Tag Archives: social media

The impact of internet self-disclosure on the counseling relationship

By Laurel Shaler December 16, 2019

It was only our third session, but “Anne” and I seemed to be connecting well. She was thrilled to finally have time for counseling, given her busy life as a stay-at-home mom to three young boys and with a husband who traveled extensively. Over time, Anne began to relax and feel more comfortable opening up about some of her painful past experiences. She started sharing that one of the particularly challenging times in her life involved her and her husband’s struggle to conceive.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, however, I could almost see her wrestle to pull them back in. She stumbled to recover but seemed to be saying that she had no right to complain about their journey to parenthood because “at least” they had been able to have children. As my mind began to process what was happening, it hit me: She has seen my website.

Anne was one of my first clients after I opened a small solo practice. After leaving my previous clinical position and moving into counselor education, I had created a website on which I posted blogs and links to online articles I had written, listed speaking topics, provided links to videos as well as radio and podcast interviews, and shared about my books. Anyone who reviewed my website and read about me would learn that a part of my journey had been through infertility.

There was always a risk that students would search my name on the internet and come across my website, but that was a risk I was willing to take because I felt called to reach out to the community at large regarding topics related mostly to emotional well-being. Along the way, I shared a bit of my story.

When I opened my counseling office, I included the information about my practice on my website, but it did not occur to me that clients would review the website and bring what they found into the sessions with them. I knew that I would never be “friends” with clients on social media, nor would I search for my clients on the internet, and I included that information in my informed consent. But Anne’s reaction to her own vulnerability helped me realize that my internet self-disclosure was having a negative impact in the counseling room and that it might impact future clients as well.

Soon after my interaction with Anne, I consulted with another counselor regarding next steps. I did not want to shut down my website or stop speaking and writing, but I also did not want to cultivate an environment where my clients were so concerned about me that they filtered what they were saying so as not to hurt me (based on their own ideas regarding what would hurt me, that is). The counselor with whom I consulted had one suggestion: Separate my one website into two, with one being a personal website and the other a practice website.

I saw numerous flaws with this solution. First, I could not manage (or hire someone to maintain) two websites, especially with my private practice being very small. Second, a client could still easily locate my personal website by performing a simple internet search. (After all, the name “Laurel Shaler” is not a common one.) I thought there had to be another option for addressing this dilemma. I began to realize I could do several things to mitigate the effects reading my website might have on my clients, but at the same time, there were certain things I could not control. The same is true for any of us who self-disclose on the internet.

I cannot control a client searching for my information online, for instance. Because I have something of a public presence given my public social media accounts, trade books, and blogs/articles on the internet, clients are likely to run across some information about me that goes beyond the scope of my private practice. I have to be OK with that to maintain both an online presence and a clinical practice. Likewise, my clients need to be aware of the pros and cons of learning more about me over the internet.

What it will really come down to is the same factor that affects every counselor-client relationship: therapeutic rapport. If my client and I can establish safety and trust, as well as appropriate boundaries, and can communicate effectively, then we can more than likely work through whatever may arise as a result of the internet self-disclosure.

Through a self-supervision process, I have come to realize that Anne may have overidentified with me. In other words, in the same way she might not want to hurt the feelings of a friend, she did not want to hurt my feelings. She assumed that because I had been through an infertility journey that did not result in biological children, that sharing her journey that did result in biological children would upset me. Although I did not address the issue head-on at the time, if given a second chance, this is what the communication might have sounded like:

Anne: I shouldn’t complain because I know not everyone can have children, and I am really lucky and fortunate and blessed to have children even though I did go through infertility. I know it’s not the worst thing in the world, and others have a much harder time than we did. I shouldn’t have said anything about it.

Laurel: It sounds like even though you are grateful that your infertility journey ended by having children, that you had a hard time going through that experience. Can you help me understand why you think you should not say anything about your infertility?

Anne: Well, to be honest, I read on your website about your infertility journey, and I am so, so sorry for what you went through. I don’t want to compare my story to yours, in particular since I was able to have children and you weren’t.

Laurel: Your sensitivity to me says a lot about who you are as a caring and compassionate person. At the same time, I want this to be a safe space for you to feel free to openly share about your entire story. I want to encourage you to hold nothing back on account of me. You are welcome to read what I post — keeping in mind what you read may impact your view of me or our counseling relationship.

Anne: Yeah, I like what you write but did not want to offend or upset you.

Laurel: Thank you, Anne. I do not believe I will be offended or upset. However, if I am, that is my own issue that I need to work through with a counselor or supervisor. It would not be your fault. Are you open to exploring the infertility issue and the turmoil that brought to your life and marriage?

Anne: Yes, because it really messed me up for a while and my relationship with my husband too.

Laurel: OK, please start wherever you would like.

Anne: It all started …

Obviously, this fictional dialogue could go many different directions. This is a good-faith guesstimate of how the conversation might have unfolded based on the relationship I had with the client at the time.

In reality, even though I was a bit flustered internally and did not address head-on the client learning about me online, we were able to move forward with our therapeutic relationship. Anne came regularly to see me for about six months before she and her husband decided to pursue marriage counseling, at which time she needed to pause individual counseling.

My personal takeaways from this experience were twofold:

1) Counselors must think thoroughly and carefully about how having an online presence might impact their counseling practice and the clients they are serving. Counselors have to decide whether the two are compatible and if they can still be effective counselors. Is there controversial content that may lead a client to feel uncomfortable with the counselor? Is the counselor something of a “celebrity,” leading clients to be a bit star-struck and concerned about disappointing the counselor? Numerous aspects of internet self-disclosure need to be considered. Additionally, counselors must decide how to navigate the two or more hats that they wear. For example, counselors must decide whether to have two separate websites or one website that incorporates both a personal/commercial side and a counseling practice side.

