eat less and lose weight to feel better about himself because of his larger body size. She does not assess for an eating disorder but rather persuades him to pursue weight loss as his treatment goal.

In contrast with what she deems as Dan’s “weaknesses,” Jamie is highly invested in maintaining her own weight, daily exercise routine and “clean eating.” She feels a certain pride in her own self-discipline and thinks that Dan’s problems result from a lack of willpower and effort on his part. She is quite uncomfortable with Dan’s body size and tells him he would be better off in his career and relationships if he were to lose weight.

Dan reluctantly agrees to restrict his calories and to exercise more, even though he has tried “hundreds of diets” over the years. As time progresses, he feels discouraged and even worse than he did prior to treatment with Jamie because he can neither adhere to the weight loss plan nor stop his binge eating. He drops out of treatment, believing he is a failure.

Implications for counseling practice:

Even though binge eating disorder is by far the most common eating disorder (occurring in 3.5% of women and 2% of men), it was overlooked by Jamie in this example because her client is male and has a larger body size. In addition to neglecting assessment for binge eating disorder, Jamie seems to lack awareness of effective treatment for binge eating.

American Psychiatric Association practice guidelines for the treatment of binge eating disorder state that dietary restriction is actually contraindicated; in fact, dieting is known to trigger and sustain binge eating. There are biological and psychological reasons for this relationship. When Dan (or anyone on a diet) restricts food, he begins to deprive himself of the energy needed to maintain his current weight. As a result, the brain sends out warning signals telling his body to slow down because it thinks it is entering a time of famine. It also tells Dan to take in more fuel to prevent what it perceives as starvation. In an effort to preserve energy and fight against weight loss, his body’s metabolism will decrease, he will have more thoughts about food, and he will become increasingly hungry.

Second, the more Dan imposes restriction and deprivation on his life, the more he will experience psychological reactance — an internal battle that ensues anytime we perceive that our personal freedoms are being restricted. He will start to think about, crave and, eventually, overeat the very foods that he has ruled “off-limits.” He will likely eat more, not less, because of dietary rules. And for Dan, who has a long history of binge eating, his hunger, deprivation and dietary rules will most likely serve as triggers for continued binge eating. This will lead to a cycle of guilt/shame, dieting, broken rules, binges and more guilt/shame.

In addition to pushing a potentially harmful treatment plan, Jamie seems to be having difficulty managing her countertransference reactions. Like so many people in today’s culture (including many mental health and medical professionals), Jamie appears to have a bias against people in larger bodies. Because she believes that losing weight is the “answer” to Dan’s problems, she imposes this value on him even though he is seeking treatment not for weight loss but for reducing his symptoms of binge eating. Jamie’s discomfort with her client’s body is a form of weight-based discrimination that can cause Dan to feel judged and further marginalized.

Research indicates that weight stigma actually demotivates, rather than encourages, health behavior change. In response to weight stigma, people tend to eat an increased amount of food and are less likely to adhere to a diet plan. To avoid further stigmatization, they tend to avoid exercise, fearing additional judgment from others. They also tend to delay medical care to avoid stigmatization from medical professionals who may further criticize, blame or shame them for their weight. Jamie’s personal values in this case are causing her to display a lack of respect for Dan’s dignity and welfare. In sum, her biases and lack of knowledge of effective treatment for binge eating disorder are actually causing her client harm.

Key takeaways

The following list is a summary of considerations for counselors when they encounter clients who experience problems with eating, weight and body image:

  • Remember that anyone can develop an eating disorder. Do not assume that only underweight white women have eating disorders. For example, binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder, and it occurs in people of all sizes and cuts across both gender and race/ethnicity.
  • During the intake process, ask questions about the client’s attitudes and behaviors toward eating, weight and body image. Remain aware that initial symptoms can potentially progress to full-syndrome, complex eating disorders.
  • Regardless of your treatment setting, be aware of resources, and be prepared to make proper referrals so that clients can receive specialized care when needed.
  • Effective eating disorders treatment involves a multidisciplinary approach.
  • Counselors, like all people, can have strong biases in the areas of eating, weight, body image and the importance of appearance. We have to be careful about imposing these values on our clients.
  • Weight stigma is a form of discrimination that serves to marginalize and shame people. It is not a value supported by the counseling profession.

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Recommended resources:

  • “Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Eating Disorders” by Laura H. Choate (in The Cambridge Handbook of Applied Psychological Ethics, edited by Mark M. Leach and Elizabeth Reynolds Welfel, Cambridge University Press, 2018)
  • “Assessment and diagnosis of eating disorders” by Kelly C. Berg and Carol B. Peterson (in Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Counselor’s Guide to Prevention and Treatment, edited by Laura H. Choate, American Counseling Association, 2013)
  • American Psychiatric Association practice guideline for the treatment of patients with eating disorders (2010): tinyurl.com/APAEatingDisorders
  • “Practice parameter for the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with eating disorders” by James Lock, Maria C. La Via and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Committee on Quality Issues, Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2015
  • National Eating Disorders Association: nationaleatingdisorders.org
  • Academy of Eating Disorders: aedweb.org/home

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Laura H. Choate is the Jo Ellen Levy Yates endowed professor of counselor education at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She is the author of five books, the most recent of which is Depression in Girls and Women Across the Lifespan: Treatment Essentials for Mental Health (2020). She has 40 publications in journals and books, most of which have been related to girls’ and women’s mental health. She is a member of the ACA Ethics Committee. Contact her at lchoate@lsu.edu.

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit 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.

Integrated interventions

By Laurie Meyers May 25, 2018

W hen people think about integrated care, they may imagine a mental health care professional (or two) working in the same building with a physician or other medical professional and following a mutual agreement to refer cases to one another as needed. Others might picture a specialized setting, such as a pain clinic or cancer treatment center, where mental and emotional health concerns are addressed in relation to the medical or physical issue. However, multidisciplinary integrated care teams can now be found in hospitals, outpatient medical centers and community mental health clinics. Professional counselors who operate in these settings say that working in concert with other medical, mental and physical health professionals is the best way to provide clients with whole-person care.

