Tag Archives: race

Fear and anxiety at the ballot box

By Laurie Meyers October 22, 2020

Word began to filter out late morning on Tuesday, Oct. 13, the last day that Virginia residents could register to vote in the 2020 general elections. A severed fiber-optic cable had brought down the commonwealth’s voter registration portal. Officials said the cut was an accident caused by roadwork; skeptics on Twitter had “accidentally” trending. Paper registration was still available — if postmarked or dropped off at local voter registration offices.

By midafternoon, after an approximately six-hour outage, the site was back up. A federal judge ordered an extension of the deadline to compensate would-be voters for lost time. Everyone would still be able to register to vote. All’s well that ends well, right?

And yet. To many people, the snafu seemed like just one more alarming plot twist in the tale of an election season — and year — so fraught with unprecedented crises that it would most likely evoke reader skepticism if found within the pages of a novel.

The U.S. national elections are already set to serve as a proxy for the country’s stance on climate change, universal health care, racism, police brutality and (dueling visions of) democracy. The maelstrom of events that is 2020 has brought everything to the forefront in Technicolor. The death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer. The ensuing protests against police brutality and the continuing demands for an end to racial injustice. The spread of violence by white supremacist groups. Record-breaking wildfires in California and Oregon. An incredibly active — and ongoing — hurricane season. The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the rush to appoint her successor. All of it amidst a pandemic unlike any other seen in the past 102 years.

When most Americans started staying home in March in hopes of bringing down the levels of infection by the novel coronavirus, they most likely didn’t expect that almost everything about COVID-19 would become partisan. The degree of threat posed by the virus. Whether to close businesses and restrict community movement. To mask or not to mask? In some quarters — albeit fairly fringe ones — the very existence of the novel coronavirus became a partisan matter. Now, less than one month before the election, more than 225,000 Americans are dead — a total that includes a disproportionate number of Black, Indigenous and people of color — and voters have spent months wondering about the best way to cast their vote.

In response to voter anxiety about going to the polls in person, most states expanded absentee mail-in voting by allowing anyone to use COVID-19 to justify their request. But the U.S. Postal Service, which had been preparing for the surge, was subject to organizational and equipment changes that made the mail less timely. So, many voters worried: If they requested an absentee ballot, would it arrive in time? The requirements for mail-in ballots vary from state to state, leaving some voters baffled and bemused. A process that is usually fairly straightforward has become yet another tangle to unravel in a year that has been fraught with knots.

“Our ability to cope with uncertainty is maxed out,” says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Keri Riggs, an American Counseling Association member with a private practice in Richardson, Texas. The pandemic has also effectively put most of our previously established timelines in question.

“We can’t make plans,” Riggs, whose areas of specialization include depression and anxiety, says. “The thing about the election is that we have a theoretical deadline.” We’ve always thought we understood when voting for the election was over, but this year, we can’t even have a sense of certainty about when it might end and when an undisputed winner in the presidential election might be declared, she says. Part of this year’s election anxiety is tied to not being able to rely on that usual deadline as an endpoint to at least one source of uncertainty.

With the exception of the contested vote count in Bush vs. Gore in 2000, modern Americans are used to learning who the winner of the presidential election is on election night or the morning after. But because so many people are voting by mail this year and it will take time to process those ballots, the votes amassed on Election Day will not be the final tally.

“If there is a contested election, it could drag on for a very long time,” Riggs points out. “Everything has already been dragging on for a very long time.”

And it’s not just about the endpoint. Many voters see this election as more than a mere partisan contest; to these voters, it is something upon which the future of bigger picture issues such as climate change, immigration and racial justice rests. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 83% of registered voters say it really matters who wins the presidency. These results are an increase from the 74% of voters who said the same thing four years ago and the highest share of voters saying this in two decades of Pew Research Center surveys. In keeping with the anxiety surrounding the election, approximately 50% of survey respondents said they expected that voting will be difficult.

The stories that we tell ourselves play a critical role in how we cope with stress, anxiety and the seeming chaos around us, Riggs says. Too often, clients focus on the “what ifs” of a doomsday future that may or may not come to pass, she explains.

“The Islamic theologian, Sufi mystic and poet Rumi once said, ‘The words you speak become the house you live in,’’’ notes Ryan Thomas Neace, an LPC who is the founder and CEO of Change Inc., a St. Louis counseling practice that focuses on healing and personal growth in the face of pain. A similar dictum is contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, “The power of life and death is on the tongue,” he continues. “In other words, what we say matters.”

Neace is not denying that voters are facing weighty issues as they cast their ballots, but he maintains that the narratives we construct are not solving anything. Instead, people get caught in the trap of thinking that constant worry and panic are somehow equal to civic engagement or political purpose.

Clients can break their “doom” loops with present-moment awareness, Riggs says. For example, when fear of the future and visions of disaster threaten to take over, she has clients practice telling themselves that they and everyone they love are safe in that moment.

Riggs also advises clients to consume social media and news in moderation and to take breaks. She urges clients to channel their energy into productive action, either by engaging in the political process with a campaign donation or volunteering at the polls, or via a smaller personal outlet such as journaling or even cleaning the bathroom.

Riggs says it is also essential to exercise self-compassion and what one of her clients calls “grace.”

“We need to give ourselves and each other grace — the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “We’re not all on our A-game.”

Neace reminds clients that it is OK — indeed helpful — to tell themselves resilience-building stories such as, “There’s a lot at stake here, but we’re going to get through this together, no matter what.”

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, pictured in a nationally-televised debate on Sept. 29.

Fear of racial violence

“There is a lot of evidence that there are a number of groups that actively want to hurt and disenfranchise Black Americans,” says Harrison Davis, an LPC in Atlanta who specializes in depression, anxiety, resentment and helping people overcome personal obstacles. These groups have come out of the shadows and appear to feel empowered by what they — and many Black Americans — perceive as support from the police and from forces within certain parts of the government and judicial system, he says.

