Tag Archives: teenager

Addressing sexual violence among teens

By Leontyne Evans October 13, 2021

Intimate partner violence is increasing at an overwhelming rate among teens and young adults. Because of this, sexual violence is also increasing. Due to the lack of education and awareness in this area, it often goes unreported to authorities.

To better understand the topic, we first have to define it. Sexual violence involves forcing or attempting to force a partner to take part in a sex act or sexual touching when the partner does not or cannot consent. It also includes nonphysical sexual behaviors such as posting or sharing sexual pictures of a partner without their consent or sexting someone without their consent.

While facilitating groups and programs with young people in Omaha, Nebraska, I found that 3 of 10 participants were victims of sexual assault by a partner and didn’t know it. They were unaware that the actions of their partner were classified as abuse.

This has been consistent with all groups, classes and programs that I have facilitated. It is important to bring awareness to how under-reported this issue is among youth. In many cases, it’s not only those who have been victimized who are unaware they have experienced sexual violence. Believe it or not, the perpetrators of such abuse can lack awareness that they are using abusive tactics such as manipulation and coercion.

The need to talk about sex

A lack of education in this area exists in part because it is typically seen as taboo to talk about sex and consent with youth. Among those who are victims of sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner, 26% of women and 15% of men report that the abuse or other forms of violence took place before age 18.

Many parents think that talking about sex will encourage their children to engage in sexual activity before they are ready, despite there being no solid research to support this belief. So, because parents aren’t teaching it at home and because the sex education being taught in schools is pretty much limited to “have sex and you’ll get pregnant or catch a sexually transmitted infection,” many youth don’t have a proper understanding of what consent actually is.

Some victims believe they have to have sex with someone because it’s their “job” as a partner. The urban proverb of “what you won’t do, someone else will” reigns in the heads of our youth, making them believe they must have sex to keep a person’s interest. There are also young people who have not been taught to accept the word “no,” so when their partner says it, they don’t believe it or accept it. They either continue to try until their partner gives in or they become aggressive because they feel “disrespected.” This is the behavior we must bring attention to as counseling professionals. But to do that, we must figure out where it starts, how it starts and why.

Overall, youth who offend are more likely than youth who do not offend to have backgrounds involving fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, substance abuse, childhood victimization, academic difficulties or instability in the living environment. Studies performed on youth offenders show that youth who have been faced with adversity are at a higher risk to offend. These studies seem to be suggesting that these problems are rooted in familial dysfunction.

The message of entitlement

My work with youth has exposed several issues with parenting when it comes to young people understanding and accepting the word “no.” Many parent do not seem to grasp that every decision they make will have an impact on their children one way or another. Raising entitled children may not seem like such a big deal when they are younger, but those small, cute children have to grow up someday.

Not telling a child “no” to avoid hurting their feelings or hearing them cry is common. We want to protect our children from the harsh realities of the world and try to soften the blow by giving them the things that make them happy. But what happens when that child turns into a teenager and can’t accept the concept of “no” because they literally don’t know how. What happens when that sweet baby grows up learning that “no” doesn’t really mean no? That if they keep asking, become aggressive, act intimidating or annoy someone enough, that “no” can turn into a “yes”?

Kids who can’t accept no for an answer or perceive rejection as a form of disrespect take these behaviors into adulthood and are more likely to abuse. Once again, it may not be intentional. They may not even see themselves as abusers. This has simply become their norm, a learned behavior that has been accepted rather than corrected, leading them to believe that the person saying no is the one with the problem — not them.

Working together

In the counseling profession, we not only have the ability to work with youth victims and perpetrators; we can also offer support to the adults in their lives. We can speak to the importance of supporting the development of healthy, respectful and nonviolent relationships. It is critical that we take advantage of our access and give parents tips on how to navigate through these tough situations.

During the preteen and teen years, it is critical for youth to begin learning the skills needed to create and maintain healthy relationships. These skills include knowing how to manage feelings and how to communicate in a healthy way.

We can all work together to end the cycle of teen dating violence and teen sexual violence by encouraging adults to create safe and brave spaces for our youth. This involves creating spaces at home and school where youth feel safe to come to an adult to have open and honest conversations. It should be a place of trust and support, not judgment and anger.

Youth also need examples of healthy relationships. If children have been subjected to unhealthy relationships, parents should consider seeking professional help for their children to process their feelings toward what they have witnessed.

We often focus on making sure that adults involved in domestic violence situations are connected to programs and services, but we tend to forget about how children are affected by the abuse. As we encourage adults to seek counseling, we should encourage them to seek therapy for their children as well. Second-hand violence is just as impactful as firsthand violence.

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Being willing to be uncomfortable

In working with youth, we need to get used to the idea of introducing the concept of consent and safe sex at an early age. Contrary to popular belief, this will not encourage youth to have sex. It will, however, ensure that they are properly educated and prepared when they do decide to engage in sexual activity.

We also have to start having the same conversations with boys and girls. We can’t teach our girls about consent and not our boys. We can’t see only our girls as having the potential to be victims and not our boys. All children should be provided with the same knowledge, skills and tools to combat abuse.

Finally, we must create the possibility for prevention. Sex education should include more than discussions about pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Safe sex should refer not only to using condoms and contraceptives but also to discussing actual safety. Safety includes consent, mental and emotional safety, physical safety, the environment, etc. Using a condom does not make sex safe.

I had a client say that she hadn’t been raped because she didn’t scream and he used protection. We must change the narrative of what rape looks like in our society. We have to educate our youth in all things concerning sex, not just the parts that are comfortable to discuss. Then and only then can we begin to end the cycle of teen dating violence and sexual violence.

 

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Leontyne Evans works as the survivor engagement specialist for Survivors Rising, where she helps to empower and uplift survivors by providing education and resources that encourage survivor voice and self-sufficiency. She is a published author of two books, Princeton Pike Road and Relationships, Friendships and Situationships: 90 Days of Inspiration to Keep Your Ships From Sinking, both of which support her mission of ending the cycle of unhealthy relationships. Contact her at leontynesurvivorsrising@gmail.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.

Internet gaming disorder: A real mental health issue on the rise in adolescents and young adults

By Doyle L. Raymer Jr. September 1, 2021

I grew up playing video games and have followed their technological evolution through the years. As such, video games have been a big part of my life and remain so to this day. These games are a source of entertainment and relaxation, and they can even provide opportunities for social interaction and connection. They can contribute to improving a person’s cognitive skills, creativity, communication and reflexes. Many people use them as a healthy coping mechanism to decompress.

On the flip side, there is growing concern about the potential of negative mental health consequences associated with playing video games. Some of these concerns include gaming addiction, negative coping mechanisms, unhealthy lifestyles, loneliness and isolation, depression and even suicidal ideation.