Integrated care facilities are often in medical settings such as primary care clinics, but this doesn’t have to be the rule. Sherry Shamblin is chief of behavioral health operations for Hopewell Health Centers, a group of nonprofit community primary care and behavioral health clinics with 16 locations in southeast Ohio. She helped to develop a system that features primary care facilities in which counselors can conduct brief behavioral interventions and centers that focus principally on mental health but also offer primary care resources.

Shamblin’s thinking is that clients who already are struggling to manage serious mental health issues are often too overwhelmed to seek medical care. “If you’re depressed, you don’t really take care of yourself,” says Shamblin, a licensed professional clinical counselor with supervision designation. “You’re not valuing self-care and taking care of your [physical] health.” In addition, many psychotropic medications have side effects such as weight gain, which can increase clients’ chances of developing diabetes and other chronic illnesses, she notes.

“When you physically feel better, your mood improves, your energy is better, [you] feel more like tackling things that seem overwhelming and your overall coping improves,” says Shamblin, a member of the American Counseling Association. “Although mental and physical [health] have been separated for a long time … [the division] is artificial. It’s all connected.”

Counselors at the mental health clinics ask clients at intake whether they have a primary care physician and, if so, who that person is and when the last time was that the client saw their physician. Counselors will also try to get clients’ permission to access their medical records. That way, counselors can work with clients’ physicians to help ensure that clients are getting the health care they need, Shamblin explains.

If mental health clients don’t have a primary care physician or only go when they are feeling really ill, the counselor talks to them about health and wellness and the importance of receiving regular checkups. “We try to help them view it [regular health care] as another component of staying well,” Shamblin says.

If Hopewell Health Centers’ clients don’t have a primary care physician but would like to start taking better care of their health, they don’t have far to go — the mental health care facilities have exam rooms and primary care providers on-site. Having these resources readily available not only makes it easier for clients to access health care but also allows them to receive it in a setting in which they already feel comfortable, Shamblin says. The counselor (or other mental health professional) and onsite primary care provider then become a team dedicated to maintaining the client’s physical and mental health.

In Hopewell Health’s primary care clinics, counselors (who are called behavioral health consultants, or BHCs) play several roles. In some cases, the BHC is brought in to help the client manage a chronic illness. For example, Shamblin says, a primary care physician might see someone whose diabetes or high blood pressure is not under control despite treatment. This would provide an opportunity for the physician or nurse to explain that they have a colleague on the team who might be able to help the patient with this struggle. They would then ask if the patient would like to meet with the BHC.

The BHC would then try to determine the factors that are keeping the patient from progressing. For instance, is the person not taking medicine consistently or not watching their diet? If treatment adherence is a problem, the BHC assesses whether patients are ready to change their behavior and, if so, works with them to set goals and offers ongoing support. If patients are not open to making a change in a particular lifestyle area — such as diet, for example — the BHC would work with them to identify another positive lifestyle change they could make, such as stopping smoking or getting more exercise, Shamblin explains.

In other cases, the BHCs working in the primary care clinics conduct brief interventions with patients. The primary care physicians screen patients by asking questions that assess for signs of depression or substance abuse. If the physicians get an answer that concerns them — perhaps a patient saying that they have been feeling overwhelmed or depressed, for example — they ask the patient whether they can bring in someone who might be helpful, Shamblin says. The BHC will then ask brief questions to help determine whether the patient needs intervention.

Sometimes patients feel better just being given the opportunity to have a short conversation about their worries, Shamblin says. In such cases, the BHC will ask if it is OK to check in with the patient the next time the person returns to the clinic. In some cases, the BHC will ask the patient to come back for a few brief counseling sessions. In other instances, the BHC determines that patients need more intensive mental health care and will refer them to the clinic’s mental health professionals who oversee long-term care, Shamblin explains. The BHC then becomes the liaison between the primary care and mental health providers and will check in with the patient periodically to see how the person is doing, she says.

Hopewell Health Centers was created in 2013 when two organizations, Family Healthcare Inc. and Tri-County Mental Health and Counseling Services Inc., merged in order to provide integrated care. Shamblin notes that the frequency of Hopewell Health Centers’ screenings and treatment of substance abuse has gone up with the introduction of the integrated care model. Some data have suggested that the area of Ohio where the clinics operate has the lowest depression rates in the state, she says.

Leading the way in integration

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a leader in hospital and outpatient integrated care. Just ask ACA member Laura Veach, who explains that the Wake Forest system has moved beyond the concept of integrated medicine being simply “co-located” care. In fact, the system is so integrated that Veach, a counselor educator, is a full professor in the Department of Surgery in the Wake Forest School of Medicine, a position that Veach thinks may be unique. Veach is also the director of counselor training at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Though affiliated with Wake Forest University, the center also works with other counselor educator programs.

Veach has played a crucial role in the medical center’s emphasis on integrated care. She says she feels particularly fortunate because she works with a group of surgeons “who get it and want the best for patients.”

“We [counselors] are embedded in the medical team,” Veach explains. “We started in surgery in the specialty of trauma surgery and began to test the feasibility of doing counseling and screening and intervention at the bedside and [then] became a training site. Now we include posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD] intervention work, crisis intervention and grief and loss work with trauma patients who have suffered the loss of a loved one in a trauma incident that brought them to the hospital. That led to the pediatric trauma unit, where we work with families of children who are traumatically injured, as well as the children themselves.”

