Tag Archives: self care

Nonprofit News: Self-care for caregivers

By “Doc Warren” Corson III March 20, 2017

The field of counseling is one that offers great rewards. We get to see people go from their worst to their best. We get to be a part of the change that our clients are seeking.

Even so, the hours and hours we spend listening to the pain of others can take its toll. That raises an important question: While you invest so much in “saving” others, are you neglecting yourself? If so, you, like many of us in this profession, could be in danger of compassion fatigue or burnout.


Understanding compassion fatigue and burnout

Working as a counselor can weigh on you. You may find that you are having more difficulty being empathic in situations in which it once came naturally to you.

And although this compassion fatigue may start at your job, it can bleed over into your most intimate relationships. You may even find yourself feeling that you cannot possibly give anything else emotionally to others.

Among the signs of compassion fatigue are:

  • Excessive blaming
  • Bottled-up emotions
  • Isolating from others
  • Substance abuse
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Poor self-care
  • Legal problems
  • Apathy
  • Feeling mentally and physically tired
  • Feeling preoccupied
  • Living in denial about problems
  • Difficulty concentrating

Burnout is closely related to compassion fatigue, but in extreme cases it can have more serious impacts on a person’s physical and mental health. Some of the signs of burnout include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • A quick trigger to feel angry or suspicious
  • Susceptibility to illness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Burnout does not just happen overnight. Instead, there are stages and patterns that can help you to identify the issues and assist you in addressing them. Although having a great deal of enthusiasm for a project is considered positive and can often lead to a wealth of progress, look for signs of stagnation, frustration or apathy that may follow. Each is a sign of trouble.

Stages of burnout:

  • Enthusiasm
  • Stagnation
  • Frustration
  • Apathy



Prevention is vital if one wants to keep working at optimum levels. Look at the list of practical ways to find balance, recharge and stay focused. Be prepared to think outside of “normal therapist behaviors” and identify those things that help you remain focused and energetic. Consider hobbies and activities that you once enjoyed but perhaps stepped away from because of graduate studies or other life-related obstacles. Embrace what you once enjoyed, especially those things that are far removed from the helping professions.

As for me, I re-embraced classic car restoration and time spent in nature, while adding classic farm tractor collecting (among other hobbies). So, go see that play or musical, get your hands dirty, listen to loud music or take part in other events. You cannot stay “on” all the time and still be effective as a counselor.

Here are some tips on prevention of compassion fatigue and burnout for helping professionals:

  • Get educated on signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout
  • Practice self-care
  • Set emotional boundaries
  • Engage in outside hobbies
  • Cultivate healthy friendships outside of work
  • Keep a journal
  • Boost your resiliency
  • Use positive coping strategies
  • Identify workplace strategies
  • Seek personal therapy

We are involved in one of the most emotionally draining professions that exist. You are here because you want to help people make a change and sustain that change. So give yourself the ongoing maintenance that your body and mind require. Find the answer that works best for you and follow through. We have too many people depending on us. We owe it to them, but, most importantly, we owe it to ourselves. Let’s do this.




Dr. Warren Corson III

“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). Contact him at docwarren@docwarren.org. Additional resources related to nonprofit design, documentation and related information can be found at docwarren.org/supervisionservices/resourcesforclinicians.html.






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 Counseling Connoisseur: Break away: Five vacation hacks for the responsible counselor

By Cheryl Fisher September 5, 2016

The alarm was relentless, even with several taps on the snooze button. I finally surrendered to the morning and rolled out of bed, practically tumbling over my 65-pound goldendoodle, Max, who was snoring below my feet.

With one eye open, I made my way to the shower and blasted the scalding droplets over my sleepy body, allowing the water to wash away the slumber. Eventually, I resurrected to a new day.

Walking to my bedroom, I threw on the work attire I had set out the evening prior and towel dried my hair, desperately trying to hide the impending gray that was peeking through faded highlights. I painted on my face, twisted up my hair and headed to the kitchen, where I grabbed my oatmeal packet and a glass of juice.

Perusing my day planner (yes, I still use the old-school paper kind), I reflected on the day ahead. It would include seeing eight clients, submitting end-of-the-month claims, contacting an insurance company regarding a denial, returning phone calls from prospective clients and scheduling my own dental appointment. Glancing over the client list, I noted that my last two appointments were with couples that were still refining their communication from competitive yelling matches to accusatory squabbling.