The clients and community members he’s spoken to say their sense of security has diminished over the past year because they feel betrayed by people they believed were their allies. Some of his Black clients have told Davis that instead of standing by them in the fight for racial justice and an end to police brutality, some of their white neighbors and friends supported these law enforcement actions and were actively critical of the ensuing protests.

On top of this vulnerability, some of his Black clients have expressed concern that President Trump has not committed to a smooth transition of power if he loses, while white supremacists are threatening violence or even war, Davis says.

Some clients have an almost panicky need to prepare for an emergency — as if by doing so they can keep their darker fears from manifesting, he continues. This sense of catastrophe is fueled not just by the election, but by the many deaths the coronavirus has brought to the Black community.

Although the threat is real, his clients’ response — living in a constant state of anxiety and panic — is neither healthy nor sustainable, Davis says.

Like Riggs and Neace, when working with clients struggling with election anxiety, Davis zeroes on how much news and social media they are consuming. Not only are clients being bombarded with a sense of overall catastrophe—they are engaging in conversations that are often vitriolic and damaging.

“When I grew up, you would just watch the polictical coverage on the TV networks,” he says. Now, everyone can watch a developing story or scandal in real time. So Davis asks clients to notice how they are responding as they track this torrent of information. “Is it causing you to tense up?” he asks. “Lose sleep?” Clients also report irritability and constant worry–not just about the election, but everything. Right now, the constant urgency and concern of news and social media has such a marked effect on clients, that Davis has moved away from recommending that they balance their use. Instead, he has them do a complete detox.

“Channel that energy into positives instead of arguing with people,” he urges clients. Rather than trying to convince others of their viewpoint, they could be helping people register to vote or get to the polls on Election Day. Davis also encourages clients to find hobbies and outlets that have nothing to do with politics or current events.

On a deeper level, he finds that clients are struggling to accept the world as it is. They may have believed that we had grown as a nation and society over the past decade but now may see that things haven’t changed significantly. One way to cope with that reality and find greater peace is to identify ways to help the community, Davis says.

In his own life, Davis’ father, who was an activist in the civil rights era, told him and his siblings that they might have thought things had changed, but they really hadn’t. Black Americans are still engaged in the struggle for racial equality that has been denied them for generations.

That doesn’t mean that clients need to live in fear, Davis says. Living like that only gives power to those who want Black people to be afraid. He urges clients to find a space where they feel like they belong and to be thoughtful about who they invite into their inner world. They may not yet be able to change the world, but they can control elements of their world by removing unsupportive friends or by leaving environments which make them feel triggered or unsafe—such as social groups or toxic work environments.

A number of his clients are very spiritual, Davis adds. They find strength through the Bible, which holds many stories of people who experienced tragedy and injustice but prevailed by relying on faith and their community.

Power and connection amid chaos

Although many of us view the cacophony of the election cycle as something to endure while keeping our sanity in check, ACA member Laura Brackett is encouraging clients to find their personal power in the chaos.

The year 2020 and the years leading up to it have been traumatic in myriad ways, and exploring personal power is a constant component of trauma work, she says. “The beauty of it is that personal power takes countless forms,” says Brackett, the director of community engagement at Change, Inc., in St. Louis. “For some clients, this has meant outward action in the form of voting, protesting and becoming active in the community. For others, it has meant embracing their own emotional reactions and how that is influencing their behavior and empathy toward self and others.”

Often the process involves a combination of both external and internal work, she says. Brackett’s goal is to encourage clients to embrace their personal power without losing sight of how its expression affects others.

“If there is one thing this year has shown us, it’s that we don’t live in a vacuum,” she says. “Our words and actions have real impact on others. I want to help my clients see this interconnectedness and learn how they can best live within it in a way that is compassionate as well as empowered.”

 

****

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

****

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.

ACA legislative briefing tackles racism, police reform and mental health issues

By Laurie Meyers October 20, 2020

The nation is poised at a historic moment in which the American people’s recognition and understanding of the injustices that happen every day in Black and brown communities is at an all-time high, said Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., one of the speakers at the American Counseling Association’s Legislative Briefing on Racism, Police Reform and Mental Health held via Zoom on Wednesday, Oct. 14. He urged legislators, policy makers and advocates to use this awareness to make truly transformational changes to police departments.

Organized by ACA’s Government Affairs and Public Policy department, the briefing consisted of a bipartisan panel of national and local legislators.

ACA CEO Richard Yep opened the session with a statement noting that the association denounces all forms of racism, police brutality, systemic violence and white supremacy. The briefing was offered to ACA’s membership, legislative staff and advocates who are working on bills currently before the 116th Congress, specifically focusing on racism, police reform and mental health.

MSNBC commentator Aisha C. Mills, a longtime political strategist and social impact advisor moderated the briefing. Before turning the discussion over to the first panelist, Brown, she took a moment to acknowledge the pain that was happening in communities all over the country as a result of interactions with police departments.

“It’s fraught—there’s a lot of tension,” Mills said. “One of the conversations that too often gets lost is that law enforcement responds and reacts in a way that is about safety, is about duty to protect communities and is not always able to be flexible and sensitive to the needs of people who are struggling with mental health issues.

“We’re hopeful that through this conversation, we will learn about a variety of solutions that policy makers are thinking about—legislation that can be moved and … that the counseling community will be able to connect with ways that you all can be in better partnership with law enforcement and legislators as we all try to seek solutions together,” she concluded.

The role of mental health in transforming community policing

Mental health professionals play a vital role in the broader public health of our communities, noted Brown. Their expertise must be a key feature in work to combat racism—particularly in police departments.