As someone who still plays video games, I have met an alarming number of individuals who struggle with these concerns. In many cases, these individuals have no support system or don’t know how (or when) to seek professional help. My concern is that many counseling professionals are unaware of the devastating impact that gaming can have on a person’s life — just as any form of addiction can.

The evolution of gaming

As a gamer myself, I have always been fascinated by what draws people to play games and how games can affect and influence individuals, from their thoughts to their worldviews to their social identity. It raises a question: How does playing a game give meaning to one’s life?

Playing a game is not simply playing a game. A lot is going on in the player’s mind as they are playing, which often presents a hidden meaning behind gaming interactions. As the world continues to develop and evolve around technology, video games will also continue to develop and evolve. Video game addiction has grown at alarming rates over the past few years, and this trend will likely continue. For this reason, concern is growing in the mental health community around video game addiction and the gaming population.

Video games have been around for decades, and as time has gone by, their popularity has increased exponentially, as has the size of the gaming community. As of 2020, it was estimated that more than 2 billion people around the world played video games. In the U.S. alone, 160 million Americans engage in online gaming daily, making the gaming industry worth over $90 billion.

Video games have developed into esports and are being more widely recognized as electronic but real sports. Both share many of the same principles of competition, including professional players, recognized teams and huge audiences of fans. Stadiums fill with fans as professional esports teams face off, competing for prizes in excess of $1 million. In 2017, more than 250 million online viewers watched popular online games such as League of Legends and Overwatch, generating $756 million in revenue that year (for more, see Internet Gaming Disorder: Theory, Assessment, Treatment and Prevention by Daniel L. King and Paul H. Delfabbro).

In addition, many video gamers make a living playing games by streaming to online platforms such as Twitch to thousands of viewers. As the video game industry has developed, it has gained popularity and will continue to do so.

Mental health impact

As the popularity of video games has grown and the community of players has expanded, certain negative consequences and mental health impacts have become increasingly evident. In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), internet gaming disorder was included in the section recommending conditions for further research. Gaming disorder was defined in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a “pattern of gaming behavior (digital-gaming or video-gaming) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

Internet gaming disorder was not classified as a unique mental disorder in the DSM-5 due to a lack of research in the field and debates regarding the recognition of behavioral addiction, but I believe recognition could help millions in need. At the same time, the opposing side argues that inclusion of internet gaming disorder in the DSM-5 would only generate unnecessary concern and lead to a stigma around such behavior.

Meanwhile, gambling disorder is recognized by the DSM-5 as a form of behavioral addiction, and it shares many similar characteristics with gaming disorder. So, I ask, why is this issue being ignored? Countries such as South Korea and China, where gaming addiction numbers are very high, have already recognized this as a serious disorder and developed treatment programs.

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Factors that can lead to addiction

Video gaming is a fun activity for many people, in large part because of the positive reinforcement players receive for the split-second decisions they make while playing the games. From clicking a mouse button or controller to moving a character, from slaying the enemy to leveling up, games provide constant and instant feedback to their players.

Games also contain online environments where real-time players can connect with other players or join a guild. This gives players a social identity and can provide feelings of self-worth. Many players experience a sense of meaning in-game because they are constantly presented with objectives to achieve or obstacles to conquer.

In addition, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) provide players with endless opportunities, scenarios and outcomes from quests, intense guild battles, endless levels and intense competition to be the strongest player on the server. But such games motivate players to spend long hours playing a game that has no ending, potentially leading to poor sleep habits, unhealthy diets, isolation from others and the real world, and addiction.

Perhaps the most important factor leading to video game addiction is the increased dopamine levels experienced during play. This is where the concern originates because it can lead to maladaptive behaviors, unhealthy coping mechanisms and, potentially, addiction. Given the constant feeling of reward for in-game decision-making and the often-endless levels or possible outcomes in a game environment, gaming can become addictive. It can end up serving as an alternate reality and an escape from real life because the game provides the player with a “better” version of it.

According to the DSM-5, the presence of five or more of the following symptoms over the period of 12 months characterizes such behavior as concerning and maladaptive. These nine symptoms include:

1) Preoccupation with internet games

2) Withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, anxiety and sadness

3) Tolerance or the need to increase time in gaming

4) Unsuccessful attempts to stop gaming

5) Loss of interest in other activities

6) Psychosocial problems due to excessive gaming

7) Deceiving family members, therapists or others on the amount of time spent gaming

8) Use of internet gaming to escape or relieve negative moods

9) Jeopardizing or losing a significant relationship, education, job or career opportunity because of online gaming

Three stages

The process of gaming addiction occurs in three stages. In stage one, the game is played actively for fun. In stage two, games are no longer “fun,” but the individual still spends many hours playing to remove negative emotions such as stress, sadness and worry. In stage three, the game is no longer fun and no longer removes negative emotions.

During stage three, biological addiction occurs due to constant and persistently high levels of dopamine release, leading to a state of dopamine exhaustion. When dopamine exhaustion is reached, not only do games lose their potential for fun and pleasure, but so do other areas and activities. At this stage, individuals often find themselves feeling apathetic, directionless and without meaning in life. We can compare this evolution to alcoholism, in which the effects of alcohol decrease over time, requiring more alcohol to achieve the same effect.

Treatments and theoretical approaches

An effective way to reestablish normal functioning, regulate dopamine levels and improve quality of life is simply to take a break from gaming. During this period, which can take three weeks to two months, those who are addicted are encouraged to explore other activities and hobbies of interest as an alternative to gaming while dopamine levels reset.

What separates gaming from other addictions is that the addiction does not require quitting games forever. Instead, recovery focuses on learning to control time spent playing games. Strategies such as creating a schedule that incorporates healthy gaming habits into a routine while prioritizing other aspects of life have proved effective.

Much research is still needed about video game addiction to address the most efficient treatments and theoretical approaches for working with this population. When considering intervention strategies in counseling for gaming addictions, it is important to remember that no one-size-fits-all approach works. What works great for one individual may not work well for another. No single treatment has proved superior or most efficient yet. Cognitive behavior therapy has been the standard approach for many professionals, according to King and Delfabbro.

Professionals have also had positive results treating video gaming addiction with narrative therapy, especially with children and adolescents. As Alice Morgan writes in the book What Is Narrative Therapy? An Easy-to-Read Introduction, such therapy is effective because it “views problems as separate from people and assumes people have many skills, competencies, beliefs, values, commitments, and abilities that will assist them in reducing the influence of problems in their lives.” Narrative therapy might address strengths involving achievements in a game, such as being among the top players or leading the team to victory. It further explores these strengths and skills by incorporating them into real-life scenarios. It is equally important to assess the level of addiction as mild, moderate or severe by analyzing the severity of symptoms and the negative impact of gaming behavior.