Sigh. By this point, I felt horribly exhausted — and it was only 6:30 a.m.!

I texted my husband, “I am working till 8 tonight. Love you.”

“I love you too!” I heard from the other room. He was still home?

I walked into the other room, kissed the dogs and rubbed my husband behind the ears. Perhaps coincidentally, I suddenly realized it was time for a vacation.


Take a break

As counselors, we spend hours listening with great attentiveness to the pain and suffering of others. I see approximately 25 clients per week. That is 25 hours of meetings with individuals who are hurting and hoping to discover an elixir to their pain in our therapeutic work together. It is, by far, the most rewarding (and exhausting) vocation I have had the privilege of engaging in.

With that privilege comes great responsibility, which includes accessibility. Technology allows clients to seek immediate connection to their counselors via text, instant messaging and email. Counselors are now (theoretically) accessible 24/7.

I remember receiving a text message from a client at 11:30 p.m. I am normally snoring at that time, but this particular night, I was up reading a book when the message buzzed through. The client was texting me her suicide note.

Of course I acted on it by calling the police on my landline and hanging on the business phone with the client until she was found and taken to the hospital. But the magnitude of responsibility around receiving that message haunted me for days. What if I had been asleep when it came through?

The point is that we do “people work” that often involves crisis intervention related to life-and-death issues. Our jobs, while incredibly rewarding, are stressful, so we need to take breaks to retain some form of homeostasis in our lives.


Strike a balance

Unlike many other career paths, counselors must navigate the needs of their clients when planning vacations. There are ethical and legal issues to consider when taking a hiatus from a clinical practice. Standard A.12. of the ACA Code of Ethics mandates that counselors do not abandon or neglect clients and instead make “appropriate arrangements for the continuation of treatment, when necessary, during interruptions such as vacations, illness, and following termination.”

Furthermore, counselors may be held legally liable should something happen to a client in the counselor’s absence if no backup care was provided. Therefore, there must be a balance between self-care and client care.


Tips for a smooth (and responsible) getaway

Here are five quick tips for planning that much-deserved vacation while still attending to your practice.

1) Alert your clients of your pending absence in advance and discuss backup plans with them. My daughter (who lives out of state) requested that I spend a month with her following the birth of my grandson. Although I longed to spend as much time as possible with them, I also was concerned about the needs of my clients. I discussed this with my daughter (and son-in-law), and we decided on a three-week visit instead (to be evaluated and changed as needed). I then began informing my clients about my pending absence several months prior to the delivery. Together we discussed strategies for coping and created scenarios for possible relapse that allowed for preventative measures. Finally, we discussed using a backup counselor for added support.

2) Arrange for a backup counselor. I have made arrangements with several of my colleagues to trade off services when vacations arise. Although my clients have never activated this backup system, I have found that it is a great comfort to them to have it in place.

3) Set a clear away message on your phone and email settings that provide the telephone numbers for the Warm Line, Hot Line and emergency backup counselor. Not all clients will require a session with a backup counselor, but a brief interlude with a Warm Line professional can alleviate their nervous jitters in your absence.

4) Unplug. This is probably one of the most challenging aspects of going on vacation as a counselor today. In the olden days — you know, in the age of landlines — clients left messages that were addressed when the counselor returned to the office. But technology provides the impression of total accessibility, even when you are on vacation. For example, while I was in Scotland, I had a client continually attempt to email and call me. Despite my months of preparation with her and my detailed away message that provided phone numbers for additional support, she was relentless in her pursuit. Finally, I returned her call, directed her to a support in my absence and turned off my phone.

5) Contact the ACA Risk Management Helpline for additional guidance. Invariably, there are going to be times when you must leave unexpectedly and are not able to provide your clients with weeks of preparation. The Risk Management Helpline, sponsored by the American Counseling Association, can provide guidance to ACA members concerning standards of practice that will best support the safety and well-being of your clients … and the enjoyment of your much-needed and deserved downtime. See counseling.org/knowledge-center/ethics for more information.



As counselors, it is imperative that we take time for vacation, unplug from our clients and reconnect with ourselves, our family members and friends, and that which is sacred in our lives. In doing so, we not only replenish our own reserves (which allows us to remain available to our clients over the long term), but also provide our clients and colleagues with a model of good self-care.