2) If counselors have an online presence, this should be addressed early on in the counseling relationship. This can be part of a written informed consent, along with other information regarding the counselor not searching for clients online, not accepting or sending friend requests on social media, etc. This can also be addressed verbally in session, wherein counselors discuss their online presence and talk through how a client’s review of the counselor’s internet information might affect the counseling environment. Counselors must be aware that disclosing their online presence is, in and of itself, self-disclosure. Therefore, as with all self-disclosure, this must be addressed solely for the benefit of the client.

There is absolutely a way to have both an online presence and a successful counseling practice. Many counselors have done so beautifully. My personal experience taught me a valuable lesson about how these two can work in tandem rather than against each other. Anne — like all clients — deserved to have an authentic counselor with whom she could truly be transparent, without filtering herself based on information she knew about the counselor.

Although I believe knowing less about the counselor can be beneficial to clients, I am well aware that in our internet-driven and instant-knowledge society, many clients will desire to learn all they can about us before, during and after the counseling process. Getting out ahead of potential problems that could arise as a result may prove helpful for clients. Because my online presence is not going anywhere, this is an ever-evolving process that I must pursue for the sake of my clients.

 

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Laurel Shaler is a licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor, and licensed social worker. She is an associate professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Family Studies at Liberty University. Contact her through her website, drlaurelshaler.com.

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

Counselors, represent!

By Carol Z.A. McGinnis November 13, 2019

Tragic events tend to mobilize local and national news reports with questions and concerns that relate directly to the work that we do as professional counselors. Shootings, disasters, immigration issues, and political fallout are just a few examples that come to mind at the time of this writing.

What is particularly troubling to me is the lack of counseling expertise represented in the news in response to these events. Instead, we often endure ad hoc theories from professionals with no counseling experience who errantly connect tragic events to mental health issues. These individuals may mean well, but they make broad statements that connect video games with shootings, promote mental health policy that is rooted in subjective ambivalent “right” versus “wrong” societal thinking (rather than empirical research), and engage in ignorant blaming or scapegoating that leads to even more conflict and mental strife for the general population. What better time for licensed professional counselors to provide empirical context for these issues and offer hope for healing when it is needed most?

At the same time, I think we can largely blame ourselves as counselors for this gap in the national consciousness. We have fantastic representation in our state and national counseling associations and plenty of empirical research on topics of interest, yet we are not insistent on providing that content to our communities. As counselors, we have been trained to advocate through appropriate channels that include citizen-driven activities to challenge federal and state legislation, yet we have not learned how to promote our profession in the times we are most needed. Alfred Adler and Carl Rogers both held a global vision for our profession that included change and advocacy for the community at large. So, where do we start?

As a whole, the general public would find it useful to know a little more about what we do as professional counselors. People need to know that we are trained to probe more deeply about family dynamics, to inquire about the presence of guns and the use of prescription or illegal drugs, and to listen for evidence of strained relationships that may need immediate attention. We need to share that we have expertise in evaluating suicidal thoughts and potential homicidal intentions and that we often determine neglect or abuse for mandated reporting. People often worry about the ramifications of going to a counselor; our presence in the news media can go a long way toward easing those concerns.

After a tragic event occurs, these basic counselor skills can be invaluable for parents worried about their teenagers, spouses concerned about the safety of their mate, and adult children fretting about the welfare of their elderly parents. We can provide confidentiality that may be just the ticket when social concerns, political stressors, and environmental issues seem to be ever-present. As professional counselors, we are qualified to share insights on what symptoms to look for in a troubled family member, what signs might be particularly worrisome when a child withdraws, and how to find help when a particular mental health issue is occurring. It is information such as this that often seems to be lacking when the larger community is hurting.

 

Action steps

You may be asking: What can I do? Here are a few suggestions to get started.

First, take a moment to consider your particular skills and expertise. Do you work with people who struggle with depression? What information could you share publicly that might help others to cope, have hope, or seek help from a professional counselor? Alternatively, if your experience is with anxiety, what compassionate message might you share for people who are afraid to go to the mall or to the movies? If you work with people through illness or grief and loss, consider what messages you might be able to offer when the community at large is suffering with a particular loss. As a licensed professional counselor, you have knowledge, awareness and skills that would be tremendously useful in times of strife. It is just a matter of getting that content “out there” in the public.

Next, consider how you may want to advertise your availability to news outlets and the general public. One way to do this is to write an email or a letter to your local news station to identify yourself and the work that you do. Be brief in your communication, pointing to the specific issue or circumstance for which you may be most helpful. Include a business card or a link to a website if you have one. This is not the time to expound on your many research interests or on why you became a counselor. Be concise, clear and direct in describing what you specialize in so that news outlets can easily place you into a resource category.

It helps tremendously to have a professional Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn account that can connect your expertise to an active news media database or digital rolodex. Give some time and attention to this virtual representation to ensure that you are abiding by the ACA Code of Ethics. Consider locking down your settings to avoid inadvertent negligence on the part of potential clients who may try to direct message you. As stated in Standard H.6.a. in the ACA Code of Ethics, it is important to maintain a professional virtual presence that is separate from your personal presence online. It may be tempting to connect your professional site to your personal account, but resist this temptation.

Your professionally oriented social media sites should be designed to help local and national news media locate you should a specific need arise. Likewise, make it easy for the general public to find pertinent information on your credentials, expertise, and research interests. These details should clearly inform the general public about counseling and the specific work that you do, with special attention given to technology/social media competency (Standard H.1.a.) and your social media policy (Standard H.6.b.). Note how you may be of assistance to the community and the means for contacting you as a news source. Be sure to “friend” or “follow” all pertinent news outlets and local organizations that may need your help, and then take time to keep up with any interactions that occur with these entities.

Also, take a moment to consider what populations or groups in your area might especially appreciate a free workshop or presentation on the topic in which you specialize. Advocacy often begins in your local area, and people are more likely to ask questions about the counseling profession when they have the opportunity to get to know you better. Churches, synagogues and mosques tend to be places where disheartened and disenfranchised people go to get support. Offering to discuss your services in these places can open up new opportunities for the general public to understand what you do. Public clubs, parent groups, and schools may also grant you the opportunity to speak on a specific topic. Once these populations have the opportunity to learn about your work, they can also advocate for inclusion of a counseling perspective from their news sources.