“The killing of Black Americans at the hands of the police is an epidemic in this country—one that has existed for decades and has gone largely unaddressed,” he continued. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black men and women has highlighted the need to fundamentally transform policing in this country.

“I believe we should start by changing the culture of policing by moving the officers who protect us away from a warrior cop mentality toward their proper goal as community guardians,” Brown emphasized. “We must also recognize and acknowledge that officers are often tasked to respond to certain situations where they don’t necessarily have the proper training.”

Police officers are often unable to properly understand the citizens and communities that they are confronting or engaging with and thus cannot  properly de-escalate or manage a situation, he said.

“Since 2016, nearly a quarter of the people killed by police officers have had a known mental illness,” Brown said.

He believes that calling upon the expertise of mental health professionals is a vital part of preventing such tragedies.

“I believe we can save lives by acting more with compassion and understanding rather than force,” he said. “We can save lives and livelihoods when we stop criminalizing mental illness and addiction by instead providing resources and help to those who need it. We must also provide structural reform in police departments.”

This was the intent of H.R 7120, the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in June.

The George Floyd Act seeks to transform police departments by reducing their militarization by preventing the transfer of military equipment from the U.S. Department of Defense to local police departments, removing bad officers and banning harmful practices such as choke holds and no-knock warrants. It also proposed training for police departments on diversity and cultural sensitivity, including how to end racial, religious and discriminatory profiling.

“We know that this legislation alone won’t be enough,” he said. To establish a more just country, we need to invest in long neglected policies and programs that meet the social needs of communities and address the structural disparities that harm Black and brown families, Brown said.

This month the House passed the Strength in Diversity Act of 2020 (H.R.2639) to address the persistent racial disparities in the education system. Brown authored an amendment to the act that would provide funds to recruit, hire and train more school counselors.

“School counselors play a vital role in students’ success,” he said.

On the other side of the aisle—and the other body of Congress—Jake Hinch, legislative assistant to Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said that the senator had become interested in the intersection of mental health and policing because statistics show that approximately one in 10 police calls and one in four shootings involve someone with a mental illness.

Inhofe believes that one of the ways to address these issues is with S. 1464, the Law Enforcement Training for Mental Health Crisis Response Act of 2019, which would provide state, local and tribal agencies with federal grant funding for behavioral crisis response training. Inhofe believes that the training would provide knowledge that would assist police officers when responding to calls that include people who are suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol; are possibly suicidal or suffering from mental illness.

A call for counselors to lend their expertise

Charlyn Stanberry, chief of staff for Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., began her portion of the panel by noting that Oct. 14, the date of the event, would have been George Floyd’s 47th birthday.

We are in a period of reckoning when it comes to systemic racism, police reform and mental illness, she said.

Rep. Clarke is the vice-chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over healthcare—including mental health, Stanberry noted. As part of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)—which was specifically tasked by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi with putting together the George Floyd Policing Act—Clarke was involved with the public health aspects of the bill, which included discussions on how public safety in all communities could ultimately be reimagined so that it is just and equitable. In practice, such an effort would require bringing all stakeholders, such as law enforcement, mental health professionals and constituents to the table. One of the ways the CBC sought to ensure that would happen was by including a provision within the bill for providing public safety innovation grants for community-based programs, Stanberry explained. The grants would go toward creating task forces that would examine how policing would fit into the community and contribute to public safety in an equitable way.

“That’s a big part of what we as individuals and counselors need to think about,” she said. “How can you play a role if these grants are brought into the communities and talk about what this new 21st century police, community policing or public safety looks like?”

Hinch said that discussions like the ACA briefing are essential for him and other staff to stay aware of crucial issues. Legislative teams cover a lot of different subject areas and rely upon experts to educate them.

“It’s important for counselors to come to their representatives in Congress to explain what the issues are and what they can do better,” he said, adding that Sen. Inhofe wants to hear from everyone, whether they be Democrat, Republican or Independent.

“It’s vital for the senator that we continue to have these kinds of conversations,” Hinch said.

Stanberry added that although they are entering a lame duck session, the 117th Congress will be in session in January. There will be a lot of hearings that have to do with mental health, and she is officially issuing a call for research and expertise from counselors.

The final speaker was Georgia State Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, the head of the state Republican party and chair of the Senate Law Enforcement Reform Committee, which is looking at police practices and procedures. The committee’s intent is to see if police officers are receiving sufficient training to prepare them to deal with potentially confrontational situations such as crowd control or serving warrants or any incidents in which mental health issues may come into play, Cowsert explained. They’ve only had one meeting, but what the committee found is that throughout the country, police departments seemed to be getting a lot of training in de-escalation. Cowsert said he and the committee believe that the training could be improved upon. They intend to hold a hearing with members of the local mental health community in order to gain insight on how to improve training.

As the briefing ended, Stanberry and Hinch both placed their contact information in the comment boxes and urged the audience to get in contact with them to share ideas, comments and expertise.

*****

Resources

Related reading, from Counseling Today:

 

****

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

****

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.

ACA online event encourages conversation about counselor stressors

By Bethany Bray September 21, 2020

“How can I to continue to hold hope for my clients while I feel like I’m drowning?”

“How can I confront colleagues who commit microaggressions in client sessions?”

“What advice do you have for students whose professors and textbooks do not address multiculturalism?”

These were among the many challenging — and honest — questions raised during “Our Community Gathers: A Conversation With Counselors About Mental Health in 2020,” an online forum the American Counseling Association held Sept. 17 to facilitate professionals connecting with one another and sharing concerns. Much of the discussion from panelists and attendees alike focused not just on the additional stress that counselors and clients have been experiencing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic but also on the trauma, grief and exhaustion raised by recent social turmoil tied to systemic racism in America.