On that note, I think I will pack up my Jeep and head to the beach for a few days of sun, sand and solitude!

Till next month …


Surf fishing before sunrise in the Outer Banks, North Carolina

Outer Banks, North Carolina/Photo via unspash.com





Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically-Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at cy.fisher@verizon.net.








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.

Counselor addresses self-care, guilt in the wake of Orlando shooting

By Samuel Sanabria July 5, 2016

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” — Fred Rogers


It was 9:53 a.m. on Sunday, June 12, when I received a text from my husband regarding the mass shooting at Pulse, an Orlando, Florida, nightclub catering mainly to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals.

I was wrapping up the week at a sex education and counseling conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I was sitting in our closing plenary session. It had been a week of personal empowerment. I had been absorbed by the many workshops on sexual inclusivity, especially regarding the LGBT community. I was surrounded by like-minded professionals who were advocating for change in our society’s attitudes toward sexual minorities. My evenings were spent enjoying time with my husband and 7-year-old daughter, who had come with me to Puerto Rico to enjoy the beach and pool at the conference hotel. It was a nice way to kick off the summer with my family.

As I sat in the final session, I looked down at the text and read the headline of the link my husband had sent me, “Orlando Shooting: 50 People Killed.” Reading further, I learned the shooting had taken place at Pulse, which is just a few miles from our home. I had enjoyed visiting the nightclub with my husband and friends on numerous occasions.

After reading the article again, my thoughts quickly turned to my immediate friends who might have been at Pulse when the shooting occurred. I began to worry. I could no longer focus on the session and stepped outside to begin texting friends to see if they were OK. Thankfully, my friends were safe, but they were as distraught as I was and were anxiously going through their own lists of friends. Social media was filled with news of the shooting. Some posts provided reassurances of loved ones’ safety. But, heart-wrenchingly, other posts were from people seeking information about family and friends who were still missing.

As we traveled back home the next day and as the names and faces of the victims were gradually released in the media, I was struck by how many young people of color were killed on what was “Latin Night” at the nightclub. As a gay Latino man who had visited Pulse, I felt a strong connection to the victims and their families. I didn’t talk much during our flight back to Orlando. I spent the time turned inward, trying to make sense of what had happened and thinking about what my city was going through. I was distressed by my roiling emotions and felt trapped by the logistics of travel. I couldn’t wait to do something to help the victims and their families.

After arriving home, I visited The Center, Orlando’s LGBT community center, to volunteer crisis counseling and Spanish translation services. The common area of The Center was a beehive of activity as volunteers welcomed visitors, organized donations, worked crisis phone lines and did their best to help people affected by the shooting. Local individuals, organizations and

Lucia Lassiter-Sanabria, the author's 7 year-old daughter, at a memorial site set up recently at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando. "I had been talking to Lucia about the [Pulse] shooting and wanted to show the enormous amount of love and support that was given.  It was a tender moment watching her walk around and look at the pictures of the victims and reading some of the signs of love," says Sanabria.

Lucia Lassiter-Sanabria, the author’s 7 year-old daughter, at a memorial site set up recently at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando. “I had been talking to Lucia about the [Pulse] shooting and wanted to show the enormous amount of love and support that was given. It was a tender moment watching her walk around, look at the pictures of the victims and read some of the signs of love,” says Sanabria.

businesses had donated food, water, services and gifts, while others were providing safe spaces for anyone who needed support. People from all over the country and the world were donating money to support the survivors and victims’ families. And, of course, professional counselors from around the state had stepped up to provide grief and crisis counseling.

Witnessing all of this activity and the many people who were traumatized or retraumatized by the news and stories of the shooting, I felt the magnitude of what this tragedy had done, not only to the victims at Pulse but to our entire community. It was at this point, standing there witnessing the outpouring of grief and anger, that I felt anxious, insignificant and powerless. I immediately felt an internal pressure to do as much as I could to help.

Throughout the week, I met with and provided support for survivors of the shooting; debriefed with my students in each of my summer classes; took my daughter and a couple of her friends to the LGBT center with sympathy cards I had helped them create; attended vigils; donated money; and locked arms with other LGBT activists and allies to block the well-known hate group, Westboro Baptist Church, from disrupting the funeral of one of the victims.