If someone is searching for you in your area of practice, how will they find you? Psychology Today offers a “find a therapist” option that is helpful to the general public, but it incurs a monthly fee that some counselors may find distasteful. Another option to consider is starting a podcast, blog or streaming channel to bring your professional identity into the public eye. Although these options take time and energy, the results can include bringing your expertise to the consciousness of your immediate community. The creation of a website can also be useful as a less dynamic online platform where these other social media delivery systems can be “housed” in a central location. A unique domain for this purpose can be purchased and maintained with minimal cost and low effort. Community websites that provide free postings for mental health professionals at the county or city level can also be helpful. You may need to dig to find these, but they do exist.

Finally, don’t be shy about introducing yourself as a professional counselor when you are “off duty” and, if possible, take time to volunteer for an Advocacy Day sponsored by most state branches of the American Counseling Association. There are very helpful tips and tools located on the ACA website that provide direction on how to interact with local, state and national legislators, and steps for developing ethical social media sites. Another useful suggestion is to include a pertinent hashtag with your counselor postings (e.g., #CounselorsAdvocate) that can bring attention to that topic. Be creative in using hashtags that are specific to your knowledge, awareness and skills (e.g., #counselorforanger, #askacounselor, #counselinganxiety, #counselorgriefandloss). Connect with similarly named social media groups, and offer your availability in times of community tragedy.

In short, when tragic or troubling events occur, take a moment to think about your own skills, and then reach out to offer your perspective as a professional counselor to the news media. We often hear about the impact of public happenings in clients’ counseling sessions and may feel that we cannot act outside of that environment without sacrificing client trust. But there is a way to do this in an ethical manner. Remember, we don’t have to “take sides” on a controversial topic to provide much-needed positive messages to our communities. It may take courage for us to make this happen, but it is important for us to promote what we do as counselors when the people in our communities need it most.

 

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Carol Z.A. McGinnis is a licensed clinical professional counselor, national certified counselor and board certified telemental health provider. She is associate professor and clinical mental health track coordinator for Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She is currently president-elect of the Maryland Counseling Association and specializes in research that focuses on anger processing (www.anger.works) and videogaming. Contact her at cmcginnis@messiah.edu.

 

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

Five social, emotional and mental health supports that teens need to succeed

By Dakota King-White, Sade Vega and Nicholas Petty September 9, 2019

Many teenagers have been exposed to traumatic events, and most experience regular life stressors. Exposure to violence and other traumatic experiences can have a lifelong effect on learning and may negatively impact academic achievement. Among examples of traumatic events that some teenagers experience are community violence, school shootings, the loss of a loved one due to death, parental incarceration, divorcing parents, a parent or caregiver with mental illness, and substance abuse in the home. Within the school setting, the negative influence of trauma on teens may lead to poor concentration, declining academic performance, school absenteeism, and the decision to drop out. These challenges create barriers for the success of teens in the academic setting.

Schools across the United States have recognized the importance of providing school-based mental health support because these services benefit students academically, socially and emotionally. However, questions regarding the issues facing teens and the types of mental health supports needed to deal with these issues require further examination. Implementing a needs assessment can assist schools in uncovering the answer to these questions. The findings can then help determine what programming should be implemented to improve students’ overall development, such as teaching them social skills to help them become productive members of their communities and school settings.

We wanted to learn more about the social, emotional and mental health needs of teenagers, so we conducted a needs assessment in which we surveyed 198 high school students in a Midwestern city. The teens in our study identified the types of emotionally stressful experiences they have faced since attending high school. They also described what schools could do to make them feel supported and better able to deal with the related challenges.

The following sections present the five top issues identified by the students we surveyed, along with recommendations on ways that schools can support teenagers socially, emotionally and mentally.

 

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1) Social media makes peer pressure a 24/7 problem. Teens today are confronting certain pressures that teens in the past didn’t face. A prime example: Social media has become an indispensable part of teenagers’ lives. According to a 2018 report written for the Pew Research Center by Monica Anderson and Jingjing Jiang, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular online platforms among those ages 13-17, and most teens have access to these apps on their smartphones. Anderson and Jiang note in the report that 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, with 45% of teens acknowledging that they are online “almost constantly.”

This constant mobile connection creates the conditions for teenagers to consistently be exposed to peer pressure even outside of the school environment. Mina Park and colleagues in 2017, in a journal article in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, noted that hyperconnectivity to social media can also lead to depression, negative body image and eating disorders.

What schools can do to help: Teens must be given an outlet to discuss their frustrations when it comes to dealing with peer pressure. Students should be directed to their school counselors or other trusted adults in the school with whom they can share their feelings and pressures and get supportive, confidential advice in return. It is also helpful to allow for genuine conversations in the classroom about the importance of students being confident in who they are and embracing their differences. Safe spaces in schools allow teens opportunities to feel supported in a neutral environment, to accept who they are, and to embrace differences among their peers.

 

2) Bullying is a significant issue. Peer pressure is not the only problem arising from constant social media access. The other, and even more troubling, issue is bullying. Teens may experience, witness or engage in bullying situations, including cyberbullying, which is more prevalent among teens.

The Bullying Statistics website (bullyingstatistics.org) notes that cyberbullying may consist of teens sending cruel messages, spreading gossip or posting threatening messages on social media platforms, pretending to be someone else on a social media account, or sexting. According to recent statistics from the website, more than 25% of teenagers have been exposed to cyberbullying situations that have had a negative impact on them. Bullying can have a significant effect on teens socially, emotionally and academically. Some of the negative impacts include depression, anxiety, attendance problems, and decrease in academic achievement. However, many teens who experience cyberbullying do not tell their parents or guardians about these painful experiences.