It is important to establish trust and rapport during initial sessions. One effective way of developing rapport and trust with such clients, especially those who are resistant, is to mindfully disclose any experience the counselor has with video games. The counselor and client can find common ground through such shared interests and experiences. In contrast with substance abuse and alcohol addiction, the ultimate goal with gaming addiction is often not to eliminate gaming once and for all but rather to effectively control and reduce time spent playing video games. The goal is to normalize behavior that does not negatively interfere and affect other areas of life and overall physical and mental health.

As we rapidly move into technological and online environments in many aspects of our daily lives, video games will continue developing exponentially, and gaming communities’ growth will follow. Mental health issues are also rising among this growing body of diverse gamers. Using games as a coping strategy for other underlying issues can lead to an addiction, as real life is replaced with a virtual and more favorable one. Research in this area will continue to develop, and so will the emphasis placed on this issue and population by mental health professionals. More awareness of internet gaming disorder and the struggles faced by this population is needed to promote mental health and well-being.

 

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Doyle L. Raymer Jr. is a mental health counseling student at Walden University. As a gamer himself, he has a deep interest in internet gaming addiction. It is his deep desire to advocate and create awareness to help improve the overall mental health of members of the gaming community. Contact him at doyle.raymer@waldenu.edu.

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Related reading, from Counseling Today‘s October magazine: “Six steps for addressing behavioral addictions in clinical work

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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.

Suicidality among children and adolescents

By Laurie Meyers August 25, 2021

This past spring, Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a “state of emergency” in youth mental health. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital system’s pediatric emergency rooms and inpatient units had become increasingly overrun with children and adolescents with serious mental illness, many of whom were actively suicidal.

“It has been devastating to see suicide become the leading cause of death for Colorado’s children,” the hospital’s CEO, Jena Hausmann, told journalists and reporters at a pediatric mental health media roundtable on May 25.

This mental health crisis is not confined to Colorado, however. Pediatric medical systems across the nation have reported a significant and sustained rise in mental health-related visits for children and adolescents that began in spring 2020. According to the June 18, 2021, issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, mental health-related emergency room visits among adolescents ages 12-17 increased 31% compared with the rate in 2019. In addition, the report found that in this age group, the mean weekly number of emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts was 22.3% higher during summer 2020 and 39.1% higher during winter 2021 than during the corresponding periods in 2019. This increase was more pronounced in girls; during winter 2021, suspected suicide attempt visits to the emergency room were 50.6% higher among girls ages 12-17 than during the same period in 2019.

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A confluence of factors

Research indicates that mental health concerns and suicidality have been increasing in children and adolescents for years. The current crisis cannot be linked to any singular cause, but it is evident that the isolation and anxiety of the pandemic added an accelerant to an already burning flame.

Renee Turner, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in San Antonio, points to several factors she believes have been detrimental to child and adolescent mental health. Although she declares she is not by any means anti-technology, Turner admits she is concerned about the influence of social media, which not only continues to feed cyberbullying — which, unlike “old-school” offline bullying, is inescapable and omnipresent — but also encourages children and adolescents to view the world through an artificial lens, she says. “Children don’t have the ability to sort out what is real, what’s true,” and many parents are not teaching them how to consume online content in context, explains Turner, a registered play therapist supervisor. Technology is all-consuming, and many parents do not monitor or restrict their children’s screen time.

For that matter, Turner notes, many adults struggle with their own screen addictions. She believes this contributes to another modern problem: attachment issues. The rise of dual-income families, in which parents work demanding hours or multiple jobs for financial reasons or because of career demands, makes it more difficult to find time for bonding, she asserts. 

Turner also considers the pressure of living in such an achievement-oriented society another potential factor in the increase of suicidality among this population. “I see kids who are chronically overscheduled,” she notes. These young people are involved in myriad activities in consistently competitive environments in which achievement is conflated with self-worth, Turner points out. “It’s all [based on] their output, instead of them being valuable for just being them,” she says.

Turner, the director of Expressive Therapies Institute PLLC, has counseled middle school-age children who are already anxious about how they’re going to get into college. The demands on their time are such that they are staying up late into the night to get everything done, she says. What really stands out for Turner is that some of her clients who are in middle school and younger are self-harming and suicidal because they see no end to the treadmill they find themselves on. The COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the situation, she says, because children and adolescents struggled with online schooling even as parents tried to juggle working from home, taking care of the kids and helping with schoolwork. 

Turner stresses that children and adolescents need to have areas of their lives that exist simply for enjoyment — not performance. “If everything is evaluated, everything becomes work,” she observes.

Sarah Zalewski, an LPC who specializes in child and adolescent counseling, was working as a school counselor in a Connecticut middle school at the beginning of the pandemic. She noticed that the coronavirus restrictions had a profound effect on her clients and on students. “The kids who were in virtual schooling and separated from their peers struggled way more than those in school,” she says. “That routine and the connection with their peers is almost like a distraction from the stuff that is going on in their heads.” Things that had been on a “low boil” suddenly flared up, she says. 

Children and adolescents also seemed to struggle with the loss of familiar routines, Zalewski adds. Interestingly, she noticed that students who had been perennially overscheduled before the pandemic had a particularly hard time coping.

Catherine Tucker, a licensed mental health counselor in North Carolina and Indiana who specializes in trauma therapy for children, adolescents and adults, notes that early adolescence (approximately 11 to 14 years) is a particularly vulnerable time. “One of the normal developmental pieces [during early adolescence] is that every generation thinks they’ve invented all the normal problems, such as peer pressure, sex, bullying, dating. They feel like nobody older than them can possibly understand what is happening to them,” she says. As a result, adolescents often feel seen and understood by their peers but not by adults, especially their parents, notes Tucker, an American Counseling Association member and a licensed school counselor at the middle school level. This is a vital source of emotional validation that adolescents have been missing while separated from their peers, she points out.

Tucker also thinks that we’re underestimating the value of physical contact. “Just basic touch; it doesn’t have to be intimate. Just being near other people. The more we find out about neurobiology, the more we learn that things like eye contact, physical gestures and cues can help regulate the nervous system,” she says.

Marginalized populations are at an even greater risk for mental health issues and suicide, and the disproportionate toll of COVID-19 on Black, Indigenous and people of color communities has been an exacerbating factor. Brenda Cato, a professional school counselor who has experience with elementary, middle and high school students, says many of the students at her predominantly Black high school in Augusta, Georgia, saw school not as a social event but as an escape. Most of her clients come from impoverished homes where parents are working multiple jobs and utilities are skyrocketing. At school, these students get two meals a day. Cato believes not being able to get these meals during the pandemic played a significant role in students’ general inability to cope. 

Working with parents

The counselors interviewed for this article contend that educating parents is a vital part of addressing the suicide crisis among children and adolescents. Learning the warning signs of suicide and knowing what to do if a child becomes suicidal is crucial for parents, but it all begins with establishing communication and a sense of trust and safety. “The most important thing is to be able to establish a safe … [environment] where your kid can come and talk to you,” Zalewski says. 