The online event, which was sponsored by the ACA Foundation, drew more than 400 attendees, including ACA members and nonmembers.

“This event is all about you,” said ACA President Sue Pressman as she opened the Zoom session. “Each day it feels like the very fabric of our society is unraveling. The work we do for clients and students is so important, [and] frankly speaking, counselors are needed more now than ever. I could never be more proud to be a counselor. At the same time, counselors are in crisis and in need of support. … Care and compassion for our colleagues is important and can be quite powerful, and this is one of the reasons for this event.”

S. Kent Butler

S. Kent Butler, ACA president-elect, served as the forum’s moderator, while Pressman gave opening and closing remarks. The event panel included several past ACA presidents and leaders from across the counseling profession, including Beverly O’Bryant, Courtland Lee, Gerald Corey, Ebony White, Mark Scholl, Anneliese Singh and Selma Yznaga.

The panelists were open and honest about how they too have been struggling recently. They urged attendees to focus on practicing self-care, taking breaks and staying aware of the body’s signals that one is becoming overwhelmed. They opened the session by talking about the necessity for counselors to seek their own counseling.

White said that counselors are “secret keepers” and noted the importance of processing the pain they carry for others in their own counseling sessions. At the same time, it can be a challenge for Black practitioners and other counselors of color to find a practitioner who looks like them because a majority of counselors are white. This is a barrier that is also shared, of course, by clients of color when they seek counseling.

“Even still in the year 2020, right now, as a Ph.D., LPC [licensed professional counselor], Black counselor who has a [professional] group of people I’m connected to, I’m having trouble finding a Black woman counselor, right now in this moment,” said White, an assistant clinical professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “This continues to be an obstacle, particularly for people of color, and it needs to be addressed.”

It is always a good idea for counselors to seek out therapy, but especially so now, agreed Lee, a professor in the counselor education program at the Washington, D.C., campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “Dealing with this [clients’] intense pain constantly is really going to get to us,” he said.

Lee, a past president of ACA and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, emphasized the importance of resting and only taking on work and tasks that are personally important to individual counselors. He said that was a lesson he learned acutely and personally after his wife, Vivian, passed away suddenly earlier this year.

“What’s not important is sitting in front of a computer all day and having my phone in my hand all the time. Tonight was important to me; that’s why I’m here,” Lee said. “Find what gives you meaning, what’s sacred to you. You’ve got to find ways to take rest.”

White suggested that counselors consider “the bare minimum” amount of time they want to devote to self-care and make sure to hit that mark. For her, that’s 1% of her day. “Dedicate that portion of your day to something that is self-care. Whether that’s for prayer, dancing, drinking wine, whatever it takes,” she said.

Corey and Scholl urged attendees to consider all facets of wellness — physical, social, spiritual, emotional, cognitive, etc. — and focus on areas they find depleted, seeking activities that rejuvenate. For Corey, that includes doing Pilates; for Scholl, it’s enjoying naps that aren’t restricted to “power naps.” Scholl also is intentional about engaging in activities to connect with his Native American heritage, including attending Native gatherings and reading works by Native authors.

“One of the things that I’ve learned is that wellness doesn’t just happen, it takes discipline,” agreed Yznaga. “I have to plan for it, be deliberate. … For anyone who is thinking, ‘I’m not well and I cannot be well,’ yes you can, but you have to work at it.”

Attendees of Our Community Gathers flooded the platform’s chat queue with questions and comments throughout the session. Many posted websites and resources they thought others might find helpful and exchanged email addresses to continue conversations offline.

Panelists stayed online for more than three hours, until 10:30 p.m. Eastern, to answer questions and share ideas with attendees. Judging by the level of engagement the event garnered, counselors found the dialogue sorely needed.

One attendee asked for guidance on how to respond when a client makes a racist statement or uses offensive language in a counseling session. The panelists stressed the importance of responding to clients with honesty in these situations.

“It’s your responsibility to manage that tension in the room,” said White, who noted that counselors are doing a disservice to the client if they let a client’s statement go by without challenging it in session even as another dialogue that disagrees with the client plays silently in their heads.

Confrontation can be a therapeutic tool, White added.

Lee emphasized the term “broaching” in his response and the importance of broaching the subject to help clients un-learn words and perspectives that may have been ingrained in their culture and upbringing.

“Counseling is supposed to be an educative process,” Lee said. “Counselors often skip by teachable moments, but you can’t let them slide by.” When a client expresses a racist view in session, “Broach it and use it as a teachable moment,” he advised.

“We can be authentic and confrontational and still be respectful, even though it’s tough,” agreed Corey, an ACA fellow and professor emeritus of human services and counseling at California State University, Fullerton.

In such an instance, Corey said he would respond to the client by saying, “What I’m hearing you say is X. Let’s talk about it.” Afterward, it would be helpful for the counselor to seek out a mentor or colleague to debrief with and find support, he said.

Several panelists noted that the United States is in the midst of a cultural shift that brings opportunity for the counseling profession.

“Let’s try and take advantage of this moment and show the country what we have to offer, to destigmatize mental health and teach people how we [counselors] can help,” said Yznaga, an associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Lee remarked that he never thought he’d witness Confederate monuments taken down in his lifetime or the professional football team in Washington, D.C., change its name.

“We are at an inflection point that I have never seen,” Lee said. “This is much different than the [civil rights movement of the] 1960s. The ‘60s opened the door and made tremendous progress, but this era … It’s beyond just a teachable moment at this point; it’s an opportunity that we haven’t had before. If counselors are agents of social change and social justice, we need to get out there and fill the learning gap.”

 

*****

Resources

Continue the conversation

ACA will hold a virtual event on racial injustice and policy reform Oct. 14 at 2 p.m. (Eastern). The moderator for the event will be Aisha Mills, CNN and MSNBC political commentator.