What schools can do to help: October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and many schools across the United States take time to develop effective strategies to raise awareness about bullying and to prevent bullying incidents on their campuses. It is important for schools to create an environment in which victims of bullying/cyberbullying, or teens who witness the bullying of a peer, can talk to trusted adults about bullying situations. Help your students by providing safe places in schools where teens can disclose when they or their peers are being bullied, or even create a hotline for students to report bullying situations.

Additionally, offer professional development to teachers and other staff members on identifying the warning signs of bullying, and provide them with effective strategies to help students who are being bullied. Likewise, many parents are unaware of how to support their teens when they are being bullied, so invite parents to on-campus workshops where they can learn ways to address these issues with their teens. During the parent and family sessions, discuss the various types of bullying that take place, the warning signs of bullying, and school and community resources for victims of bullying and cyberbullying. Workshops for parents and families can add another layer of support for young people who are affected by bullying.

 

3) Students are concerned about their personal safety. In our study, the third top concern that students reported was anxiety about their personal safety. According to the National Institute of Justice, school safety is currently a common concern among educators and administrators across the United States. Teens may not feel safe in their schools because of gun violence on school campuses across the country or even violence in their own communities or neighborhoods. The National Institute of Justice has stated that more schools have increased their security measures to protect students. Many of these schools have instituted locked doors, security cameras, hallway supervision, controlled building access, metal detectors and locker checks.

More than half of the ninth- and 10th-graders and more than 70% of the 11th- and 12th-graders we surveyed reported that they had experienced a traumatic event while attending high school. These various traumatic events can cause students to feel concern about their overall safety in their schools and communities. This type of stressor can in turn affect how teens engage in their educational environments.

What schools can do to help: Trauma-informed methods must be put in place to support students and their overall safety. Trauma-informed approaches focus on ways to ensure that students feel supported, listened to, and safe. Among the trauma-informed approaches that counselors can create in their schools are to build trust and rapport with students and to collaborate with outside community resources to support students who have been exposed to traumatic events. By getting to know your students, you will notice when their behaviors change, and because you have built trust with them, you can approach them in a friendly way to address these changes.

In addition, provide training on trauma-informed methods for teachers, support staff and administrators at your school. This training will help them create resources aimed at the needs of teens. Additionally, educators can seek professional help for their own personal traumas so that they may better interact with students who are dealing with stressors. By ensuring that teachers and staff members have access to community resources and training about personal safety and trauma, schools are developing leaders who can help students socially, emotionally and academically.

 

4) Students need help coping with their emotions. Teens’ emotions run rampant during their high school years. Most experience a range of emotions, including anger, fear, frustration, disappointment and hurt. These emotions may mask some of the broader issues that students face and that ultimately affect their academic performance.

Some of the students in our study participated in a small group that focused on developing social skills. The single-gender support group addressed the students’ academic, social and emotional needs. The sessions offered teens a safe place to identify stressors in their lives and to discuss the emotions attached to those stressors. By talking about their emotions, students were able to identify yet other emotions that were hiding underneath their anger and aggression. Throughout this process, the teens learned how to effectively articulate their emotions and to identify the underlying factors that were fueling them.

What schools can do to help: Encourage a supportive environment and training for students, such as small support groups facilitated by school counselors, clinical counselors, school psychologists or social workers, as well as peer-to-peer support groups. Teach teens the proper social skills related to identifying their emotions, and explain that all emotions are OK to have.

Quite often, teenagers express only the basic emotions when talking to others, especially adults. However, challenging them to look deeper and to identify the true emotion can be effective. Teens need safe places at school where they can learn how to cope with their anger and the other uncomfortable emotions that they often face.

 

5) Dealing with grief is important. A final concern students reported centered on dealing with grief from the loss of a loved one. Those students in our study who had experienced the loss of a loved one or who had witnessed a friend going through such a loss reported needing a supportive outlet to deal with those losses. Students may experience various losses during their teen years, such as the death of a friend or family member, and they are often left to process their emotions about the loss on their own. If schools are unaware that students have experienced a loss, those students may go without the support that is needed to help them process their grief. A lack of support during this time can have a significant impact on teens succeeding within the academic setting.

What schools can do to help: Build rapport early in the year with students so that they will be comfortable sharing should they experience a loss. During times of loss, allow students to grieve. Provide additional assistance by forming support groups for students who have experienced loss. This type of support can be offered through collaboration with local counseling agencies, hospices or other entities that support families experiencing loss. It is also helpful to maintain a list of community resources that address grief and loss. This community resource guide can be shared with teens, parents or caregivers, and other stakeholders.

Transforming school into an emotionally responsive environment

Students who are well-equipped socially, emotionally and mentally at the beginning of their academic careers can better cope when hardships occur. As counselors, we can help our students succeed in school and in life by first learning to identify their social, emotional and mental health needs, and then providing resources such as social skills workshops and support groups for them. Additionally, we can lead by example by improving our own social, emotional and mental health through professional development workshops that emphasize social and emotional learning practices.

Remember, school is not just a place where students gain academic knowledge; it is where they prepare for life. By doing our part to create a safe and emotionally supportive environment, we can increase the odds that students will succeed beyond the walls of the classroom.

 

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Dakota King-White is an assistant professor in counselor education at Cleveland State University. Prior to that, she worked in K-12 education as a school counselor, mental health therapist and administrator. Contact her at d.l.king19@csuohio.edu.

Sade Vega is a student in health science at Cleveland State University. In 2018, she received the university’s undergraduate student research award for her research on assessing the social, emotional and mental health needs of high school students. Contact her at s.m.vega@vikes.csuohio.edu.

Nicholas Petty is the director of undergraduate inclusive excellence at Cleveland State University. Prior to working at the university, he was an administrator in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where he earned national attention for his innovative approaches to behavioral intervention and student motivation. Contact him at n.petty@csuohio.edu.

 

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

 

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

I don’t care what my body looks like on the beach, bro!