She advises parents to schedule regular one-on-one time with their children. That might involve going out to eat ice cream together or playing games and talking, for example, but she emphasizes that the time should be spent without the parent being on their phone. It is important for children and adolescents to know that they have their parent’s full attention, she says. Zalewski also recommends having regular conversations in which the parent communicates that anything their child tells them in that time or space has no consequences.  

Turner’s clients include overscheduled and single parents who often struggle with the idea that to truly be there for their children, they need more time — time that they don’t have. So, Turner emphasizes quality time to these parents. “It’s essentially meeting the child where they are,” she says. “Taking an interest in what the child is interested in and asking them about that, engaging in their world.” Turner suggests parents have “date nights” with their kids and schedule times when everyone shuts off their phones and puts them in a basket to create a distraction-free zone. 

It can also be helpful to teach parents to establish “bursts” of listening time, Turner says. For example, when a parent is in the middle of something and a child is saying, “Mom, Mom, Mom,” the parent can reply, “OK, I have five minutes right now, so tell me what you need to tell me.” 

Of course, parents may struggle with how to respond appropriately when they find out that their child is experiencing a mental health crisis, especially if the child says, “I don’t want to live anymore.” Zalewski reminds parents that it is important to first take a moment to listen to their child. She then advises parents to say something that lets their child know they are there for them. For example, “Thank you for telling me. That was a brave thing to tell me. Do you want to tell me more about that?”

Zalewski then helps her clients plan for the next steps. “It doesn’t need to be a heavy-handed thing,” she says. Parents can use language such as “We are going to collaboratively figure out what our next steps are. I don’t want you to feel that way, and I want to keep you safe.” The child and parents can then discuss options. 

She adds that parents should ask one crucial question: “Are you able to keep yourself safe?” If the child isn’t sure, she advises parents to say, “I think maybe we need to go to the hospital and see if the counselor there can give us some ideas.” In many states, clients can call 211 to reach appropriate health agencies and even request that a mobile crisis unit come to the home to help establish a crisis plan, she adds.  

But even children and adolescents who have trusting and open relationships with their parents don’t always speak up when they’re experiencing suicidal thoughts. So, counselors need to ensure that parents recognize the warning signs, which are similar to those in adults. “What’s scary is that adolescents can be so much more impulsive than adults, especially … kids who have poor impulse control generally,” Tucker acknowledges. “There are fewer warning signs and fewer opportunities for intervention.”

Tucker emphasizes the importance of educating parents about reducing children’s access to means of suicide, such as having unlocked firearms and medications in the home. 

“The warning signs that I look for are not necessarily different than [those for] adults but are often written off as ‘teenage behavior,’” Zalewski says. For example, withdrawing may be either a warning sign or simply a wish to be alone. Parents should look for major changes in their child’s behavior in areas such as eating, sleeping and socializing, she says. Giving away prized possession is also a major red flag, she adds. 

Zalewski stresses that parents should not dismiss a child’s statement of wanting to hurt or kill themselves. “So many parents have said, ‘I thought this was just them expressing themselves for attention.’ If this is your kid’s way of getting attention, you need to pay attention and find out why they are using those words,” she says. 

Zalewski also urges parents to honor their intuition: “If you think there is a problem,” she says, “there probably is.”

Teachable moments

Cato faced a different kind of challenge when educating parents of students who had been identified as suicidal. “I was working in a predominantly Black elementary school, and a teacher sent a child to me who had been making suicidal comments,” she recalls. After assessing the student, Cato called the grandmother, who was the child’s guardian. The woman was irate and asked how many students in the school had been tested for suicide. Cato reassured the grandmother that the school didn’t test — it assessed. This taught Cato the importance of educating parents on suicide rates and the percentage of children who attempt or die by suicide.  

Cato didn’t approach the situation with the student’s grandmother from the attitude of “your kid is suicidal, and you will get help.” As a parent herself, she knew that if she didn’t understand what was happening with her own child, she would want someone to walk her through it. So, Cato sat down with the grandmother and explained that her granddaughter wouldn’t necessarily be put on medication or need ongoing therapy. However, Cato recommended that the child be seen by an expert. She told the grandmother that the school just wanted to make sure the child was OK and that she wouldn’t harm herself. Cato also reassured her that her granddaughter would not be stigmatized or labeled as a “problem” student, nor would a note be put in her permanent record. “I think everything is about how you communicate with people,” Cato says. Besides, the grandmother’s concerns were understandable, she adds. Black students are commonly — and disproportionately — diagnosed with serious mental health issues, Cato says, adding that she has seen students of color sent to special education classes based solely on disciplinary issues.

After the student was medically cleared, Cato worked with the student to create a reentry plan that included regular check-ins. These were sometimes as simple as walking casually with the child and asking her to rate her day on a scale from 1 to 10.

Cato tries to turn all her interactions with students and parents into teachable moments. She provides them with pamphlets, resources and crisis hotline numbers, and every time she visits a classroom, she reminds students that the counselors and teachers are there for them. She says she tries to “help them to understand it is not abnormal to feel this way.” She purposely uses “we” when she speaks to students: “We’ve all gone through rough times; we all need help sometimes.” 

Zalewski believes it is essential to also point out and honor the resilience strategies that children are already using. If listening to music helps a child or makes them feel better, then it is a good coping skill, she says. Discovering coping strategies helps build children’s confidence, she notes, and she informs parents of their children’s coping strategies too.

For that matter, Zalewski has found that her young clients often love to teach the strategies they have learned in session to their parents. In fact, to encourage clients to practice a skill outside of session, she recommends that they teach their parents how to correctly take a deep breath and explain what deep breathing does to the brain to calm the body. “Because then we’re helping parents regulate, [and] then we are co-regulating,” Zalewski says. “It can also really give a child a sense of self-efficacy that a lot of kids are lacking because kids are inherently powerless.”

She also works with clients on mindfulness, guided imagery, progressive relaxation, and identifying what physical activities they enjoy and why. For example, a child might like to play basketball in the driveway, but in Connecticut, snow often gets in the way. So, Zalewski helps them figure out the source of their enjoyment: Is it the physical energy they’re expending? Is it the repetition? They then come up with alternatives such as using weights in the basement. Zalewski is a firm proponent of anything that can get clients moving and (when possible) outside. “Nature is reparative for most humans,” she notes.

Tucker says that before the pandemic, children and adolescents were already experiencing stress related to a lack of connection, which she thinks could be associated with too much screen time. As children and adolescents begin to return to in-person activities, it is crucial to make sure they strike a healthy balance between screen time and social activities such as playing sports, working on art projects or simply hanging out together, she stresses. She also believes that the currently common practice of banishing recess in favor of test preparation or other extra classroom work has contributed to children’s anxiety levels. She argues that kids need a lot more time dedicated to free play and imagination.