Be on the lookout for registration information in ACA’s Member Minute newsletter, or email advocacy@counseling.org to share your interest in attending.

Counseling Today articles on related topics

****

 

Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

 

****

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.

Unmasking White supremacy and racism in the counseling profession

By Patricia Arredondo, Michael D’Andrea and Courtland Lee September 10, 2020

Our country has been roiling through two major pandemics. The first, COVID-19, is still relatively new, and with a vaccine, the incidences of this miserable disease should decrease and diminish over time. In contrast, the pandemic of White racism and White supremacy has long been at the heart of the persistent psychological, emotional and behavioral racial tensions and injustices that we face in the United States. The senseless killing of George Floyd and other Black citizens has raised awareness once again of the violence of White racism and police brutality in many sectors of society.

The National Institute of Mental Health recently published a report indicating that between 17 million and 22 million adults in the United States are in need of professional mental health services each year. It was further determined that only 41% of these individuals receive such services. The fact that a majority of adults in need of mental health services do not receive this important care represents an ongoing health care crisis in our country. And, of course, COVID-19 stressors are only compounding mental health distress.

When researchers focused on the racial disparities linked to this pandemic, those from African, Asian, Latinx and Indigenous backgrounds were found to be substantially overrepresented among those adults not receiving or not having access to mental health care. This finding reflects what supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and many social justice advocates in general are talking about when they point to disparities resulting from systemic racism and White privilege in this country.

Institutional racism in the profession

In 1982, nearly 40 years ago, Derald Wing Sue wrote, “Counseling is the handmaiden of the status quo.” This phrase relates to the ways that many counselor educators, practitioners, supervisors and students are inextricably linked to perpetuating White racism and White supremacy by remaining silent, noncommittal and inactive in the face of so many forms of structural and institutional racism.

Sadly, this situation is still a reality as unintentional and covert forms of racial injustice continue to be manifested in counselor training, research and practice. For example, how prepared are counseling students to work with those who speak English as a second language, those who are recipients under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, families in poverty and so forth? When are counselor training programs requiring community service to link to social justice principles and competencies endorsed by the American Counseling Association? How do counselor training programs prepare students to talk about racism with clients? If counselor educators and counseling programs were to take on these three queries, they would find opportunities to unmask racism and decrease their behavior as a “handmaiden of the status quo.”

Professionals and students alike must commit themselves to move toward bold, courageous and morally grounded actions. We must go beyond our favorite mode of operating, which often involves the overuse of intellectual analysis of these social pathologies. As we critically analyze the mental health impacts of these injustices on our clients’ lives, let us be reminded that Martin Luther King Jr. warned us that an overemphasis on such intellectualization without substantial social justice actions too often results in the paralysis of analysis.

Challenging the counseling status quo

In 1992, Michael D’Andrea, one of the co-authors of this article, wrote a column in Counseling Today (then named The Guidepost) titled “The violence of our silence: Some thoughts about racism, counseling and human development.” In that column, he asserted that if they continued to operate as witnesses and bystanders to various forms of institutional, societal and cultural racism, counseling professionals and students would become guilty of being racists themselves through their silent complicity.

Some progress has been made as a result of a minority of counselor educators, practitioners, supervisors and students taking courageous action to boldly and routinely describe the ways that White supremacy and White racism adversely affect the counseling profession and the racially diverse clients we serve. However, it is apparent that much more needs to be done in these areas. Today, there are education and training programs guiding professionals in moving away from bystander behavior and toward action. The #EquityFlattensTheCurve initiative is offering a Bystander Anti-Racism Project.

Identifying areas of urgency in the counseling profession is also part of unmasking racism. Just take note of the contemporary counseling profession. In doing so, you are likely to see the following: counselor educators, graduate students, supervisors in counseling centers, textbook authors, the theories studied, the research methodology applied in studies, CACREP site visitors, and the leadership in ACA, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision and other professional associations all seeming to have a homogeneous identity.

Little has substantially changed over the past 50 years. A majority of White counseling students continues to be taught by a majority of White professors. Multicultural counseling is still a one-semester course. Theories of counseling, career development and human development are Eurocentric in nature and dated. Furthermore, counseling research has not advanced knowledge about racism, White supremacy and the well-being of people of color. Samples of convenience continue to be normative, with many research participants coming from White, Western European, English-speaking and often Christian backgrounds.

All of this leads us to assert that the counseling profession has stagnated. This perpetuation of persistent Eurocentric conformity will soon be irrelevant and contribute to greater inequities in the preparation of counselors and the delivery of mental health care. This professional irrelevance will occur as a result of the unprecedented demographic transformation occurring in our nation. As one example, in 2013, for the first time, the percentage of Latinx high school graduates going on to college was higher than that of any other group, as reported by the Hispanic Research Center, and this representation in colleges continues. How many counselors are aware of this demographic shift?

Moving to action: Applying the MCCs 

In 2003, the ACA Governing Council approved the Multicultural Counseling Competencies (MCC), originally published in 1992 by Derald Wing Sue, Patricia Arredondo (one of the co-authors of this article) and Roderick McDavis. The awareness, knowledge and skills paradigm remains as vital today as it was in 1992 when the MCC were published and in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed. The MCC, the subsequent document on operationalization of the competencies that promotes intersecting identities in sociohistorical contexts (1996), and the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (2015) remain anchors to lean on during these times for needed change, increased awareness, more expansive knowledge and bold actions in the counseling profession. The 1992 competencies addressing racism are cited here for further application.