By Andrew M. Watley July 25, 2019

Many guys and girls alike trained hard during the frigid winter months under a common belief: Summer bodies are made in the winter. Traditionally, getting “beach body ready” was associated with women. But that idea is so 20th century. Now, through the influence of social media and many other factors, guys are just as likely as women to stress about their appearance during these warm summer months.

Let’s take Instagram, for example. I don’t know about everybody else, but my page is filled with diet tips, workout routines, and guys who have the body type that I desire. The posts from these extremely “ripped” gentlemen are a double-edged sword.

One side is inspirational. These people put in a lot of time, dedication and patience to mold their bodies, like art, into the creation they see fit when they look in the mirror. Guys like me who strive to be in better shape look up to these men, hoping that the same level of fitness is obtainable for us.

The other side of the sword can bring about despair because of society’s decision that these model bodies — a body type that is not like mine — is what is considered favorable. Take a walk in history through People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” covers. Most, if not all, of the men who have won these “competitions” have had favorable bodies. What an honor it must be to be considered the sexiest man to walk the Earth at a given time.

The idea that men don’t worry about their bodies is simply not true. Like the male peacock, we like to “strut our stuff” to gain the attention of those we might find attractive or for the man we see staring back at us in the mirror. He seems to be the hardest critic to impress.

Of course, negative consequences can be associated with the sometimes obsessive desire to be “Instagram worthy.” The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) specifies muscle dysmorphic disorder (MDD) as a subdisorder of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Muscle dysmorphia is defined as a preoccupation with the idea that one’s body build is too small or not muscular enough.

MDD occurs almost exclusively in men. This diagnosis can lead individuals down a path of obsessive behavior such as extreme exercise programs and long hours of weightlifting to gain muscle mass. These men may work out to the point of injury and often ignore said injury to continue their muscle growth. These individuals typically engage in unhealthy diet habits such as mass consumption of protein-rich foods to increase weight. In extreme cases, men may resort to the use of steroids or other addictive performance-enhancing drugs.

I conducted a doctoral research project in 2017 that studied men who considered themselves members of the fitness culture. The study conducted interviews of seven men and observed their gym habits. I paid close attention to how these habits and thoughts about their routines and physiques affected their mental health. According to these men, a muscular or fit physique brings not only desired attention but also validation of a man’s masculinity.

Society has equated a muscular or physically fit man with being more masculine than those men who are smaller in stature and weight. Obtaining this physique has become a social norm for the masculine guy. Maintaining a muscular physique is yet another gender norm that men are expected to adhere to in North American culture.

One gender norm that is changing is the notion that men do not talk about their feelings. It is not as far-fetched today to have men lying on the counseling couch as it was previously. It is possible that some of the men who end up in your office may experience symptoms related to a negative body image.

Unfortunately, counselors do not have a magic wand to use to “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” our clients into the most muscular men at the ball. Nor do we have a single can of spinach that we can give our clients to instantly make them ripped like Popeye. But what we do have is research stating that when treating clients with dysmorphic disorders, cognitive behavioral techniques work best.

One of the first steps in cognitive behavior therapy is gaining an understanding of the problem. BDD/MDD may be the result of an underlying issue or concern. As with most eating disorders, muscle dysmorphia is likely caused by biological, psychological and social factors.

For some, it could be a traumatic event that was caused by unhealthy choices. One of the gentlemen I interviewed during my doctoral research recalled a moment when he had to run after a bus and, because he was overweight at the time, he couldn’t catch up to it in time. He equated his health and the laughter of the bystanders with his image. This moment pushed him into a lifestyle that would eventually lead to body dysmorphic disorder.

Another interviewee who identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ community discussed his desire to be viewed as attractive. He explained that some members of the community could be superficial, and in order to fit in with certain crowds, he needed to look a certain way. These represent just brief examples of how discovering the root of a client’s BDD or MDD may open the door to a helpful discussion about the person’s obsession with obtaining the “perfect” body.

As counselors, we need to help these clients first identify their automatic thoughts. As a theories class refresher, an automatic thought is one that is triggered by a particular stimulus that leads to an emotional response. Individuals maintain certain beliefs about themselves, others and the world. It is safe to assume that our male clients with BDD/MDD have similar negative views of themselves as it pertains to what is beautiful and accepted and what is not. These automatic thoughts can lead to cognitive distortions or faulty ways of thinking. As long as a client’s negative view of himself does not match his positive automatic thoughts about the world, he will feel as if he can’t comfortably be happy with himself as he currently is.

As trained professional counselors, we are no strangers to working with clients with anxiety. Anxiety is a big part of dysmorphia. Clients may experience anxiety when thinking about how others may perceive them. That faulty perception can then be reflected on themselves.

Helping clients to overcome anxiety is key. Anxiety is a fear of the “what ifs” in our lives, and 99% of the time, these events never take place. A person who struggles with BDD/MDD may be preoccupied with the thoughts of “What if I gain/lose weight?” “What if I don’t look like him/her?” Or, more common these days, “What if I don’t get enough likes?”

By helping clients confront the negative thoughts that plague their minds, we can potentially eliminate the harmful and, most times, irrational thoughts that haunt them.

Perhaps the most beneficial thing we can do as counselors is help our clients learn the importance of both acceptance and change. The DSM says that most men who struggle with MDD usually appear to be in pretty good shape already. Although it may be challenging, we must try to help these clients see their muscles as “half full” rather than “half empty.” Introducing them to the habit of positive self-talk may help them remember that it is OK to have a cheat meal or to miss a day at the gym.

If our clients are unhappy with the way they look, it can be beneficial to help them find healthy ways to change. Pointing them in the direction of a nutritionist or a personal trainer may be a healthy alternative for those who take extreme measures to alter their bodies.

Be proud to strut whatever you have at the beach this season, fellas. Remember that maintaining a muscular body takes time, effort and patience. If you aren’t where you want to be this year, set the goal to be there by next beach season. Be proud of the way that you look, and be sure to wear your shades and sunblock so that the rays of the haters can’t touch you.