Despite this involvement, I still felt anxious, insignificant and powerless. These feelings stubbornly remained in the face of so much need. As my anxiety grew, I began losing sleep, had difficulty concentrating and was irritable. The worst part was my need to reenact, in my imagination, some of the stories I had heard on the news and from the survivors I had spoken with. These feelings were exacerbated by the litany of anti-gay and pro-gun political messages being expressed by the talking heads on various media outlets.

I realized I was experiencing burnout as a result of vicarious trauma and needed to make some immediate changes, starting with recognizing the importance of self-care.


Counselor self-care

Most counselors are familiar with the importance of self-care. Many of us spend hours each day listening to difficult stories, and for those who work in crisis care, these stories can be exceedingly tragic. Providing empathy for our clients is the hallmark of our profession, but it is also a main contributor to compassion fatigue. Counselors often become so involved in their work that they do not take adequate time to check in with how that work is affecting them physically and emotionally.

It is important that counselors remain alert to the warning signs of compassion fatigue. Physiological symptoms may include physical exhaustion, headaches, insomnia and increased susceptibility to illness. Emotional symptoms include anger, irritability, gradual disassociation, depression and difficulty concentrating. Ignoring these warning signs can lead to counselor impairment, which puts clients at risk for harm.

Red sky with rainbowIt is a counselor’s ethical and professional responsibility to work toward reducing compassion fatigue. This does not mean fighting against these feelings, but rather working through them, both before and after meeting with clients. Giving oneself permission to break for self-care can also help reduce compassion fatigue. This can be as simple as pausing for a deep breath and identifying one’s physical and emotional responses throughout the day. It can also be vital to create some mental space between oneself and the work, perhaps by spending quality time with family and close friends.

Taking these steps may be challenging for some, especially when working with a community impacted by a tragic event. Luckily, my close friend and colleague has a background in crisis work and, knowing the importance of self-care, reached out to me daily with reminders to take breaks and meditate on my physiological and emotional responses.

Once I recognized the symptoms of compassion fatigue within myself, I made sure to spend quality time with my family and to show appreciation for them. These were meaningful experiences that helped me re-center myself.

Also, at my friend’s suggestion, and for the first time in my professional life, I attended a support group for counselors. I appreciated being able to share how this tragedy had affected me in a room of supportive individuals who were going through the same experience. This group outlet was important and I noticed a reduction in my level of anxiety. However, there was still something that kept me from moving forward. It wasn’t until I heard another counselor share her experience with guilt for not doing enough that something clicked inside me.


Recognizing and addressing guilt

Another common experience among crisis counselors is the feeling of empathy guilt and survivor’s guilt.

Empathy guilt is a reaction to someone’s pain or distress that leads to the belief that one should try to work toward relieving those feelings. This can also lead to the feeling that one is not doing enough to help others relieve their pain. Survivor’s guilt can occur with someone who has survived a traumatic event or, in the case of counselors, works directly with victims impacted by a traumatic event. The symptoms of empathy guilt and survivor’s guilt include feeling regret, isolation, helplessness and, in serious cases, suicidal ideation.

One of the best ways to work through guilt is to share the experience with others and to recognize that this is a common emotion that, if properly managed, can be used to further empathize with the experiences of our clients. During the counselor support group, I was able to share my feelings of guilt and begin the acceptance process. I realized that it was not necessary to fully rid myself of these feelings of guilt; instead, I could use them to gain better insight into my internal emotional processes.

I came to understand that there was no amount of hours I could volunteer, marches I could walk, sympathy cards I could help my daughter create or money I could donate that would change what had happened to the victims of the shooting. I realized that “never enough” was good enough. This realization became a central part of my self-forgiveness and healing.


Conclusion: Never enough is good enough

This tragedy has shattered lives. It will take years to understand why this happened, if we ever can. The greater Orlando community has been galvanized, and I can feel a sense of unity and compassion that is heartening.

Personally, I have come to grasp one of the most important lessons of being a counselor, advocate, ally and humanitarian: Despite our best efforts and whatever time we put in, we will never achieve “enough.” Once I understood this, I felt a profound sense of peace and self-forgiveness. As I write this, the need for caring and supportive counselors in Orlando continues. Fortunately, I am able to volunteer service in a way that doesn’t deplete me or put those seeking my help at risk of harm.