  • Culturally competent counselors possess knowledge and understand about how oppression, racism, discrimination and stereotyping affect them personally and in their work. This allows them to acknowledge their own racist attitudes, beliefs and feelings. Although this standard applies to all groups, for White counselors it may mean that they understand how they may have directly or indirectly benefited from individual, institutional and cultural racism.
  • Culturally competent counselors are constantly seeking to understand themselves as racial-cultural beings and actively strive to develop a nonracist identity.
  • Culturally competent counselors are knowledgeable of sociopolitical influences that impinge upon the life of racial and ethnic minorities. Immigration issues, poverty, racism, stereotyping and powerlessness all leave major scars that may influence the counseling process.
  • Culturally competent counselors become actively involved with [ethnic/racial] minority individuals outside the counseling setting (via community events, social and political functions, celebrations, friendships, neighborhood groups and so forth) so that their perspective of minorities is more than an academic or helping exercise.
  • Culturally competent counselors strive to eliminate biases, prejudices and discriminatory practices. They should be cognizant of clients’ sociopolitical contexts when conducting evaluations and providing interventions. They also continually attempt to develop greater sensitivity to issues of oppression, sexism and racism especially as they affect their clients’ lives.

Racial reckoning: If not now, when?

The country has entered a period of racial reckoning. New incidents of racism and anti-Black behavior are reported on a daily basis on city streets, on college campuses and in stores. The challenge to not be bystanders persists, and as counselors committed to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion, we must be activists and advocates for social justice. We must rise to the task of unmasking White supremacy and White racism in both our professional training and practice as professional counselors.

We need to ask ourselves, if not now, when will we take these actions? If not us, who will make the changes to have the counseling profession move beyond the “violence of our silence” and the role many educators, supervisors and students play as “handmaidens of the status quo”?

 

****

Patricia Arredondo is a past president of the American Counseling Association and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development and a founding member of Counselors for Social Justice. She partners with organizations to address diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives through the Arredondo Advisory Group. Contact her at parredondo@arredondoadvisorygroup.com.

Michael D’Andrea is an associate professor at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is one of the founders of Counselors for Social Justice. Contact him at michaeldandrea1@gmail.com.

Courtland Lee is a past president of the American Counseling Association and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development. He is a professor in the counselor education program at the Washington, D.C. campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Contact him at clee@thechicagoschool.edu.

****

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.

Encountering and addressing racism as a multiracial counselor

By Michelle Fielder and Lisa Compton August 11, 2020

It was a simple question, “How are you doing?” that started us on a path of discovery. I (Lisa) wanted to check in with Michelle, my teaching assistant, after racial tensions consumed the news. George Floyd had just been killed, and the media were focused on his death, the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, and the outcry for justice for the African American community.

Michelle was initially numb, unsure of how to articulate the different thoughts and feelings the recent events had triggered for her. I could tell she needed a break from our usual academic work, so I assigned a reflective activity to give her space for introspection.

****

The events brought to my (Michelle’s) mind a comment that actor Will Smith had previously made on a late-night television show: “Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.”

As my ideas began to crystallize, Lisa and I began to share our perspectives on the sobering current events. The result was a rich dialogue between us — raw, authentic and refreshingly open.

What follows is an excerpt from our discussion. We hope that it will stimulate other discussions and encourage counselors to not fear engaging in dialogue about race. We believe that such open communication will help us to better understand one another and the reality of systemic issues, to identify our blind spots and areas for growth, to improve our care for clients and to move our profession forward.

Racism at first glance

Lisa: Michelle, you told me how triggering the recent acts of racism in America and subsequent protests have been for you. Could you share some of your background?

Michelle: I was born to an African American father and a Japanese mother around the civil unrest and well-publicized riots of 1968. The United States was embroiled in an unpopular war in Vietnam, and racial tensions at home were an additional black eye on our status as a world leader. It is sobering to consider that the institutionalized racism which led to the widespread violence and destruction of many cities, including Washington, Chicago and Baltimore, has not been eliminated over my lifetime.

My first understanding of racism occurred when I was in the first grade. My mother would meet me after school each day to walk the mile or so back to our house. One day, a white pickup truck pulled alongside us, and two Caucasian men started yelling racial epithets and throwing beer bottles at us. My mother grabbed me and ran into a nearby park where they could not follow in their vehicle.

My mother reported the incident to the police, but it was not investigated, and the matter was dropped. It was not until several years later that I understood what transpired that day and the reality that the very notion of my existence was abhorrent to someone simply based on how I looked.

The path to becoming a counselor

Lisa: That must have been a terrifying experience for you. What impact did your childhood have on your career path as a professional counselor?

Michelle: I became driven to prove my value and worth to society through academic and athletic achievement. When it came time to apply to college, I wanted to mark the “other” box because, back then, “multiracial” was not an option.

My mother surprisingly challenged my decision: “Michelle, whether you like it or not, the world is going to look at the color of your skin and decide that you’re African American. Why not show them you are also kind, driven, intelligent and talented? It doesn’t have to be either-or.”

My mother’s advice empowered me to look beyond my neighborhood and the typical path of my peers, which was community college or service and retail jobs. I applied to the United States Naval Academy and was accepted into the 10th class that allowed women. As a midshipman, it was not lost on me that there were few black or brown faces, and I was often reminded that there were 20 other applicants for everyone who was accepted, so I had to make my presence count.

I found my follow-on experience in the Marine Corps to be a great example of inclusion, as we all worked together toward a common mission. There were not black, white, brown or yellow Marines — we were all “green.” As an intelligence officer, I became adept at understanding the human nature of our enemies and advising appropriate responses to conflict. This intuitiveness and desire to bring healing to suffering led me straight to my next career as a professional counselor.

Experiencing racism with clients

Lisa: Have you experienced racism in your interactions with clients and, if so, how have you managed it?

Michelle: Depending on how I wear my hair, it has apparently been difficult for others to determine my race. Over my lifetime, I have been mistaken for Filipino, Puerto Rican, Thai/Burmese, South Korean and Samoan.