 

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Andrew M. Watley is a licensed professional counselor and an adjunct professor in New Orleans. His practice specializes in children, adolescents, men’s issues, and struggles that may arise for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Learn more about him and his practice at drandrewwatley.com.

 

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

The ‘storm and stress’ of adolescence and young adulthood

By Laurie Meyers October 25, 2018

For much of human history, the idea of adolescence being a distinct life stage was nonexistent. True, in the Middle Ages, children were recognized not merely as “mini” adults but as distinct beings with different needs. However, the years from ages 13 to 19 were not considered part of childhood until the turn of the 19th century. Instead, the “teen years” were the time when one began to assume adult responsibilities such as making a living and starting a family.

During the late 1800s, changes in child labor laws and the push for universal education for those under the age of 16 began to influence society’s perspective on when adulthood began. G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association (APA), is credited with the modern “discovery” of adolescence, defining it in a 1904 book as a new developmental stage — created by societal changes — in which children grow into adults. Hall described adolescence as a time of “storm and stress” and, unlike later researchers, ascribed this life stage as lasting from ages 14-24 (rather than today’s generally accepted range of 13-19).

Although adolescence is still considered to be synonymous with the teen years, Hall’s instinct to single out the early 20s as different from later “adult” years was prescient. In the past decade, neurological research has discovered that the brain does not fully mature until one’s mid-to-late 20s. This revelation has spurred many researchers, particularly in mental health fields, to call for a separate developmental stage that is generally referred to as “young” or “emerging” adulthood.

Adding more than a soupçon of complication to both the recognition of emerging adulthood and the established research on adolescence is the reality that being a teen or 20-something in the information age is, in many ways, significantly different — and arguably more difficult — than it was for previous generations.

Stressed and depressed

An abundance of research indicates that teens and young adults are experiencing increased levels of stress and depression. In recent years, APA’s annual “Stress in America” survey has gathered data only on adults. However, in the survey released in 2014, “Stress in America: Are Teens Adopting Adults’ Stress Habits?” young people ages 13-17 were also included.

Survey respondents reported that during the school year, they had a stress level of 5.8 on a 10-point scale. During the summer break, teens reported a slight decrease in stress levels — 4.6 on a 10-point scale. Furthermore, 31 percent of survey respondents said that their stress levels had increased over the past year. In response to their high levels of stress, 40 percent of respondents reported feeling irritable or angry, 36 percent reported feeling nervous or anxious, 36 percent reported feeling fatigued or tired, and 31 percent reported feeling overwhelmed.

Depression is another significant concern among adolescents. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2016 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), an estimated 3.1 million adolescents ages 12-17 experienced at least one major depressive episode. That number represented 12.8 percent of the U.S. population in that age bracket.

Although most mental health surveys do not specifically target “young” or developing adults, data are available relating to college students. Among the more than 31,000 college students who completed the 2017 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment, 39.3 percent reported being so depressed that they found it hard to function at some point during the previous 12 months. Anxiety levels among respondents were even higher: 60.9 percent reported feeling overwhelming anxiety at some point during the prior year.

The high levels of anxiety and depression indicated in these studies are part of a national pattern of significantly increasing distress. A national poll published in May by the American Psychiatric Association noted a sharp increase in American anxiety levels over the past year. On a scale of 0-100, this year’s “national anxiety score” was a 51 — a five-point jump since 2017. A study published in the June 2018 issue of the journal Psychological Medicine found that rates of depression rose across all age brackets of Americans for those 12 and over from 2005 to 2015. Most significantly, among those ages 12-17, depression rates increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 12.7 percent in 2015.

Under pressure

Some researchers are eager to blame technology — particularly social media — for the increase of depression and anxiety among teenagers and young adults. The reality is more complex and involves myriad factors.

It is undeniable that some people do find their lives lacking when compared with what they see on social media. Carefully curated Facebook feeds can suggest to them that their friends are happier and more successful than they are. Celebrity photos on Instagram — most of which are professionally produced and heavily filtered — can encourage unrealistic expectations about body image and personal appearance. However, when one considers the role that social media plays in the quest for perfection, it may be something of a chicken-and-egg scenario.

A 2017 study on perfectionism that appeared in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that beginning in the 1980s, a culture of “competitive individualism” in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom steadily increased the quest for personal perfection. So, is what we see on social media pushing us toward unattainable standards of perfection, or is it a reflection of the pressure we put on ourselves? At this point in time, we may be caught in a reinforcing loop. The study found that current generations not only feel intense societal pressure to be perfect but also expect perfection from themselves and others. The study’s authors also believe that this rise in perfectionism may be linked to an increase in myriad psychological problems.

Today’s teenagers and young adults are unquestionably subject to high expectations and demands. Licensed mental health counselor David Flack, who has worked with adolescents and young adults for 20 years, says he has seen a significant increase in anxiety related to academic performance among his clients.

“It is not uncommon for teens I meet with to have three, four or even more hours of homework most days,” he says. This reality creates significant pressure and is particularly stressful for students who are predisposed to anxiety. Flack, a member of the American Counseling Association, also believes that such heavy academic workloads are interfering with important social and developmental processes because many teenagers may be spending more time doing homework than socializing and engaging in extracurricular or other age-appropriate activities.

Licensed professional counselor (LPC) Sean Roberts, an ACA member who specializes in working with young adults, says he has witnessed a precipitous increase in anxiety among clients. He thinks this is strongly, though not solely, linked to teenagers and young adults feeling increased pressure to succeed.

Not coincidentally, the anxiety they experience makes it only more difficult for them to achieve. “Anxiety has a neurological effect,” explains ACA member Amy Gaesser, an assistant professor of counselor education at the State University of New York at Brockport whose research focuses on the social and emotional well-being of students in school. “The survival part of the brain activates and shuts off or interferes with the parts of the brain that help us think clearly.”