It still breaks my heart to think about the bright lives taken from our community. As I sat with the other crisis workers in our support group, I realized that we had all been affected by this senseless tragedy and that we needed support just like everybody else. We laughed, cried and hugged each other; we respected our own emotional struggles; and we sat in silence to honor the lost lives. Most important, we helped strengthen one another so that we can go back out there and do work that will never be enough.





Samuel Sanabria is a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Florida with more than 15 years of clinical experience. He is an associate professor in the graduate counseling program at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Contact him at ssanabria@rollins.edu.

After Orlando: Helping others, helping ourselves

By Laura R. Shannonhouse June 22, 2016

In the wake of the recent shooting disaster in Orlando, we find ourselves faced with the difficult task of moving forward with purpose and hope, both as individuals and as a people.  While we may not have been directly touched by this event, or we may have been personally immune to such tragedies in our own past, disasters like this one may feel omnipresent and inescapable in today’s media rich culture. This is especially true now, since the nature of this photo-1463797987952-208b34e8e887particular event was incited by hate towards a specific group, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, which has been under a perennial struggle for acceptance.


There are many ways to directly help the victims and their families, but from my perspective as a counselor educator who researches crisis, disasters and cultural issues, I would like to share three thoughts as to how all of us can intentionally focus on the future: helping others, helping ourselves and ensuring that them and me are instead us.


I am so heartened by the outpouring of love for those who were affected and the political resolve for doing what we can to ensure that such tragedies become far more rare. In terms of the literature on disaster response, I would say that we are in the “honeymoon” phase of disaster, characterized by community cohesion and shared resolve. Unfortunately, research shows that this period is only temporary, usually lasting a few weeks, and is followed by disillusionment. Eventually, survivors will realize that there are limits to the assistance available. Those that were injured or lost loved ones will have to go on with rebuilding their lives. The universal calls to action and justice may be met with the reality that institutions often change slowly, if at all. A painful reminder of this can be seen in the heartfelt essay from the mother of one of the Sandy Hook victims, “Orlando, I Am Sorry Our Tragedy Wasn’t Enough to Save Your Loved Ones” (written by Nelba Márquez-Greene, a licensed marriage and family therapist and mother of a child who died in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut). So, for my first thought, I challenge you to maintain your resolve and support through the impending disillusionment.


In the months and years to come, those affected will face anniversaries of the tragedy and trigger events such as missed birthdays. The strongest protection against disillusionment is resilience. If you are in the position to help a survivor or someone affected, challenge yourself to be a point of resilience for that person for as long as you can. That being said, resist the urge to parachute in, and if you feel compelled to respond to someone that you don’t personally know, be sure to do it as part of an organized response effort. Also remember to act within your own scope of care as a friend, counselor or human. For a good article on how to respond, I would suggest Jamie Aten’s recent piece in the Washington Post, “Tips for helping a loved one after a tragedy, from a Christian disaster expert.” And, if you are now calling for political change, don’t stop until that change is realized.


As a helping professional that has worked with trauma survivors and responders, I have seen many times how those not personally affected by crisis may yet still be touched. The literature is full of terms such as vicarious traumatization, secondary traumatic stress (STS), compassion fatigue and burnout. All of these constructs describe how bystanders and responders to disaster can themselves have real physical and emotional reactions. STS can result from witnessing (directly or indirectly) a traumatic event, whereas burnout results from repeated and prolonged exposure to stress. The media will be full of vivid descriptions of the event, and it’s likely [that] continuous coverage will keep us on alert. Daniel Antonius condensed much of the recent literature on this phenomenon after the 2015 San Bernardino shooting in his article, “How the media-related ‘contagion effect’ after terror attacks impacts our mental health.” Consequently, my second thought is to protect yourself from the vicarious traumatization that you may experience from our 24 hour news cycle and practice self-care.