Counselors are also part of integrated care efforts in the facility’s burn center, which is one of the only certified burn centers in North Carolina. Those efforts include providing ongoing counseling sessions in the burn intensive care unit and the step-down unit. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has also expanded integrated care into medical inpatient units, where people come in for issues such as pancreatitis, infections, pneumonia and so on.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has a system that scans medical records to help identify patients who might need counseling help. For instance, when patients come through the emergency room, nurses ask them about depression, anxiety, suicidal thinking or past suicidal behavior. Other patients may receive bloodwork that shows elevated blood alcohol content or urine drug screens. Veach emphasizes that these are not for legal use but to help the medical center provide better integrated care. Some people may have elevated liver enzymes, which can be a sign of alcohol abuse, she continues. The medical records also include the physician’s account of what the patient’s complaint is. The chart-scanning system analyzes all of this information to help identify and prioritize who the counselors and other mental health professionals on staff should see first, she says.

Counselors introduce themselves as part of the team to patients and let them know that they are there to support the patients’ recovery and health. They then ask if the patients are open to the counselor spending some time with them. The counselors are rarely turned away, according to Veach.

After reviewing informed consent and confidentiality policies with each patient, the counselors simply listen, Veach emphasizes. “We try to just be present with them, to not ask questions, to hear what they are struggling with,” she says.

Veach notes that most of the medical center’s patients have never been to see a counselor before. So the counselors and counseling graduate students who work on the integrated teams at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center are essentially educating these individuals about what counseling can provide. They tell patients they are prepared to listen to whatever the patients most want to talk about or need help with.

“What we find most often is that people have a lot to share,” Veach says. “We’re not someone who’s coming to do something to them; we’re someone who is coming to be with them. They might say, ‘I really want to talk to my family about this, but they’ll worry.’ A counselor or addictions specialist can be there and not be judgmental.”

In the medical center’s trauma and burn units, counselors stay on the alert for signs of acute stress or PTSD in patients, Veach says. After being released from the medical center, patients return for medical follow-up visits for the next six months, and counselors continue to check in and evaluate their recovery during this time. In certain cases, the counselors set up extended mental health therapy sessions with patients (scheduled adjacent to their medical visits) or recommend that they see a trauma specialist, such as someone trained in administering eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy.

When Veach first started working in integrated care, it was common for surgeons to state that they didn’t need or want to know about patients’ emotional issues — they just needed to know how to repair individuals surgically. “In the past decade, we’ve seen a big shift to asking how do we more fully treat this person to help them have a better chance of healing and without experiencing more trauma,” Veach says. “I think more trauma surgeons [today] know that if we don’t address [these emotional issues] now, we’re going to see them here again.”

Many people undergoing medical treatment aren’t aware of the types of issues that counseling or addictions treatment can help them address, or they don’t know how to access those services themselves, so having counselors as part of the team at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is particularly valuable, Veach says. Counselors on staff can make recommendations and point patients toward other resources. For instance, Veach says, families may have been struggling for years to get a loved one into treatment for substance use; counselors on staff at the medical center can offer information on which addictions centers in the area offer family support.

In the trauma and intensive care units, the teams offer dedicated support time for families two days per week. Counselors are on hand during these times to offer snacks and encouragement, Veach says. The integration of mental health into the hospital also extends to support groups, including a weekly trauma survivors’ network, a family member support group and a peer-led burn survivors group, she adds.

Veach has been helping to implement brief intervention counseling services at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center for a decade. As counseling services have expanded to be included in more and more of the center’s departments, she has been surprised at how receptive medical patients are to counseling. She says she has witnessed “a deeply heartfelt responsiveness” on the part of patients to being heard and understood. In addition, surgeons have begun to tell Veach how valuable counselors are to the team. They tell her they are heartened to see patients getting care from counselors that they, as surgeons, can’t provide themselves.

Putting people first

Marcia Huston McCall, a national certified counselor and doctoral student in counseling and counselor education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), spent several decades in health care management before becoming a counselor. She worked in the finance department at Massachusetts General Hospital and then became the business director of several different departments in an academic medical center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

McCall, an ACA member, says she went into health care management as a means of helping patients. She thought her business acumen was her strongest skill set and her best way of contributing. Over time, however, she became convinced that the business side of health care was moving farther and farther away from helping patients. “Health care management got so corporate,” she says. “I felt separated from the patients, and I wanted to have that contact.”

McCall realized that the people part of her job was what she loved best and decided that a career shift into counseling would be a better fit. She entered the counselor education program at Wake Forest University and completed her practicum and internship hours in inpatient integrated care at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. UNCG also has a relationship with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, so McCall completed her doctoral internship there and continues to work at the center as a graduate assistant.

McCall has worked in both the outpatient clinic and the inpatient section of the medical center. She says it is crucial for counselors to be full members of the team by participating in rounds and team huddles. “Having the counselor as part of the team when all the patients are being discussed is really important because you’re not only offering perspective but also picking up on things that might be issues,” she says. “They’re talking about patients you might not see [in the outpatient clinic], but you can pick up on patients that you do need to see.”

“In inpatient, we screen patients ourselves, so we review all the new admissions to our floors and identify the patients we think [will] need our services,” says McCall, a member of ACA. If she notices a history of substance abuse or other mental health issues, McCall brings this up before rounds or in the team huddle.

McCall and the other mental health professionals at the medical center conduct brief assessments with patients for signs of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, suicidality and delusions. In some cases, they conduct brief treatment and perhaps even see the patient a few times, depending on the length of stay. McCall also refers patients for further psychiatric or substance abuse care if needed.

Counselors working in integrated care settings frequently need to use their skills to build rapport with patients. For example, a physician might see signs indicating that a patient has possible substance abuse issues and call a counselor in for an assessment. In many cases, patients will not have sought treatment for substance abuse previously and may have avoided acknowledging that they have a problem.

“We’re walking in, and they may not be very interested in talking about their substance issues, particularly with a stranger,” McCall says. “We have to approach resistant patients in an indirect way and try to understand what their issues are and what they want to do about them,” she explains.