Helping the helpers

Julia Whisenhunt, an LPC and certified professional counseling supervisor, specializes in studying and training others in suicide prevention. She always frames her workshops around suicide data to “help people understand that [suicide] isn’t uncommon.” Her goal isn’t to normalize the idea of suicide but rather to let people know that it happens and there is help. 

“I know there’s an assumption that talking about suicide makes people suicidal, but the research doesn’t bear that out,” notes Whisenhunt, an ACA member who is an associate professor in the counseling department at the University of West Georgia (UWG). “I think it’s the opposite. I’m confident that trainings have saved lives and helped individuals. I know that. I’ve lived it. The suicidality is there — people are just struggling in silence.”

It is important when training people who are not mental health professionals to emphasize that their role is not to “save” an individual who is suicidal but rather to get them help, Whisenhunt adds. 

Although Whisenhunt’s workshops are geared toward college staff (and students in positions of authority, such as resident associates), she is trained in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), which can be used to train staff in public school districts. ASIST is a 14-hour training created by the company LivingWorks that is grounded in research, Whisenhunt says. UWG’s counseling department does ASIST training with practicum students, and Whisenhunt says they report feeling much more confident once they have taken the course, even though they have already learned a good deal about suicide in their program.

One of the main components of ASIST is the “pathway for assisting life,” Whisenhunt explains. “They have a model for how to have a conversation about suicide with someone.” She tells practicum students that this is a model that summarizes everything they already know, but it presents the information in a format that is easy to keep at hand in a crisis. 

The first part of the model is about connecting with suicide, she says. It has two main tasks: exploring indications of suicide risk and then spotting warning signs and naming them. Once warning signs are identified, trainees learn to act directly without beating around the bush, Whisenhunt says.

Whisenhunt and her follow trainers also instruct workshop participants on how to talk about suicide and what to do if someone is expressing suicidal thoughts. She warns participants not to ask, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” because that could mean many different things to the person. Instead, she encourages training participants to be direct and not be afraid to use the word “suicide.” For example, they could ask, “Are you thinking of killing yourself? Are you thinking of suicide?”

She also advises them not to ask leading questions. “If you ask, ‘You’re not thinking about suicide, are you?’ the person knows the answer you want them to give,” Whisenhunt explains. “If the person seems hesitant, trust your gut, talk a bit more, make them feel more comfortable, and circle back around.”

She also tells people to keep asking about suicide. Don’t just ask once and feel “relieved that you got that out of the way,” she insists. “If you felt like you needed to ask and the answer doesn’t feel right, ask again,” she says. “A lot of people don’t want to die — they just want the pain to end. Help them know there’s another way out.”

Counselors also need to be prepared to provide resources, Whisenhunt adds. She advises her trainees to keep hotline numbers in their phones and to carry suicide prevention cards in their wallets. 

“When talking with an individual and hearing about their despair, chances are you are going to hear something that means that they don’t want to die. It’s often something like, ‘I don’t want to leave my dog,’” Whisenhunt says. “If you hear that little thing that says they don’t want to die, you don’t [want to] be manipulative, [but] you say, ‘I know that you’re in a lot of a pain, but it seems to me like you’re still thinking about living because you want to be there to take care of your dog.’ That’s the turning point — where they start to turn away from suicide and toward life.”

Counselors can then ask clients if they want to develop a plan to keep them safe for now, Whisenhunt continues. The use of the phrase “for now” is important, she stresses, because when people are in a suicidal crisis, talking about living for years and years is overwhelming to them. The safety plan should be for a matter of hours or days — just until the person can be connected with help, she explains. 

The ASIST safety plan includes “safety guards” and “safety aids.” Whisenhunt says safety guards include protecting clients from risk factors such as a plan to die by suicide, problematic alcohol or drug use, prior suicidal behavior, or mental health concerns that might exacerbate risk. Counselors can help clients consider ways to mitigate these risks such as by reducing or eliminating drug use. 

Guarding also involves being mindful and looking at previous suicide attempts for clues to keep the client safe, Whisenhunt adds. For example, the client might be impulsive, so part of keeping them safe involves having someone stay with them for a few days. 

Safety aids are elements that help improve a person’s chances of staying safe, Whisenhunt explains. Counselors can help clients consider the strengths they already possess and the supports they need to build. “It’s strengths-based,” she says. “We try to help individuals see their strengths and resilience and see options to help them feel better.”

Being prepared 

Counselors may be trained in suicide assessment and prevention, but putting that knowledge to use can still be a scary prospect, Zalewski acknowledges. For that reason, she stresses the importance of specialized training. If possible, she recommends that counselors find a local training opportunity with someone who can continue to serve as a resource for them afterward. She chose to work with a mobile crisis unit to learn more about helping those in suicidal crisis.

“There are a lot of modalities out there for suicide assessment,” Zalewski notes. “I would recommend not just picking one modality to learn. To be competent, you have to have a good understanding of what’s out there. Whatever you choose to work with has to mesh with you as a human. Explore what’s out there [and] learn several. … It’s well worth it, so when you are faced with some child who has decided they don’t really feel like living anymore, you’re not looking in your file cabinet or texting saying, ‘OMG.’”

Supervision is also essential, Zalewski stresses. “As counselors,” she says, “it’s easy to get to the point where you think, ‘I’ve been doing this for years, and I don’t need supervision.’” But that’s not the case. Sometimes, Zalewski says, she’s certain that she knows something, but supervision helps her realize that somewhere along the way, what she thought she knew got twisted. 

Counselors also need to have their own sources of support when doing this difficult work. “If you’re working with children and adolescents who are suicidal, it is a heavy weight,” Zalewski acknowledges. “It is so easy to question yourself.” And if the all too imaginable happens and a client completes suicide, the counselor is going to need backup, she adds. 

“Everyone in the end makes their own decisions,” she says. All that counselors can ultimately control is the level to which they provide clients with the best preventive tools, and “a good supervisor will help you assimilate that.”

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Laurie Meyers is senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at LMeyers@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.

Counseling outside the box

By Bethany Bray February 25, 2021

Clients bring an unending range of presenting issues, personalities, life histories and challenges into counseling. Fortunately, counselors also have an infinite supply of tools for forging therapeutic bonds, meeting clients’ needs and helping clients tell their stories.

Counselors need only flex their creative muscles to find approaches that can bolster trust with clients and speak to each person’s unique life experiences and worldview. Exploring a client’s interest in skydiving as a metaphor for self-awareness and trust? Discussing a favorite dish or recipe as a prompt to get a client talking about family-of-origin issues? Assigning a client to play video games online with peers as a first step toward addressing social anxiety? The sky’s the limit.