If you are more closely connected to the Orlando event, either because of some prior life experience with trauma or because you closely identify with the targeted group, then I would urge you to be on guard for common stress reactions. The list of possible symptoms is long and includes changes in emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physical and spiritual domains. If several of those listed symptoms look like they apply to you, then do the following:

  • Unplug – turn off the TV and social media
  • Do what normally helps you feel better (e.g. exercise, listen to music, be creative or routine, spend time with friends, etc.). For a longer list, check out the Department of Health and Human Services’ self-help guide, “Dealing with the Effects of Trauma.”
  • Consider pursuing mental health care. As a licensed counselor and trainer of new counselors, I definitely believe in my profession’s power to help those that are struggling.  There is no shame in asking for help, and there are often low-cost resources available in your community.


Since this shooting was, effectively, a hate crime, my final thought is one regarding empathy: live the African concept of ubuntu, or “I am because we are.” The construct of empathy is core to professional counseling (for a three minute visual summary, consider watching Brené Brown on Empathy). In my counseling skills classes, we often talk about “getting in the well” and genuinely connecting with others. Those are good clinical skills, but for those of us that aren’t in Orlando and aren’t directly interacting with someone personally affected by the shooting, it isn’t possible to truly show our empathy. Instead, we can ensure that we hold empathy close as a personal virtue in how we relate to others, especially those different from ourselves in beliefs or worldview. In my travels to Southern Africa on research projects and clinical outreaches, I’ve found that the Bantu word ubuntu truly captures this internalized empathy. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “My humanity is caught up, and inextricably bound up, in yours … A person is a person through other persons …  A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others [and] does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”


In the wake of the recent horrific events in Orlando, I pray that we may all show love for each other, take care of ourselves and remember that I am because we are.




If you are in need of immediate crisis counseling, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.




Laura R. Shannonhouse

Laura R. Shannonhouse

Laura R. Shannonhouse is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), American Counseling Association member and assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Contact her at lshannonhouse@gsu.edu


The serious leisure perspective in mental health counseling

By Rodney B. Dieser, Jacob Christenson and Darcie Davis-Gage June 1, 2016

In his book The Gift of Therapy, Irvin Yalom explains the vital role of learning about a client’s “leisure-time activities,” “hobbies” and “recreation habits,” yet he never defines what leisure is and how it is connected to mental health or mental health counseling. Many other well-known mental health theorists have duplicated this same pattern of highlighting the relationship Branding-Images_Artistbetween leisure and mental health/mental health counseling but not explaining leisure with much precision, depth or breadth.

Historically, Sigmund Freud’s pleasure principle, Erich Fromm’s humanistic psychoanalysis framework, Eric Berne’s transactional analysis structuring of time and social activities and William Glasser’s genetically encoded need for “fun” within control/reality counseling theory have provided a superficial overview of leisure. More recently, Allen Ivey and his colleagues have mentioned the importance of leisure within their framework of developmental counseling and therapy but have never explained or defined leisure. Likewise, Russ Harris and Judith Beck follow this pattern of mentioning, but not explaining, leisure related to acceptance and commitment therapy and behavioral activation within cognitive behavior therapy, respectfully.

So, what is leisure, and how can it be utilized during mental health counseling?

SLP and the optimal leisure lifestyle

Approximately 13 differing theories of leisure exist. The serious leisure perspective (SLP) is one of the more credible theories, with hundreds of studies from more than 30 years of research from diverse researchers throughout the world supporting its theoretical and practical basis.

Robert Stebbins developed SLP in 1982 when he authored a conceptual paper in the Pacific Sociological Review. Since then, he has written 34 books related to SLP, along with hundreds of research articles. Today, as Stebbins has outlined in his more recent books, SLP comprises three main forms of leisure: serious leisure, casual leisure and project-based leisure. (The information about SLP that follows in this section is taken from Stebbins’ most recent book, The Serious Leisure Perspective: An Introduction, which he co-authored with Sam Elkington in 2014, and Serious Leisure: A Perspective for Our Time, which Stebbins wrote in 2007.)

The pursuit and balance of serious leisure, casual leisure and project-based leisure can lead to what Stebbins terms an “optimal leisure lifestyle.” He defines this as the deeply rewarding pursuit during free time of at least one serious leisure activity, supplemented by casual and project-based leisure.

Serious leisure

Serious leisure is defined as the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist or volunteer activity participants find so substantial, interesting and fulfilling that they launch themselves on a leisure career centered on acquiring and expressing special skills, knowledge and experience. The quintessential element is the development of special skills, knowledge and experience — which can take months or even years to develop. For example, it can take years to develop the skills needed to play a musical instrument well enough to become a member of a community orchestra or to track a bird by sound in a birding club.