In such instances, McCall says that she rolls with the resistance. Friends and family members have likely been asking these individuals to seek help, but the patients haven’t been ready to acknowledge that they need treatment. McCall validates their resistance by verbalizing the arguments they are making against getting help. She says these patients often respond to her validation by saying, “Yeah, but I really do need help.” She then asks them what they are willing to do to get that care. If these patients voice a desire to pursue substance abuse treatment, counselors at the medical center connect them with specialty resources outside of the inpatient or clinic setting.

“We help them find that treatment and do as much as possible to ensure they actually get there — that everything is set up,” McCall says.

Counselors serve as consultants for the medical team at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center but also act as advocates for the patients, McCall says. A lot of bias still exists among medical personnel about mental health issues, she explains, so counselors are there to help ensure that patients are seen as human beings who have needs, no matter what they have been through.

Counselors may also get called in when a physician is questioning whether a patient might need psychiatric services. The medical center doesn’t have many psychiatrists on staff, so the physicians are hesitant to call them for a consultation if there is no need for immediate inpatient treatment, McCall explains.

By working in integrated care, McCall says she gets to be a kind of ambassador for the counseling profession. “I have the opportunity to work not just with physicians and nurses, but residents, medical students, pharmacy students and physician assistant students,” she says. “[I] really have the opportunity to interact with people who aren’t used to having counselors as part of the team.”

McCall would like to bring even more of the counseling perspective into integrated care. She contends that “behavioral health” is too narrow of a designation and believes that counselors should define their own roles and use terminology that is more appropriate to the counseling profession. McCall says she wants her team, as well as other medical personnel working in different integrated care settings, to be aware that professional counselors are not just behaviorists but also possess many other skills. For example, McCall envisions counselors having a central role to play in helping patients who have gotten a shocking diagnosis or who are struggling with the inherent vulnerability of being in the hospital.

McCall also cautions counselors entering the field to be aware that supervision in integrated care settings is rarely provided by other counseling professionals. It is vital for counselors to maintain their professional identity while operating within integrated care, she emphasizes, even if that means pursuing additional supervision outside of the integrated care setting. Receiving ongoing supervision when working in integrated care is critical because the work can be intense and overwhelming, McCall says. Peer support and supervision can help counselors deal with stress and avoid burnout, she concludes.

Training students in integrated care

Some counseling students interested in integrated care are adding medical knowledge to their counseling skills. Rachel Levy-Bell, assistant professor of psychiatry and associate program director and director of clinical training in the mental health counseling and behavioral medicine program at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), teaches and trains counseling students to work in integrated care. The program at BUSM focuses not just on counseling but also behavioral medicine, so students take integrated care courses, learn about psychopharmacology and human sexuality, and get bedside training in getting to know the patient beyond the disease, says Levy-Bell, a member of ACA. She supervises practicum and internship students working in Boston University-affiliated clinics and other Boston community centers.

As part of practicum, Levy-Bell trains small groups of counseling students to conduct biopsychosocial interviews. Each week, the 10-member group receives a list of patients and their medical issues. As the counseling students visit the patients, they take turns being the lead interviewer. Students ask patients about what brought them to the hospital and deduce whether they fully understand their condition and how their disease affects their lifestyle, relationships and work. They also ask how patients physically manage their disease, how they cope with its demands and whether spirituality or religion plays a role for them. They also assess for substance abuse.

At the end of the interview, Levy-Bell asks the patients how they felt the students performed. Many patients share that they like that the students spent more time with them than the medical personnel typically do and also comment that the students are better at maintaining eye contact with them when talking and listening. Afterward, the group goes back to class to evaluate and discuss the interviews: What went right? What do they need to improve? What did they learn?

Part of the training process is getting counseling students used to working in medical settings and grappling with issues such as how to build therapeutic rapport when the patient has a roommate or when medical equipment is everywhere and beeping noises are constant, Levy-Bell says. Students are also exposed to things that they’ve never seen before. These experiences might make them uncomfortable, but they have to learn to control both their verbal and nonverbal reactions to ensure that they aren’t indicating discomfort, she says. Levy-Bell also focuses on practical aspects such as teaching students not to faint — or, at a minimum, fainting away from the patient. She also teaches students to wear light clothing (hospitals are hot), to stay hydrated, to make sure they eat and to take a break if they feel unsteady — but to always come back.

Sara Bailey, an ACA member who works at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center as part of her postdoctoral fellowship, says that regardless of whether counselors plan to go into integrated care, working in a behavioral health setting provides excellent training. In integrated care, counselors-in-training get the chance to see how other professionals such as doctors, nurses and other mental health practitioners work and handle challenges, she says. They also quickly become aware that all practitioners encounter individuals with alcohol or substance abuse problems.

“In a perfect world, this would be required,” Bailey says. “You get to hone your reflection and rapport-building skills and have to learn to do your best in a short amount of time.”

 

 

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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)

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

  • “Integrated Care: Applying Theory to Practice” with Russ Curtis & Eric Christian (HT030)

ACA Interest networks (counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks)

  • ACA Interest Network for Integrated Care

 

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

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.

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.

Creating comics with clients

By Devlyn McCreight February 1, 2018

Academic and clinical interest regarding the intersection of comics and health care is high right now, which is no surprise to readers of Counseling Today. The July 2017 issue of Counseling Today featured a cover story titled “‘Cultured’ counseling” that provided perspectives on the clinical utility of integrating pop culture (such as video games, movies and comic books) into counseling practice. Similarly, both the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association have devoted time and journal space to covering the topic, signaling that mental health counselors are not alone in wanting to explore the positive impact that comics can have on delivery of services.