This can have a significant effect on academic performance, says Gaesser, a certified school counselor in New York who gives presentations and offers private consultations with parents. For example, some students can study extensively and be fully prepared for a test, but because of their anxiety, can have trouble accessing that information while taking the test. Anxiety can also interfere with the ability to take in and synthesize information, Gaesser says. Students become frustrated with their seeming inability to “get it,” which affects their feelings of self-efficacy and can even make them question their level of intelligence. Once a pattern of academic difficulty tied to anxiety is established, the problem can become self-perpetuating.

Disrupting the cycle is vital, says Gaesser, who recommends the emotional freedom technique (EFT) as an effective method of interrupting the stress response and downregulating the brain. In EFT, participants respond to stressful thoughts or situations by visualizing an alternative outcome while taking their hands and tapping acupuncture points on the body that have been linked to stress reduction. Students can go through the whole sequence of body points or just use the areas they find work best for them, she says.

Gaesser also recommends the “4-7-8” breathing method as a quick way to interrupt the stress response. This involves breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds and then breathing out for eight seconds. Students can practice this method themselves, but Gaesser thinks that teachers should also use it in their classrooms as a way to begin class.

Peter Allen, an LPC based in Oregon who specializes in counseling young adults and adolescents, used to work with teenagers in a wilderness therapy setting. Most of his clients were struggling with a variety of issues, including substance abuse, conduct problems (although not usually at the conduct disorder level) and mood disorders, principally depression and anxiety. In most cases, Allen says, the core elements of the wilderness setting were effective in helping these clients address their various presenting issues.

In part, he believes that’s because the pressures of school, family and social life were stripped away, leaving these teenage clients to focus on the basics, such as securing food and shelter. Surviving in the wilderness also required working together and building a community, which helped teach clients new communication skills. Participants also got daily exercise, ate healthy meals and were required to follow a regular sleep schedule, all of which had a calming and stabilizing effect. “Once diet, sleep and exercise have been regulated, about half of the problems disappear right away,” Allen says.

Many wilderness therapy clients also benefit from what Allen calls “expanding the size of their world. … If you are a 15-year-old kid and doing bad at school, arguing with your parents, your world is tiny.” The wilderness program not only provided literal wide-open spaces, but also introduced clients to people from different places and adults who didn’t have the same expectations as the teenagers’ parents or teachers did.

The wilderness can also serve as a mirror for clients, says Roberts, who has also worked in wilderness therapy, or, as he says it is becoming more commonly known, outdoor behavioral health care. For instance, when clients who struggle with executive function and organization encounter bad weather for which they are not prepared, the experience can be a vivid demonstration of the importance of working on those problem areas. Another example: Someone who is struggling with distress tolerance will need to get used to having to build a fire after hiking all day.

Information overload?

Although none of the counselors interviewed for this article view social media or technology as inherently negative, they agree that living in the information age is complicated. The current generation of teens and young adults is awash in an unprecedented flood of information, asserts Roberts, clinical director at Cascade Crest Transitions, a program that provides support to young adults struggling to launch their independence by attending college or obtaining a job. He maintains that this technological bombardment not only is difficult to assimilate but also can encourage the tendency to “get stuck” in one’s own head.

Allen adds that in the age of the internet, children and adolescents are exposed to a lot of information and knowledge at an earlier age than previous generations were. In certain cases, it is information that they may not have the maturity to handle. For example, most children and adolescents who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century had to somehow get their hands on a copy of Playboy or another adult magazine to satisfy their sexual curiosity. Today’s children and teens are exposed online to myriad genres of easy-to-access pornography, which not only present unrealistic ideals of sexuality but also can include disturbing practices such as bestiality and pedophilia. Children and young adolescents today are also more likely to be exposed to media coverage of frightening or horrific events before they have the ability to contextualize all that they are taking in, Allen says. He believes this early exposure is contributing to a kind of “nonspecific existential dread” that he says he commonly sees in his clients.

Roberts says that technology offers many positive benefits, but it also sometimes provides adolescents and young adults with a means to avoid their problems. He stresses the need for counselors to learn more about the draw of technology so that they can help clients evaluate whether they are using it in positive or negative ways. Roberts gives gaming as an example. For those who know little about it, gaming may seem like an excuse to “do nothing.” In reality, he says, it is a legitimate hobby that can provide enjoyment, stress release and even a sense of community while boosting problem-solving skills. However, like any other activity, when gaming gets in the way of schoolwork, chores or getting out of the house, it becomes a problem to be addressed, he says.

Another complicated aspect of online life is social media. For all the potential benefits, social media feeds have made it so that virtually no part of life is private anymore, Allen says. Many adolescents may not fully understand that by making everything public, the internet is, in essence, “forever” or grasp the potential ramifications of that reality, he says. In addition, he notes, social media feeds can encourage social contagion.

ACA member Amanda LaGuardia, a former private practitioner whose research focuses on self-harm, agrees. Much of the social media content targeted to young girls is focused on body image, says LaGuardia, a licensed professional counselor supervisor in Texas and a licensed professional clinical counselor supervisor in Ohio. Many of her former clients talked about the images they saw on Instagram, such as already-thin celebrities discussing “thigh gap” (as part of a supposedly “perfect” body, women and girls must have thighs that don’t touch each other) and other unrealistic physical standards. Such posts are usually popular, garnering a large number of likes and admiring comments, which gives girls the impression that this is what their bodies should look like, she says.

However, such standards are unrealistic for most females and are simply unachievable for girls with developing bodies, continues LaGuardia, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati. Regardless, these images are presented as the feminine ideal, presuming to highlight all of the elements that will make women attractive to men. At the same time, girls are often subject to sexual harassment at school and too often told by those in authority “that’s just how boys are” (boys will be boys) and that girls just need to find a way to deal with it, she says.

All of these messages about how girls should look and act and what they should accept come at a time when they are already struggling to figure out who they are. It is overwhelming, and self-injury is becoming a more common way to cope with the distress. Self-harm used to be most common in the eating disorder population, but according to LaGuardia, social media has introduced it to a wider audience. It isn’t necessarily that self-injury is presented as a positive behavior online. Most people who talk about it on social media are seeking support, she says. However, the widespread nature of the discussion has created social contagion.