As a licensed professional counselor, I have had clients decline to meet with me because I was not pale enough for their liking or not dark enough “to understand their experience.” Several clients have made racially disparaging comments about African Americans or Asian groups in my presence because they were unaware of my multiracial background. One Caucasian client made the flip comment, “She [a Hispanic friend] is so stupid. What did she expect dating a Black guy? They’re all dogs and can’t keep a job!”

Those comments were spoken so casually that it is not hard to imagine that worse was being said in other settings. It is a sad reminder that racial prejudice and stereotyping are still at the forefront of some people’s minds. Sad because such views prevent the speaker from seeing the potential good aspects of another race and benefiting from their culture. Sad because such divisiveness prevents unity that could make us stronger as neighbors, co-workers or fellow journeyers on this path through life. My identity is not the “little mongrel” girl who had to hide in a park, nor are those individuals being described the sum of those demeaning or devaluing statements. We can and need to do better.

Early in my career, I had a Caucasian client tell me he hated “Black people.” I was quite surprised, and it must have shown on my face because he immediately added, “But you’re all right. You’re not like the other ones I’ve met.”

As you can imagine, I was angry at his audacity and saddened by his views, but I knew based on where he was in treatment that it was not the time to get into a heated debate about his racial beliefs. However, I realized that his sharing of those ideas with me indicated that he felt safe to do so in my presence and that I had been entrusted with a variable that I had not known about him previously. While I was offended by his remark, I remember thinking, “Stay focused on the client. This is not about me; it’s about the client.”

I am going to be judged, fairly and unfairly, but I choose to live in a manner to be a credit to my race rather than a detractor. I also recognize that every instance of racism is a learning opportunity — for me to better understand how the other person came to their beliefs and for clients to perhaps expand their views to see past a person’s appearance to their character. We are all a product of our genetics, nurturing, environment and experience. A client’s life may have taught them to hate, but if we, as counselors, do not believe in the potential for people to change and grow, we are in the wrong profession.

Racism can come in many forms. It can be overt or covert, generational or situational, and institutional or individual. As counselors, we need to be prepared for however it manifests and to recognize that some people are not even aware of how hurtful their beliefs are until they are uttered out loud and someone checks them on it. When working with clients, I have come to recognize that racism is often based on fear, and the more information the client is willing to learn about the object of their fear, the less impact it has. Working with a client’s racist remarks takes the same unconditional positive regard that you would give any client, and it is an opportunity to model healthy self-concept and emotional regulation.

So, take the client I mentioned previously who stated that he hated Black people. For this interview, I will call him “John.” When John made that statement, I did not react to his remarks, but I was able to work with him later in therapy surrounding some of his distorted schemas when he was ready. The following are some practical suggestions for working with clients who show signs of racism:

1) It’s not about you. (Do not personalize clients’ racist remarks).

Me: “It sounds like there are anger and pain behind that statement. Tell me about the Black people you’ve previously met.”

John: “Well, they make me sick. They’re lazy. They lie around doing drugs and collecting a welfare check while I bust my butt working all the time.”

2) Gently challenge any overgeneralizations.

Me: “Who are ‘they’? Are you talking about specific people you know?”

John: “No, you know what I mean. Just Black people.”

Me: “I know some Black people, but they don’t do drugs and they have jobs.”

John: “I know they’re not all like that. Like I said, you’re all right because I know you work for a living.”

Me: “So you don’t hate all Black people, just the Black people who are uneducated or unemployed?”

John: “Yeah, I guess.”

3) Help clients clarify their feelings.

Me: “Some might take your response as jealousy rather than hatred. You work hard, but they get by without working. Would you consider jealousy to be a better word?”

John: “No! I’m not jealous of those Black people. Shoot, I’m way better than them. I’m financially secure with a good job and a house. There’s nothing to be jealous of.”

Me: “You do work hard and have a lot going for you. So, why are you comparing yourself to them?”

John: “I’m not! They’re a drain on society. They could be doing as well as I am if they would just apply themselves.”

Me: “So, help me understand. If there is no comparison in your eyes, why do you even care?”

John: “Because my taxpayer dollars are going to finance their lifestyle.”

Me: “Actually, your and my tax dollars are going to finance a lot of things, like the military, Social Security and the national debt. Do you hate them too?”

John: “No, that’s just stupid. Of course I don’t hate the military. They’re necessary for our nation’s defense. It’s just our precious resources should only be used on important things that benefit all of society.”

Me: “If hate is too strong, or not the right word, what is a better way to describe how you feel?”

John: “I guess you could say I’m frustrated.”

4) Help clients clarify their beliefs.

Me: “OK, you are frustrated with some uneducated or unemployed Black people.”

John: “Yeah, because they’re on welfare.”

Me: “I also know a lot of people on welfare — White, Black, Hispanic, etc. Are you frustrated with them as well?”

John [staring at me]: “I know what you’re doing. No, I’m not frustrated with all of them. You are just twisting things around.”

5) Follow up with psychoeducation.

Me: “I’m just trying to understand what you believe and why you believe it. Words matter, and I hope you can see there is a big difference between ‘I hate Black people’ and ‘I’m frustrated with what I believe is the misuse of taxpayer money.’

Some people are where they are due to a lack of nurturing, growing up in an unsafe environment or even traumatic experiences. But when you are hindered by those things, which are outside of your control, and the color of your skin habitually prevents others from seeing you as a person or recognizing your worth, it is hard to have hope of living any other way.

We all have biases — because of our genetics, nurturing, environment and experiences — that can incite our emotions and distort our thinking. Racism occurs when we start believing those distortions about an entire group of people without considering individual differences. It may be easy to blame an entire group of people in a situation, but it is much more helpful to honestly examine why we feel the way we do and, when in our power, to do something about it.