Case in point: The 2017 Comics & Medicine Conference was held this past June in Seattle. An eclectic cross section of cartoonists, medical doctors, mental health professionals, teachers, students and librarians from across the globe attended. The conference theme, “Access Points,” explored how comics can open new gateways to health care “because of its ability to provide a platform for marginalized voices.” Because this worldwide chorus of marginalized voices often includes people with mental health diagnoses and comorbid disorders, comics can also help bridge the gap between client and counselor when utilized correctly.

As the body of literature regarding the therapeutic value of comics grows, the question is raised: Can comics be used as an intervention apart from traditional bibliotherapy? The focus of this article is to explore the rationale for creating comics with clinical clients, gain guidance from practitioners who use comic creation as a direct intervention and provide resources for those who are interested in learning more.

Beyond bibliotherapy

In the fourth edition of the American Counseling Association’s Counseling Dictionary, the intervention bibliotherapy is defined as “generally understood to be the reading of selected literature to help individuals gain a better understanding of themselves and others as well as to produce at times a healing or helpful catharsis.”

The bulk of recent literature regarding comics and mental health has fallen squarely into the realm of bibliotherapy, focusing on using graphic novels and memoirs to help clients better understand their own challenges. Although strong clinical evidence exists to support using existing commercially available materials to help articulate client experiences, a growing number of health services practitioners are advocating that patients and clients begin writing and illustrating their own stories.

Ian Williams, a comics artist, writer and physician who co-founded the Graphic Medicine movement, has suggested that revisiting trauma using sequential art can provide a form of catharsis for the creator, citing examples of prominent figures in the graphic memoir field such as Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Katie Green (Lighter Than My Shadow). His assertion is that the combination of visual art and narrative structure allows clients to reauthor their experiences in ways that simply talking through them do not.

This same hypothesis was the driving force behind the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) using graphic novel software to assist combat veterans in dealing with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. This initiative led to DARPA commissioning California-based software developer Kinection to design the Warrior Stories Platform for use with veterans.

Similarly, several public schools across the country have begun using online comic-creation software to help address ongoing behavioral issues for children with special needs. In addition, educators and social science researchers alike are using comic creation to help children tackle difficult real-world issues (such as making positive choices in the face of peer pressure), develop a more robust understanding of historical events (such as the Holocaust) and cultivate sound safety habits when interacting with friends and strangers.

As professionals from a multitude of disciplines create comics with others to help bridge the gap between educational content and personal experience, clinical mental health counselors can do the same with their clients.

The therapeutic act of creating comics

Scott McCloud, renowned cartoonist and educator, once defined comics as “images deployed in a sequence to tell a story graphically or convey information.” Given that comics are a storytelling medium, it is perhaps not surprising that the therapeutic act of creating comics falls under the scope of narrative therapy.

Narrative therapy is primarily concerned with the stories that clients have within them — those internalized beliefs formed by clients’ interactions with the various familial, social and cultural forces throughout their lifetime. Narrative therapies also place primary emphasis on the act of externalization of client issues. As Michael White and David Epston, the primary developers of narrative therapy, once famously surmised, “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.”

Externalization is used to help clients who overidentify with their problematic symptoms (“I am depressed”) begin to understand these experiences as distinct from their core self (“I am dealing with a really difficult depressive episode right now”). When I interviewed Katharine Houpt, an artist, licensed clinical professional counselor, board certified art therapist and lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she shared that the main strength of creating comics with clients is that it fosters the externalization process: “The idea is that experiences can be overwhelming and can take up so much space that it’s helpful to externalize them, and [creating comics] literally puts a container around those experiences so you can put them away on a shelf, so to speak, and [the problems] are separated from the person.”

Having a physical representation of an internal experience can be valuable because the idea of containment is extremely important when dealing with sensitive parts of a client’s experience. Each panel in the comic sequence functions as a figurative container for potentially overwhelming psychic material, allowing clients to approach the issue with a feeling of control or mastery that might elude them otherwise. The comic format also allows clients to represent themselves, others and even their disorders pictorially through the creation of avatars.

Working with clients to graphically depict interactions between themselves and problematic symptoms can help them uncover new insights. As with any other type of therapeutic intervention, it is important to choose comic-making directives that reflect an understanding of individual clients, their struggles and what resources they bring to the situation. “An example of something I’ve done recently is ask a client to create characters to have a dialogue based on the person’s conflicting thoughts when trying to make a decision,” Houpt says. “But again, this was done with careful consideration of the person’s history, possible responses, coping tools, motivation, ability, etc.”

Suggestions and considerations

Possessing a clear sense of best practices when creating comics (or any other type of art) with clients can help clinicians avoid therapeutic pitfalls and unintended confidentiality issues and create a safe space for the creative process. What follows are suggestions and considerations for therapists who are interested in beginning to integrate comic creation into clinical practice.

Create a functional space. Rebecca Bloom, a board-certified art therapist and licensed mental health counselor who practices in Washington state, suggested that clinicians try making art themselves in client spaces before introducing any interventions into practice. “I tell everyone that comes to my workshop, ‘Sit where the client will sit and try and make art in that spot.’ People inevitably come back and say, ‘Oh, well, it’s impossible to make art there.’ So I respond, ‘Great, now figure out how it would be more possible. Do the art supplies need to be closer? Do you need a lap desk? Do you need a coffee table that’s easy to use?’”

If the space available is not amenable for making art, this might require an investment in additional furniture that could be cost prohibitive. If an existing space and furnishings can be rearranged to accommodate the activity, it is also important to think through whether the space can remain in that configuration for clients who are not making art. If it can’t, it might be necessary to reserve time to reset the office between client sessions.

Remember, art is messy. Another consideration in determining whether a space is appropriate for incorporating any art making is whether the space is shared with other practitioners. “Art takes a little thinking through,” Bloom explained. “In some settings, it’s really hard, like for people who are in institutional settings. … Art is really messy. So, if there’s no way to be messy where you are, that’s going be a little problematic for art making.”