Serious leisure can be divided into three types: amateur, hobbyist and career volunteer. Amateurs are found in the worlds of art, science, sport and entertainment, where they are inevitably linked in many ways to a professional counterpart, such as tournament bass anglers or members of an amateur community theater. Hobbyists lack the professional ego of amateurs but maintain small publics with similar interests. An example of serious leisure hobbyists are members of small stamp, coin or comic book collection organizations in which local collectors can buy and sell items and have conversations about their shared interest.

Career volunteering, the third type of serious leisure, is exemplified by a person who uses specialized skills, knowledge or experiences as an uncoerced means of helping that is not aimed at material gain. An example is a retired plumber who likes to volunteer his or her skills to help build homes for Habitat for Humanity, or a retired accountant who volunteers his or her specialized skills for a Boys & Girls Club.

Serious leisure provides many human wellness benefits such as personal fulfillment (meaning-making in life), personal enrichment (self-actualization), regeneration of oneself, financial return, self-expression and creativity, social attraction and the development of friendships, and group and personal accomplishments.

Casual and project-based leisure

Casual leisure is defined as immediate, intrinsically rewarding, relatively short-lived activities that require little or no specialized training to enjoy. The quintessential element of casual leisure is hedonism or pleasure.

Casual leisure can include relaxation (e.g., napping in a hammock), passive entertainment (e.g., watching television) or sociable conversation (e.g., chatting outside an ice cream parlor). Beneficial outcomes derived from casual leisure include development of interpersonal relationships, regeneration in life, serendipitous discovery/creativity, edutainment and general well-being (e.g., distraction from stressors).

Project-based leisure is defined as a short-term, reasonably complicated, one-shot or occasional (though infrequent) creative undertaking carried out in a person’s free time. It lies between serious and casual leisure because it requires considerable planning, effort and, sometimes, specialized skills like serious leisure, yet it is not intended to develop into serious leisure or become a long-term sustainable leisure activity. Examples include establishing a family reunion or getting involved in fundraising efforts toward a social cause, such as Mental Illness Awareness Week, in a local community.

Integrating leisure into the counseling process

With an understating of SLP, counselors can easily integrate discussion of leisure into the counseling process. As part of the intake process, counselors can have clients complete a leisure measure and inquire about their history of leisure and current level of activity. Gathering this information can inform counselors about how active clients are physically, socially and psychologically.

An optimal leisure lifestyle has been linked to one’s overall wellness, life satisfaction and ability to cope with emotional distress. According to a study published in Counselling and Psychotherapy Research by Elizabeth Marley in 2011 regarding self-help strategies to reduce emotional distress, mental health is improved by leisure, which can include such serious and casual activities as playing cricket, shopping, gardening, dancing, socializing and even driving a car.

With this in mind, clients may also benefit from integrating leisure activities into their counseling treatment. As indicated above, counselors can assess clients’ interest in various leisure activities by using formal assessment tools such as career, leisure and interest inventories. In addition, assessment tools from the areas of leisure services and therapeutic recreation, such as the Serious Leisure Inventory and Measure or the Leisure Motivation Scale, can be helpful. On the basis of these types of assessments and a client’s leisure history, counselors can encourage a discussion about how clients can engage in serious, casual or project-based leisure and which type of leisure would be most beneficial to add to their treatment.

Following the intake process, counselors can integrate goals regarding leisure into the treatment plan. Counselors can use active listening skills to find an avenue to introduce the idea that leisure can serve as an adjunct to other counseling activities. As the counselor listens to the client’s story, he or she will gain insight into those areas of the client’s life that may be amenable to such an approach. For example, clients will often mention how they spend their free time or what activities they enjoy. Such revelations occur naturally in sessions and provide a trailhead for counselors to follow to provide psychoeducation about the importance of leisure in overall well-being.

Once the concept has been taught and understood, counselors might reserve the first few minutes of each session to review what clients have done since the last session to engage in some form of leisure. Alternatively, the last few minutes of each session could be used to brainstorm possibilities for leisure and make assignments.