****

Having an open conversation about race with a client is possible, but counselors must consider the client’s readiness and make sure the discussion is integral to the context of the client’s presenting issue. The counseling office is not a bully pulpit, nor is it a place for counselors to get their own emotional needs met. However, when a client is ready and open to discuss the subject, counselors should be ready to “go there” while maintaining empathy and without allowing countertransference to interfere with their effectiveness.

Experiencing racism within the profession

Lisa: Thank you for sharing your experiences and such practical suggestions for working with clients. I think we are often caught off guard by comments made during sessions, and it is very helpful to think ahead of time about what to do in those situations. In addition to interactions with clients, have you experienced racism within our professional field?

Michelle: Sure. I once had a colleague tell me that she was no longer going to take Medicaid clients because they were “all Black, unemployed and unmarried with a gang of kids.” Another colleague commented that the Black clients brought their kids in for testing for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder “just so they can get a check.” These were seasoned professionals who had been seeing clients for many years.

Lisa: How disappointing to hear such comments from your peers. As a Caucasian, I have noticed that many of my White colleagues feel content in knowing that they do not personally hold prejudiced feelings against others. However, I realize that a lack of personal hate does not do enough to confront systemic racism. What can we do as a profession to make progress and move forward in this area?

Michelle: The first thing is to stop apologizing. I cannot speak for all people of color, but we are not looking for apologies. Now, let me caveat that: I always advise my clients to “own what’s yours.” If you personally contributed in any way to the oppression of a person of color, then apologize to that person. Otherwise, a blanket apology often indicates that someone does not understand the nature of institutional racism.

Secondly, ask, listen, learn and act. We will never solve the problem if we do not understand the nature of the problem. Ask people of color about their experiences. You may be surprised how many instances of racism — such as inappropriate comments or jokes in the workplace — individuals have had to push aside or ignore. Question formal processes at work that have been in place for a long time because “that’s the way we’ve always done things” attitudes can indicate tacit approval of an oppressive infrastructure (e.g., not taking Medicaid clients because it does not pay as well as commercial insurance).

Listen to the conversations being held when people of color are not in the room. They may be an indication of an undercurrent of racism (e.g., gossip or complaining regarding people of color) that needs to be exposed.

Learn by reading books, listening to podcasts or subscribing to YouTube channels by people of color.

Act by speaking up when you hear racist comments or when you see acts of discrimination. Be willing to get involved with faith organizations, social justice movements and causes of people of color (e.g., speaking at a city council meeting about trauma-informed care for African American neighborhoods or joining a peaceful march). Lastly, help affect the future of the counseling profession. Become a supervisor and share the wisdom you learn about institutional racism and the need to work with people of color to fix the system.

Thirdly, for supervisors, it is important to recognize that our supervisees are coming from different backgrounds and are at different levels of multicultural competence. I hold an initial interview with my supervisees to get a sense of their goals, strengths and weaknesses. Included in this interview is a question about their ethnicity, nurturing, environment and experience as it pertains to working with race and other marginalized groups. The answer is usually, “I had a multicultural awareness class as part of my master’s degree.” I take that to mean that they do not know what they do not know, so the onus is then on the supervisor to prepare counselors-in-training in this area of competency.

I take a developmental approach with supervision and challenge supervisees to take multicultural considerations into account as they approach each client and their diagnosis. Our discussions also include case studies tailored to increase their ability to recognize their own biases and blind spots.

These past weeks, with all of the media coverage of the racial unrest, have offered a rich environment for my supervisees to learn about institutional racism and to ask questions about social justice for their clients. It is not just a multicultural issue but also an ethical one. So, I try to ensure that my supervisees are not only comfortable working with people of diverse backgrounds but also willing to admit their own areas of cultural ignorance and work toward increasing their knowledge.

Connecting multicultural competency and trauma-informed care

Lisa: Is there any other area where we can look for change?

Michelle: All professional counseling organizations have submitted statements of support to the current nonviolent protests and offered ways to help support the victims of racial trauma. This is a great start to addressing the issue. However, if we want to make a difference, we need to reevaluate the profession’s approach to multicultural and trauma-informed education because they go hand in hand.

Most counseling programs have one mandatory multicultural class and may offer some trauma electives. However, multicultural competency should be infused throughout the program, and trauma-informed care should be a required part of every curriculum. Recognizing that the design of the master’s programs is toward clinical competency as determined by face-to-face hours, how well do practicum and internships expose and evaluate multicultural and trauma care competencies? Your new book, Preparing for Trauma Work in Clinical Mental Health, addresses concepts such as historical trauma, disenfranchised grief, advocacy and ethnic identity strength and would really fill this curriculum void.

For provisional and licensed counselors, in the same way that ethics continuing education is required every year, multicultural and trauma refresher training should be required on an annual basis to ensure that counselors are maintaining the best practices. To obtain licensure, counselors should demonstrate competency in working with diverse clients and various trauma backgrounds. In addition, all professional counselors should take an active role in advocacy work on behalf of their clients and in their communities.

Just as the color of my skin is going to be subconsciously noted by the people I meet, similar experiences are happening to our clients of color, most of whom have lived with some form of oppression during their lifetime. Counselors need to be prepared to approach multicultural considerations in trauma-informed care to understand how to appropriately establish strong therapeutic alliances with clients and enhance safety and stabilization. This is a herald’s call for counselors to change the way we approach the effects of institutionalized racism if we truly want to be agents of change.

 

****

Michelle Fielder is a licensed professional counselor and approved clinical supervisor in private practice. She is also a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at Regent University. Contact her at michfi3@mail.regent.edu.

Lisa Compton is a certified trauma treatment specialist and full-time faculty at Regent University. Contact her at lisacom@regent.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, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

****

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.