This holds true for comic creation too. India ink can be spilled, markers can be dropped onto couches, and erasers can leave behind rubberized crumbs. The reality of potential messes requires that practitioners be thoughtful about what materials they are willing to use during a session.

“Also, there need to be limits around time and mess,” Bloom said. “I stop the art-making process 10 minutes before the session ends because I want to make sure the people are back in their conscious process. I want to make sure we have time to clean up. [There are] materials that I don’t use. I don’t use paint in my office because it’s so easy to get out of control. I do spend money on fancy Copic markers with brush tips so you can have that experience of painting but without the mess.”

Invest in quality materials. Investing in quality materials will allow clients to stay focused on the therapeutic process instead of struggling to work with dried-out markers, inkless pens, stubby crayons or dull pencils. Additionally, having a selection of higher-grade media to choose from can signal clients that you are taking the art-making process seriously and being thoughtful about the materials with which you are asking them to work. “Clients can take a bad art-making experience personally,” Bloom observed.

Try it yourself first. Another common mistake clinicians sometimes make when using art directives during session is believing that instruction alone will inspire a client to make therapeutically meaningful art. “The only thing I hate for clients is when a therapist says, ‘Draw your darkest fear,’ and the client looks at them like, ‘You try that first. You try drawing your darkest fear,’” Bloom said. “You don’t want to ask anybody to do something that didn’t work for you, because you’re not going to be able to sell it very well, and you’re not going to be able to take care of somebody if it doesn’t go right. And you’re not going to understand the resistance in not wanting to do it.”

This also holds true for comic creation. If the counselor has never drawn a comic, then it will be difficult to understand client process from an artistic and therapeutic standpoint. One practice that can be helpful for therapists new to comic making is to try working with their own “daily comics journal.”

Kurt Shaffert, a fellow in applied cartooning at the Center for Cartoon Studies, located in White River Junction, Vermont, endorsed this practice, acknowledging that he has used it himself. “The basic idea is to sit down every morning and draw a simple three- to four-panel cartoon that captures where you are in that moment,” he said. “It was very helpful for me when I was going through some difficult personal circumstances. And when I began sharing them with my friends and family, they began to have a better understanding of what was happening with me during
that time.”

Houpt also uses the daily comics journal exercise to help temper the high emotions and excitement that can accompany working with comics. “I always emphasize the importance of pacing with clients,” Houpt said. “I think people can get really excited about comics and want to get really deep really fast. So something that I’ve done a lot with folks is ask them to keep a daily comics journal with just six panels per page. It puts a little bit of structure around it so that the experience doesn’t become overwhelming. And that practice has been really helpful for people to identify problems and solutions in their lives, to start recognizing themes, patterns and alternative stories about who they are through their personal artistic languages.”

There are also many opportunities for clinicians to gain firsthand experience with art therapy and comic-making interventions by utilizing local resources. Many art therapists, including those interviewed for this article, offer community-based workshops for clinicians and laypeople alike. Connecting with local therapists who regularly use art-based interventions can also provide valuable networking opportunities and potential ongoing clinical support as counselors begin to integrate art into their practice.

Read comics … and talk about them. If you are reading this article, chances are that you have some interest in the medium of comics, which exists apart from the therapeutic value of making comics. Exposing yourself to a wide range of commercially available comic books and graphic novels can help expand your understanding of what comics are — or ultimately can be.

Cultivating a broader understanding of what is considered a comic can help the therapeutic process in the long run. “I do find that I have to explain comics in many different ways to people,” Houpt said. “Sometimes I won’t call them comics. Sometimes I’ll say, ‘stories using words and pictures,’ or I will talk about something they might be familiar with, like the Sunday cartoons. … There’s all kinds of different interpretations. So, I just use that and make that part of the process of making comics with the client because, same as any other identifier about a person, it will mean a different thing to each individual.”

Talking with clients about their own beliefs regarding the medium can put them more at ease, which might allow them to experience greater gains from creating comics as part of the therapeutic process.

Be aware of the ethics regarding client art. There are additional ethical considerations that accompany counselors asking clients to make art for a therapeutic purpose. “I definitely think that all kinds of people can do some basic art therapy directives,” Bloom said. “I produce books that have those directives in them. Lots of people do. One of the major differences between people [who] are trained as art therapists and people who are not is what happens to the art after [it has] been made. It’s very common that people who are not trained as art therapists will put the art right up on the wall. Whereas art therapists believe that’s a private clinical conversation and that the client either takes that artwork home with them, or they keep it in the client’s file, or maybe the client destroys it. But it’s not up for public view.”

Another unintended consequence is that if a client walks into a room filled with client art, this might unknowingly set the expectation that all client art will be displayed, which can be problematic. As Bloom explains, “The idea within art therapy is that you might release something on the page that is unattractive that you don’t want anybody [else] to see. … If you go into an environment that has people’s art up on the walls, people will make less revealing art, most likely.”

Additionally, displaying client art might unintentionally create a false standard of how comic-making interventions “should look” for clients. Because some clients are more artistically inclined than others, certain clients might be reluctant — or even outright refuse — to create art because of insecurity around their abilities.

Self-portraits drawn by Kurt Shaffert (top) and Katharine Houpt.

“I also like to talk with clients about what MK Czerwiec discusses in her chapter in the Graphic Medicine Manifesto, which is the ‘fourth-grade slump,’” Houpt says. “That’s the idea that before fourth grade, everybody raises their hand when the teacher asks, ‘Who in here is an artist?’ And then starting in fourth grade, everybody points to the one kid who draws the best. So, why do we do that to ourselves? Why should we limit this outlet for joy and expression in our lives just because we think we’re not the best at it?”

Allowing clients to create comics without the pressure of comparison is essential for therapeutic work to occur, and that should be the goal of any intervention used with clients. Counselors should also know that any art created during a therapy session receives the same protections under HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) that any other physical media (such as audio recordings and written materials) would.