It is important to remember that the development of a serious leisure pursuit often takes time and requires patience. Clients should be encouraged to be deliberate in their approach, resisting the temptation to rush the process. They may need to try a number of different activities before finding something that will have the desired effect.

Throughout this process, the client’s views should be given preference when it comes to deciding on which activities to focus. When a particular activity is difficult or the client experiences setbacks and failures, the counselor should encourage the client to exercise self-compassion and nonjudgmental self-evaluation.

Two case examples

“David,” a former client of one of this article’s authors, struggled with debilitating anxiety and felt hopeless after being discharged from an inpatient unit. During the course of therapy, the counselor noticed that David talked frequently about wanting to help others who struggle with mental health issues. David and the counselor collaborated on a plan to provide him with opportunities to volunteer — as leisure — at a local community mental health center.

David frequently had days in which he failed to show up for his shift, but he was able to recommit after exercising self-compassion. He was eventually able to become more consistent and began to increase his capacity to offer support to individuals at the center by becoming involved in various programs. David later chose to further develop his interest in helping others by studying to become a counselor himself.

“Sally,” also a former client of one of this article’s authors, was able to develop an optimal leisure lifestyle related to her involvement in quilting. As previously mentioned, an optimal leisure lifestyle is possible when the SLP subtypes are pursued and balanced. This occurred to Sally, who became a well-known quilter, when her husband was out of the country for an extended period of time.

As a consequence of being left alone with a struggling young family, Sally found herself slipping into deep depression and anxiety. She had previously been involved in crafting as a casual pursuit, and when she brought this up in session, the counselor recognized this as an opportunity to introduce leisure as a part of the process. This casual pursuit was identified as an exception to the lack of energy and withdrawal Sally was showing as her depression deepened. The counselor provided some information about the importance of these types of leisure activities to overall well-being, and Sally agreed that she would benefit from becoming more involved in quilting.

As she got more involved, Sally started a blog so that she would have a venue for displaying her work and to show her husband what she had been able to accomplish. Growth in the readership of her blog led to recognition throughout the quilting community and provided Sally with opportunities to associate with others who held similar interests. Quilting also provided Sally an avenue for building her sense of self-worth, and she began to emerge from the darkness of depression.

Although Sally’s development of a serious leisure pursuit had produced valuable fruit, it was at this point she realized that her relationship with her children could suffer because of the amount of time she was quilting. So, with the help of the counselor, she decided to balance her pursuit of quilting with family-centered casual leisure. She began spending more time developing her relationship with her children and attending to their developmental needs. As a result, her relationship with her children was strengthened even as she continued to grow and develop as a quilter.

Today, Sally is a sought-after speaker and instructor by quilt guilds throughout the nation. She offers an inspiring perspective on the changes that have been brought about in her life through her leisure pursuits. In this case, a hobby was incorporated into Sally’s change process and has since been developed into an example of an optimal leisure lifestyle.


Although various mental health theorists have mentioned the importance of leisure, little has been written about it in an in-depth manner related specifically to mental health counseling. SLP is a mature theory of leisure with hundreds of studies supporting its theoretical and practical basis. We have presented two case studies to explain how SLP can be used in the counseling process to help clients manage life challenges and mental health struggles.

To learn more about SLP, counselors can visit seriousleisure.net. In addition, the authors of this article wrote a more research-based and theoretically explained article on integrating SLP into mental health counseling in the first issue of the 2015 Counselling Psychology Quarterly (volume 28, pages 97–111).




Rodney B. Dieser is a professor in the School of Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services at the University of Northern Iowa. He is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, national certified counselor and temporary licensed mental health counselor in Iowa. He practices as a therapist 10-15 hours per week. Contact him at rodney.dieser@uni.edu.

Jacob Christenson is an assistant professor in the marriage and family therapy program at Mount Mercy University (Iowa) and serves as the clinical director for the Olson Marriage and Family Therapy Clinic in Cedar Rapids. He has practiced as a therapist for more than 10 years and specializes in working with adolescents who are treatment resistant and those suffering from severe mental illness. Contact him at jchristenson@mtmercy.edu.

Darcie Davis-Gage is an associate professor in the clinical mental health counseling program at the University of Northern Iowa. She has more than 10 years of various counseling experiences, including working in private practice. Contact her at darcie.davis-gage@uni.edu.

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