Counseling Today contacted several counselors who are using interesting, fresh or different approaches to help their clients and students. We hope that you will be inspired by their ideas and possibly use them as a jumping-off point to think outside the box in your own work.

Sparking connection with photos

As the adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

American Counseling Association members Brandee Appling and Malti Tuttle believe the truth of this saying holds up even in counseling settings, especially in the age of smartphones, when photography is ubiquitous. Why not leverage that by asking clients to bring photos and images into sessions, they reasoned. Prompts such as “bring in an image that represents you feeling happy” or “bring in an image that represents your family” can be eye-opening for clients and clinicians alike, Appling and Tuttle say.

The duo, former school counselors who met while working as co-coordinators of the school counseling program at Auburn University, have found that “phototherapy” can encourage dialogue and boost empathy and connection in counseling. This can be especially true in group settings, with child and adolescent clients, and with individuals who struggle with speech or whose primary language is not the same as the counselor’s.

Photos and images introduce “another mode of communication” in counseling, says Tuttle, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who is an assistant professor and school counseling program coordinator at Auburn.

“Photographs can bring insights into someone’s life that we might miss when talking — things that the client can’t verbally express or doesn’t think to,” adds Appling, an LPC and approved clinical supervisor who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at the University of Georgia. “It helps to break down walls [in session] and makes it easier for the client to talk about something that’s concrete rather than [topics] that are in the air, so to speak.”

When Tuttle and Appling have used this approach in school settings, students have often been able to display photos on their cellphones. If students don’t have access to a cellphone, they may be able to check out digital cameras from the school, or the exercise can be widened to include printed images such as postcards or magazine clippings, the counselors say.

The counselor’s role is to prompt conversation by asking questions about the client’s image and then allowing the client to reflect and speak. The counselor should never try to interpret the image or impose their feelings about it, Appling stresses.

“This is not to be used to diagnose [clients]. This is not meant to be a stand-alone tool but part of a range of counseling tools,” Appling notes. “It’s one thing that we would use, but it’s not the only thing we would use. It should be part of the therapeutic process, one tool to use in an interrelated system.”

In group settings, an assignment to bring in an image that “represents you” can help participants get to know one another, build connection and create a sense of belonging, Tuttle says. Asking group members to explain why they chose their image can prompt meaning-making, empathy and recognition of others’ viewpoints and perspectives. It can also provide the group leader a glimpse into each group member’s personality and emotions.

The exercise “builds a sense of universality and connection with one another, [prompting] conversations that might not happen organically,” Tuttle adds.

She suggests spurring dialogue in sessions (whether individual or group) by asking open-ended questions such as:

  • Why did you choose to bring this particular photo?
  • What meaning does it hold for you?
  • What would you title this photo, and why?

Appling has used this approach with a group she ran for students who were going through family transitions (e.g., divorce, a death in the family, living in foster care). When asked to share an image that represented the changes they were going through, one student brought in a photo they had taken of a unique seashell.

The seashell “was a representation, for them, of where they had been,” Appling recalls. “It looked very different than any other seashell that I had ever seen, and I initially didn’t recognize the image as a seashell. We talked about how water had changed it and eroded it. The seashell represented [the student] but also the growth and change they were experiencing.”

This intervention can also be flipped, with the counselor bringing in a photo for clients and students to discuss. When presenting on this intervention at conferences and trainings, Appling and Tuttle use an image of an aging set of concrete steps with vegetation growing through the cracks. They ask participants:

  • What do you think this image means?
  • What emotions does it elicit?
  • What does this photo remind you of in your own life?

Despite being shown the same image, participants typically share a wide range of thoughts, reactions and associations regarding the picture, Tuttle and Appling say. Some people see resiliency and growth in the vegetation, whereas others see decay and despair in the cracked steps.

“It’s really interesting to be able to see the perspective of each participant,” Appling says. “It’s a lesson that we all see things very, very differently and that it depends on the things we have been through, our different lenses. It’s a lesson that we all bring different experiences and viewpoints.”

 

Walking (and running) the walk

Counselors can use a seemingly unlimited number of running-related metaphors to encourage clients: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Focus on the mile, not the marathon. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

But for Natae Feenstra, an LPC with a private practice in Smyrna, Tennessee, this approach goes beyond the metaphorical. An experienced runner who has completed multiple marathons, she sometimes conducts outdoor counseling sessions with clients as they run and talk, side by side. As a counselor who specializes in “running therapy,” Feenstra offers running sessions for clients who are comfortable with and interested in donning their sneakers and hitting the trail with her.

“For the client, it’s first and foremost a counseling session,” says Feenstra, who is working on a dissertation on running as a therapeutic treatment for trauma as part of a doctorate in counselor education and supervision through the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky. “A goal to get to a certain number of miles is never part of a client’s treatment plan. The goal is improvement of mental health, and running is a tool for that.”

Counselors have long known the benefits that movement and exercise can have on mental health, including stimulating the release of endorphins, dopamine and other brain chemicals. Engaging in movement and exercise also offers opportunities for processing thoughts and mindfully focusing on one’s breath and stride.

“Natural bilateral stimulation — that’s all that running is. Rhythmic movement of large muscle groups, and we know that can bring amazing benefits to our brain,” explains Feenstra, a former school counselor who recently transitioned into private practice. Running therapy also offers the built-in ecotherapy component of enjoying sunlight, fresh air and views of nature as she and the client run and talk, she adds.

Feenstra’s approach is individualized. If a prospective client requests running sessions, Feenstra agrees only after having at least one consultation to get to know the client and their presenting concerns and determining whether the approach would be a good fit. She also offers walking and walk/run sessions, as well as traditional, stationary counseling sessions.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Feenstra is conducting all of her traditional counseling sessions via telebehavioral health. She continues to offer in-person running therapy for clients who are comfortable doing that, while following health guidelines concerning physical distancing as much as possible.

Above all, she suggests running only if the client is comfortable with it. She points out that clients don’t need to be experienced runners to engage in this approach. She modifies each session to the client’s ability and comfort level. “It’s never about the pace or distance of the run. It’s about the movement, going alongside the therapeutic conversation,” says Feenstra, a member of ACA.

Feenstra has seen significant improvement in clients presenting with anxiety and depression who engage in running. Her clients have also self-reported boosts to their self-esteem, self-efficacy and overall wellness.

In addition to the mental health benefits that running provides on it own, these mobile sessions can help strengthen the counselor-client bond and support clients who might otherwise struggle to open up in a more traditional therapy setting, says Feenstra, who is also a certified running coach with the Road Runners Club of America. “Some people are intimidated by eye contact or other aspects of face-to-face sessions, or being in an office with a power differential. For some people, [running during counseling] can help them speak more freely,” Feenstra says.

This was recently the case for an adult male client on Feenstra’s caseload who presented with severe depression and anxiety. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his condition had worsened to the point that he was no longer leaving home.