Resources

It can be difficult for those who aren’t art therapists to begin working with a medium such as comics because the sheer amount of available materials can be overwhelming. The following list serves as a brief primer on texts that might be useful when beginning to integrate comic making into an existing practice. These recommendations were provided by the clinicians interviewed for this article and are grouped into separate categories for clarity.

General art therapy

  • Art Is a Way of Knowing: A Guide to Self-Knowledge and Spiritual Fulfillment Through Creativity by Pat B. Allen
  • Square the Circle: Art Therapy Workbook by Rebecca Bloom
  • The Art Therapy Sourcebook by Cathy Malchiodi
  • Materials & Media in Art Therapy: Critical Understandings of Diverse Artistic Vocabularies by Catharine Moon

Comics and Cartooning

  • Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice by Ivan Brunetti
  • Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner
  • Cartooning: The Ultimate Character Design Book by Christopher Hart
  • Understanding Comics and Making Comics by Scott McCloud

Conclusion

Although interest regarding the intersection of health services delivery and comics is at an all-time high, empirical research regarding the efficacy of comic creation as a direct intervention is largely absent. This might dissuade practitioners from introducing comic making into their therapeutic work, but it is important to remember that every testable intervention begins with a theoretical question, moves to the gathering of qualitative/anecdotal evidence and then transitions to quantitative outcome measurements.

This article has briefly addressed the narrative frame of comic creating while also sharing anecdotal insights from practitioners who use the intervention directly. The next step for helping make comic creation a more widely accepted and accessible intervention is to conduct rigorous research regarding outcomes. For social science researchers, these pursuits do not have to be conducted in isolation. That is reassuring for therapists such as Houpt: “I think that’s part of what was so exciting to me [about going] to the Comics & Medicine Conference this year. It was my first one. And to see people from so many different fields … different silos, who are doing similar work with different frameworks, different approaches, but arriving at similar outcomes. So, there has to be something there, and I wonder if part of the answer is more interdisciplinary collaboration.”

 

Author Devlyn McCreight, LMHC, draws a comic at his art desk. Photo by Sarah McCreight.

 

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Devlyn McCreight is a licensed mental health counselor and owner of McCreight Psychotherapy & Clinical Consulting LLC. Contact him at devlyn@mccreightpsychotherapy or through his website at drdevlyn.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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

Talking through the pain

By Laurie Meyers January 30, 2018

By the time the 43-year-old man, a victim of an industrial accident, limped into American Counseling Association member David Engstrom’s office, he’d been experiencing lower back pain for 10 years and taking OxyContin for six. The client, whose pain was written in the grimace on his face as he sat down, was a referral from a local orthopedic surgeon, who was concerned about the man’s rapidly increasing tolerance to the drug.

“He often took twice the prescribed dose, and the effect on his pain was diminishing,” says Engstrom, a health psychologist who works in integrated care centers.

The man’s story is, unfortunately, not unusual. According to the National Institutes of Health, 8 out of 10 adults will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. As the more than 76 million baby boomers continue to age, many of them will increasingly face the aches and pains that come with chronic health issues. And as professional counselors are aware, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and addiction can also cause or heighten physical pain.

Those who suffer from chronic pain are often in desperate need of some succor, but in many cases, prescription drug treatments or surgery may be ineffective or undesirable. Fortunately, professional counselors can often help provide some relief.

Treating chronic pain

At first, the client had only one question for Engstrom: “I’m not crazy, so why am I here?”

Although the man’s physician did not think that the pain was all in the man’s head, it is not uncommon for sufferers of chronic pain to encounter skepticism about what they are experiencing. “It was important … to defuse the idea that I might think he was imagining his pain,” Engstrom says. “So I [told him] that I accepted that his pain was real and that all pain is experienced from both body and mind. I told him that we would be a team and work on this together.”

Engstrom and the client worked together for five months. As they followed the treatment plan, the man’s physician slowly eased him off of the OxyContin.

Engstrom began by teaching the client relaxation exercises such as progressive muscle relaxation. “When in pain, the natural inclination of the body is to contract muscles,” Engstrom explains. “In the long term, this reduces blood flow to the painful area and slows the healing process. Contracted muscles can be a direct source of pain.”

Engstrom also began using biofeedback to promote further relaxation. In biofeedback sessions, sensors are attached to the body and connected to a monitoring device that measures bodily functions such as breathing, perspiration, skin temperature, blood pressure, muscle tension and heartbeat.

“When you relax, clear your mind and breathe deeply, your breathing slows and your heart rate dips correspondingly,” Engstrom explains. “As the signals change on the monitors, you begin to learn how to consciously control body functions that are normally unconscious. For many clients, this sense of control can be a powerful, liberating experience.”

As Engstrom’s client learned to control his responses, he began reporting a decrease in pain following the relaxation exercises.

Engstrom also used cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) methods, including asking the man to keep a daily journal recording his pain level at different times of the day, along with his activity and mood. Through the journal, the man started recognizing that his pain level wasn’t constant. Instead, it varied and was influenced by what he was doing and thinking at the time.

Engstrom highly recommends CBT for pain treatment because it helps provide pain relief in several ways. “First, it changes the way people view their pain,” he says. “CBT can change the thoughts, emotions and behaviors related to pain, improve coping strategies and put the discomfort in a better context. You recognize that the pain interferes less with your quality of life and, therefore, you can function better.”

In this case, the client was trapped by thoughts that “the pain will never go away” and “I’ll end up a cripple,” Engstrom says. He and the client worked on CBT exercises for several months, keeping track of and questioning the validity of such negative future thoughts. They also practiced substituting more helpful thoughts, including “I will take each day as it comes” and “I will focus on doing the best I can today.”

Chronic pain often engenders a sense of helplessness among those who experience it, Engstrom says, so CBT also helps by producing a problem-solving mindset. When clients take action, they typically feel more in control of their pain, he says.