The best thing counselors can do to help is listen and affirm, LaGuardia emphasizes. When adolescents talk about their experiences, some counselors focus on helping them feel better about themselves, but that is not what they need most, she asserts. Instead, adolescents need to express what they are going through and to process their confusion verbally. Counselors should respond, she suggests, by saying things such as, “That sounds really difficult” and “I’m here and I’m listening.”

“So many of the messages they [adolescents] are receiving are controlling,” LaGuardia explains. “They need to feel in control.”

As these clients become more comfortable, they will begin to talk about how they are coping with their turmoil. LaGuardia explains that these clients view self-injury as a means of surviving what they are currently experiencing, not a solution. “I ask clients, ‘Is this something you see working for you for the rest of your life?’ I’ve never had anyone say yes.”

Usually, LaGuardia notes, clients will say that they hope not to engage in self-harm forever, but at the current time, they don’t know what else to do. At that point, counselors can ask whether this coping method is something the client is ready to change. LaGuardia says the first step is finding out what the client needs help coping with and then exploring ways that will allow the client to cope without self-harm.

The most common underlying problem for clients who self-harm is conflict with a parent or sibling, LaGuardia says. In such cases, she works with the whole family on communication skills. She starts with the adolescent clients, teaching them how to express their needs without self-injury. She asks the adolescents to think about their most stressful conflicts and what they would like their parents to know. Then, through role-play, LaGuardia helps these clients practice asking for what they need.

Often, LaGuardia will also bring in the parents and have the adolescent express the source of conflict. As the parents and adolescent talk, things can get heated, so LaGuardia is there to help redirect the conversation. She also tries to educate parents about what adolescents need, which includes being treated as independent young adults and given space to grow, while at the same time knowing that their parents are always there to listen to them regardless of
the circumstances.

Adult transitions

Allen is the program director at College Excel, a residential, coaching-based college support program. The program’s clients are typically young adults who are coming out of high school and looking for extra support to succeed in college or those who previously attended college but dropped out because of a mental health issue or learning disability.

Many of the students have some level of anxiety and depression and often struggle with executive function deficits. College Excel provides the students with mental health support and coaching on life and study habits. Allen says he tries to run the program through the lens of good mental health practices. Calling on his background in wilderness therapy, he also encourages students to eat well, follow a consistent sleep schedule and get regular exercise. College Excel staff do not live on-site, but the program does provide students with housing, which helps them establish a sense of community and support — elements that are common among those who successfully adjust to college life, Allen points out.

Allen says that many of the program’s clients struggle with attention-deficit disorder and organization. College Excel staff teach students basic organizational skills such as using their attention strategically. For example, with students who struggle with memory and retaining information, Google Calendar can be a particularly useful tool. It can tell students where they need to be at any given moment, freeing up their attention and memory for other tasks.

Allen also talks with students about the importance of a clean workspace and provides them with practical tips on organization. For example, he says, students who constantly misplace things can save time and frustration by designating a space for pens, papers and other basics so that they will always know where to find them.

Students also work on developing good study habits. For example, rather than growing frustrated with their struggles to focus on what they’re reading for long periods of time, clients learn to study in 15- to 20-minute chunks, with five-minute breaks in between.

Roberts’ program is geared toward young adults who are coming from inpatient treatment and are ready to enter college or find a job. In addition to receiving ongoing mental health treatment, these clients take classes that focus on interpersonal skills, stress regulation, goal setting, time management and money management. They are also encouraged to exercise, and all students are matched with a case manager who helps them focus on sleep hygiene, peer interaction, health and nutrition, and, in some cases, dating.

Clients are required to attend one individual and one group counseling session per week. Counselors are also on-site five days a week, which allows them to give feedback outside of sessions. For example, a counselor might say to a student, “You say that you want to socialize, but you’re constantly retreating to your room or on the phone.” This opens up a discussion about why the student isn’t following through on counseling goals and allows the counselor and client to work on solutions together, Roberts says.

The students are usually enrolled in college or working when they start Roberts’ program. The coaching and classes take place around the students’ schedules, and staff members are available to help clients through whatever challenges they are facing in school or at work. Clients typically remain in the program about nine to 12 months. During the last six months, they move out of program housing and into their own apartments or college dorms.

Allen closes by noting that today’s adolescents and young adults — the oft-discussed millennials — are very much aware that older generations generally view them in a negative light. He believes this widespread maligning carries a psychic weight for this generation and can contribute to limiting their self-efficacy and sense of options.

Because this negative image of adolescents and young adults is so prevalent, Allen believes that even counselors may fall prey to it. “You can’t hold them in contempt and do good work,” he emphasizes. “The best thing we could be doing for them is stoking the fire of creativity.”

 

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Additional resources

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

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books and DVDs (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Youth at Risk, sixth edition, edited by David Capuzzi and Douglas R. Gross
  • A Contemporary Approach to Substance Use Disorders, second edition, by Ford Brooks and Bill McHenry
  • Active Interventions for Kids and Teens, by Jeffrey S. Ashby, Terry Kottman and Don DeGraaf
  • Suicide Assessment and Prevention, DVD, presented by John S. Westefeld

ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources)

  • Suicide Prevention
  • Substance Use Disorders and Addiction
  • LGBTQ Resources

Webinars (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/pages/events)

  • “Depression/Bipolar” with Carmen S. Gill (CPA22120)
  • “Trauma/OCD/Anxiety” with Victoria E. Kress (CPA22118)
  • “Substance Abuse/Disruptive Impulse Control/Conduct Disorder” with Shannon Karl (CPA22116)
  • “Counseling Students Who Have Experienced Trauma: Practical Recommendations at the Elementary, Secondary and College Levels” with Richard Joseph Behun, Julie A. Cerrito and Eric W. Owens (CPA24339)

 

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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