When Feenstra and the client began meeting, counseling sessions were the only time the man ventured out. They eventually transitioned to mobile sessions, beginning with a walk/run mix to fit the man’s comfort level. Within a few sessions, his anxiety and depression had lessened so that he was leaving his house more frequently and beginning to reengage in hobbies and activities that he had enjoyed previously.

“The platform of running therapy was what prompted him to leave the comfort zone of his house. A telehealth platform would not have made him leave his house, and he was not interested in pursuing [therapy in] an office environment,” Feenstra says. “In this case, the running therapy was what helped him pursue counseling services. I think it was the running piece that was intriguing [to him], and it was so helpful to get him outside to conquer his anxiety.”

Running therapy “is not a miracle treatment, of course, but there are cases where it can make a difference, just like any therapy,” she adds. Running therapy, pioneered by American psychiatrist Thaddeus Kostrubala, has been around since the 1970s, she notes.

For running sessions, Feenstra meets the client in a park, on a trail or in another public place that she is familiar with or has checked out ahead of time. She begins by warming up with the client and chatting as they stretch. After completing a run or walk, they finish by cooling down and reflecting on the session together.

Feenstra acknowledges the potential lack of confidentiality when holding counseling sessions in a public place. She addresses this with her clients ahead of time, both with detailed language in her informed consent forms and verbally, explaining that they can pause their conversation whenever another person is within earshot.

“I let the client dictate,” she says. “I let them know that [they] can choose to lower their voice, stop talking or continue talking if they are comfortable.”

While many counselors may not be runners themselves, they could have clients who enjoy running. Practitioners don’t have to offer running therapy to leverage running’s benefits for their clients, Feenstra points out. She sometimes incorporates running by assigning clients to run outside of session (again, only if they are interested and able) and then uses that to prompt counseling work in their next session together. Running provides an opportunity to relieve stress, tap into the subconscious and process thoughts away from the distractions of life, Feenstra explains.

Clients may find it helpful to keep a journal to record their thoughts, questions and discoveries made while running. This can be used as a self-development tool or as something the client brings into sessions, Feenstra notes.

“Since the run time is often prime time for thinking, clients and counselors can discuss [in sessions afterward] how the run went and what their thought process was like on the run,” Feenstra says. “Also, since running has an innate mindfulness component, this [aspect] can be used as a counseling tool. The counselor might give the client a thought to ponder or a mindfulness activity to meditate on during their run time.”

 

Movies and moral development

One of Justina Wong’s clients had served a long military career as a sniper with a special forces unit. His experiences in service, including multiple deployments overseas, had left him with posttraumatic stress disorder and a relative inability to show or express his emotions. When he did, it often manifested as anger. His relationship with his wife and family was becoming increasingly strained, and one of his children was beginning to fear him.

In counseling, what clicked for this client was Wong’s suggestion that he watch two movies that, on the surface, were geared toward children: Charlotte’s Web and Inside Out. Wong’s client was able to see himself — and many of the emotions he was having trouble identifying and expressing — in the moral arc these movie characters experienced.

“The response that he had was very powerful,” says Wong, who completed an internship at a nonprofit that serves military veterans and their families as part of her master’s in counseling program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. As they processed the movies together in session, “We talked about healthy coping skills and unhealthy coping skills. He began to open up more about what he saw and experienced in the military. He had a very hard time differentiating [between] feeling angry and feeling sad, which is common among this population. Feeling angry is accepted, but feeling sad is seen as [a] weakness or being undependable.”

Cinematherapy, or using movie storylines, characters and themes as a therapeutic tool, can be particularly helpful with child or adolescent clients and those who struggle with depression, trauma, loss or social anxiety, Wong says. It’s also useful for individuals who might not respond well to more traditional counseling interventions and those who have trouble opening up to a counselor, she adds.

Clients can observe and learn from movie characters’ struggles, growth and perseverance in the face of challenges throughout their story arcs, explains Wong, a member of ACA. Clients “can feel like they’re not alone because someone else [a movie character] is going through a similar thing. They can see a character’s unhealthy behavior, coping skills and what they did or didn’t do to manage. It can help clients communicate and voice their emotions and understand what their values are.”

A counselor can either assign a client to watch a particular movie (that the practitioner has vetted) outside of session, or the counselor and client can watch film clips together in session. Either way, the important part of the intervention involves the therapeutic discussion afterward, Wong says.

Wong, a recent graduate of the Chicago School, prompts dialogue with open-ended questions. For Inside Out, these include:

  • Which emotions do you consider to be positive, and which do you consider to be negative?
  • Tell me about a time when you suppressed a particular emotion and, as in the movie, your “island” started falling apart.
  • What islands do you have in your life?
  • What role do joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust have in your life?
  • Describe a time you felt embarrassment, shame or guilt regarding something from your childhood.

Wong stresses that cinematherapy must be individualized when used in counseling. Practitioners should carefully consider whether the approach is a good fit for each specific client and appropriate for their presenting concerns and therapeutic goals. She uses only movies that she is very familiar with and has prescreened. Her list includes About Time (2013), Mulan (1998 animated version), Yes Man (2008), The Lion King (1994 animated version), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Toy Story 3 (2010) and others.

“You really want to do your due diligence and make sure you’re using this intervention to the benefit of the client,” says Wong, a certified trauma professional. “If you don’t, it [watching movies] just becomes a recreational activity.”

The therapy goals of Wong’s veteran client included mending his relationship with his family and being able to have conversations without becoming triggered and angry. As a grown man and hardened military veteran, he initially bristled at the idea of watching children’s movies. But when he began to understand how they could help him strengthen his family relationships, he agreed. He watched Inside Out with his entire family and discussed Wong’s therapeutic questions afterward with his wife.

When Wong suggested he watch Charlotte’s Web, she warned him about the movie’s sad ending because he had never seen it before. Even so, Wong recalls, he was very upset in the following counseling session. As they began discussing the movie, the client realized that he identified with Wilbur’s feelings of isolation and loneliness. The pig’s friendship with the spider, Charlotte, reflected the camaraderie he felt and the bonds he had formed with the soldiers in his unit, some of whom had not made it home alive.

“He put two and two together and understood that when Charlotte dies, she couldn’t return home with Wilbur, and he [the pig] was angry, sad and in despair. [The client] had served in special forces and had lost many friends and was trying to bury and push away his troubles. … After processing it [in therapy], he understood why I chose that movie for him to watch,” Wong says. “The lightbulb turned on for him when Charlotte and Wilbur have a conversation in the movie and she tells the pig that she can’t return home with him.”

Wong talked these issues through with the client, supporting him as he processed, during which he began to show emotion and cry — a major breakthrough for someone who had appeared emotionless and “very by the book” at intake, according to Wong.