CBT also fosters new coping skills, giving clients tools that they can use in other parts of their lives. “The tactics a client learns for pain control can help with other problems they may encounter in the future, such as depression, anxiety or stress,” Engstrom says.

Because clients can engage in CBT exercises on their own, it also fosters a sense of autonomy. Engstrom often gives clients worksheets or book chapters to review at home, allowing them to practice controlling their pain independently.

Engstrom notes that CBT can also change the physical response in the brain that makes pain worse. “Pain causes stress, and stress affects pain-control chemicals in the brain, such as norepinephrine and serotonin,” he explains. “By reducing arousal that impacts these chemicals, the body’s natural pain-relief responses may become more powerful.”

Although Engstrom acknowledges that he could not completely banish the discomfort his client felt, he was able to lessen both the sensation and perception of the man’s pain and give him tools to better manage it.

Taking away pain’s power

Mindfulness is another powerful tool for lessening the perception of pain, says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Russ Curtis, co-leader of ACA’s Interest Network for Integrated Care.

Mindfulness teaches the art of awareness without judgment, meaning that we are aware of our thoughts and feelings but can choose the ones we focus on, Curtis continues. He gives an example of how a client might learn to regard pain: “This is pain. Pain is a sensation. And sensations tend to ebb and flow and may eventually subside, even if just for a little while. I’ll breathe and get back to doing what is meaningful to me.”

Engstrom agrees. Unlike traditional painkillers, mindfulness is not intended to dull or eliminate the pain. Instead, when managing pain through the use of mindfulness-based practices, the goal is to change clients’ perception of the pain so that they suffer less, he explains.

“Suffering is not always related to pain,” Engstrom continues. “A big unsolved puzzle is how some clients can tolerate a great deal of pain without suffering, while others suffer with relatively smaller degrees of pain.”

According to Engstrom, the way that people experience pain is related not just to its intensity but also to other variables. Some of these variable include:

  • Emotional state: “I am angry that I am feeling this way.”
  • Beliefs about pain: “This pain means there’s something seriously wrong with me.”
  • Expectations: “These painkillers aren’t going to work.”
  • Environment: “I don’t have anyone to talk to about how I feel.”

By helping people separate the physical sensation of pain from its other less tangible factors, mindfulness can reduce the suffering associated with pain, even if it is not possible to lessen its severity, Engstrom says.

According to Engstrom, mindfulness may also improve the psychological experience of pain by:

  • Decreasing repetitive thinking and reactivity
  • Increasing a sense of acceptance of unpleasant sensations
  • Improving emotional flexibility
  • Reducing rumination and avoidant behaviors
  • Increasing a sense of acceptance of the present moment
  • Increasing the relaxation response and decreasing stress

Curtis, an associate professor of counseling at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, suggests acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) as another technique to help guide clients’ focus away from their pain.

“ACT can help people revisit what their true values are, whether it’s being of service, having a great family life or creating art,” he notes. Encouraging clients to identify and pursue what is most important to them helps ensure that despite the pain they feel, they are still engaging in the things that give their lives meaning and not waiting for a cure before moving forward, Curtis explains.

Teamwork and support

In helping clients confront chronic pain, Curtis says, counselors should not forget their most effective weapon — the therapeutic relationship. Because living with chronic pain can be very isolating, simply sitting with clients and listening to their stories with empathy is very powerful, he says.

Counselors have the opportunity to provide the validation and support that clients with chronic pain may not be getting from the other people in their lives, says Christopher Yadron, an LPC and former private practitioner who specialized in pain management and substance abuse treatment. The sense of shame that often accompanies the experience of chronic pain can add to clients’ isolation, he says. According to Yadron, who is currently an administrator at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, clients with chronic pain often fear that others will question the legitimacy of their pain — for instance, whether it is truly “bad enough” for them to need extended time off from work or to miss social occasions.

Curtis says it is important for counselors to ensure that these clients understand that the therapeutic relationship is collaborative and equal. That means that rather than simply throwing out solutions, counselors need to truly listen to these clients. This includes asking them what other methods of pain relief they have tried — such as supplements, over-the-counter painkillers, physical therapy, yoga or swimming — and what worked best for them, Curtis says.

The U.S. health care system has led many people to believe that there is a pill or surgery for every ailment, Curtis observes. This makes the provision of psychoeducation essential for clients with chronic pain. “Let them know there’s no magic bullet,” he says. Instead, he advises that counselors help clients see that relief will be incremental and that it will be delivered via multiple techniques, usually in conjunction with a team of other health professionals such as physicians and physical therapists.

Curtis, Yadron and Engstrom all agree that counselors should work in conjunction with clients’ other health care providers when trying to address the issue of chronic pain. Ultimately, however, it may be up to the counselor to put the “whole picture” together.

A 60-something female client with severe depression was referred to Engstrom from a pain clinic, where she had been diagnosed and treated for fibromyalgia. After an assessment, Engstrom could see that the woman’s depression was related to continuing pain, combined with social isolation and poor sleep patterns. The woman was unemployed, lived alone and spent most of her day worrying about whether her pain would get any better. Some of her previous doctors had not believed that fibromyalgia was a real medical concern and thus simply had dismissed her as being lonely and depressed. Despite finally receiving treatment for her fibromyalgia, the woman was still in a lot of pain when she was referred to Engstrom.

Engstrom treated the woman’s depression with CBT and taught her to practice mindfulness through breathing exercises and being present. Addressing her mood and sleep problems played a crucial role in improving her pain (insomnia is common in fibromyalgia). By dismissing the woman’s fibromyalgia diagnosis, discounting the importance of mood and not even considering the quality of her sleep, multiple doctors had failed to treat her pain.

Engstrom points out that in this case and the case of his client with lower back pain, successful treatment hinged on cognitive and behavioral factors — manifestations of pain that medical professionals often overlook.

 

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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.