The movie discussion spurred the client to open up to Wong. He disclosed that during one of his deployments, several soldiers he was in charge of had died as they worked to secure and occupy an area. The area was eventually retaken by insurgents, and the client wrestled with feeling that his comrades had “died for no reason,” Wong says. He struggled with moral conflict and felt frustrated and betrayed by his commanding officers and the government. “It was powerful progress. He was able to talk about that, which he had never [done] before,” she says.

When used intentionally, cinematherapy can be a powerful tool, Wong notes. She was inspired to explore the approach after hearing Samuel T. Gladding, a past president of ACA and a professor of counseling at Wake Forest University, present on a range of creative interventions, including cinematherapy, at the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors conference in January 2020. “It’s up to the counselor to be as creative — or not — as they want to be,” Wong says. “I never thought of myself as a creative counselor, but when I heard Dr. Gladding’s presentation … I guess I’m more creative than I thought I was.”

 

Once upon a time

As a doctoral candidate at North Dakota State University, Robert O. Lester recently taught a class on group counseling to first-year, master’s-level counseling students. Most students, Lester notes, came into the class with an innate understanding of empathy, but as the class neared its end, he looked to delve deeper, teaching empathy in an applied manner.

He turned to fairy tales. Lester asked students to write a tale that illustrated some of the challenges they had encountered and the personal growth they had experienced over the span of the class. The assignment had just two requirements: Begin the story with “Once upon a time …” and don’t make fun of any tale shared in class.

The exercise succeeded in opening students’ eyes to a greater understanding of empathy while spurring the growth of their professional identities. It also equipped them with a creative intervention that can be used with clients in counseling sessions. Going through the “imaginative labor” of observing one’s self in unfamiliar places or scenes expands our concept of what is possible, Lester explains.

“Many students began with ‘I don’t have a story to tell,’” says Lester, a school-based counselor and ACA member. “You don’t need to have gone through some great suffering; you just need to be up close to your own desire and belief. It’s the distance of suffering that empathy can’t cross. It was an assignment to bridge the distance between ourselves and others by keeping the desire and suspending the disbelief. It’s about a willingness to let other worlds be possible. This is the initial move of empathy.”

Weaving one’s experiences into a fairy tale can be a helpful exercise for counseling students and clients alike because the stories are compact and give the writer the satisfaction of identifying a coherent story arc and conclusion, even if it’s not a happy one, Lester says.

Writing fairy tales “is expressive, playful and may surprise you. It can loosen the tongue for serious talk. Letting people become a little more enchanted and surprised with themselves would have a lot of possibilities [in counseling]. Then, it would be on the counselor to facilitate a good discussion afterward,” says Lester, who is now living in California and working as a counselor at an alternative-education high school while he completes his doctoral dissertation. “One of my favorite things about this [intervention] is when we surprise ourselves. … It can certainly break some of the narrative ruts we can get into.”

In counseling sessions, prompting clients to express themselves through fairy tales could be a good fit for “any situation where you want someone to begin trying on differences,” Lester says. “Organizing our experiences into an imaginative story — a story where there’s room for enchantment, and the marriage of emotion and imagination — [can be beneficial] for clients who operate with a lot of constraint in their life, either self-imposed or imposed by culture or external forces, especially if they’re having trouble imagining themselves otherwise.”

Fairy tales offer students and clients a chance to cast themselves in new roles, organize their experiences into a sequence, and reflect on the challenges they’ve overcome and how they’ve grown from start to finish, Lester explains. In turn, they gain an appreciation for their belief of what they’re up against and their desire for how they go on.

This benefit was magnified when Lester invited his counseling students to share and discuss their fairy tales in class. This enabled them to see how different each of their journeys were.

“At the deepest level, I was hoping the fairy tale project would be a hermeneutical project [and] part of their professional identity development — marrying your own worldview into the profession [and] taking the feelings of others seriously and compassionately, especially those who don’t experience the world as we do,” Lester says. “They are just beginning in counseling and have to learn to honor others’ worldviews. This fairy tale [assignment] was a compact way to help them begin by rendering their own experiences as unusual and in need of close reading.”

One of Lester’s students wrote an impactful fairytale about a protagonist named Mia. She lived in an idyllic village where everyone knew one another and worked according to their talents — except for Mia, who spent much of her time alone, reading. Although she liked her fellow townspeople, Mia felt something was missing in her own life, Lester says. She harbored an intense curiosity and sense of imagination that many of her neighbors did not share.

Her story took a turn when some creatures from the outlying forest visited her and asked for her help. An ancient well where they lived, deep in the forest, had dried up. The well was the source of the creatures’ magical powers.

Kindhearted Mia knew she had to help and journeyed into the forest, where she found the well in shambles. Her heart broke for the forest creatures, and at a loss for what to do, Mia began to cry. As her tears flowed, they filled and restored the well. Mia’s compassion had saved the day. Not only had she revived the creatures’ source of magic on her quest, she had also discovered her own sense of purpose.

In class discussions afterward, the student who wrote Mia’s tale talked about feeling alienated in the small town where she grew up. Everyone in town seemed to know how they fit into the fabric of the community, but this student was never able to find her niche, Lester says.

Her fairy tale was a beautiful description of this concept. “She [Mia] is looking for a world where her tears have a place and can do something on behalf of others,” Lester explains. This paralleled the student’s own struggle to find her way and cultivate her professional identity.

“We all go through growing up and forming identity, but her fairy tale elevated the experience,” Lester says. “Suddenly, Mia’s tears could do work and were life sustaining. I find that incredibly moving — that language of having permission to cry, because you don’t know what wells your tears might replenish. To me, that’s a whole other order of coming to apply empathy. [Learning empathy] begins with ourselves and becoming empathic with some of the pain and beauty of growing up. … There’s something poetic in that everydayness.”

 

Culinary therapy

Each of the elements in chef Samin Nosrat’s 2017 cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, can be used as therapeutic metaphors in counseling work with clients, suggests Michael Kocet, a professor and chair of the Counselor Education Department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

If a dish doesn’t have enough salt, it can be bland, but if the cook oversalts the dish, it becomes inedible. “One little [extra] pinch of salt can ruin a dish,” Kocet says. “Talk that through with the client: In life, what do you have that’s not enough or too much? What in your life is that extra pinch of salt? Is it unleashing an opinion on a family member? How can we control that?”

Similarly, acid is very powerful and must be wielded correctly, as in ceviche, in which citrus juice is used to cook the dish without heat. Continuing the metaphor, a counselor can ask a client about the “acid” they have in their life. “Maybe their sarcastic humor is biting. Talk about when that can be useful and when it can be hurtful,” advises Kocet, a licensed mental health counselor and approved clinical supervisor who provides pro bono counseling at the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center in Chicago.

Food, eating and cooking are so intertwined in most people’s life histories, perspectives and preferences that they can become beneficial tools when leveraged in counseling, says Kocet, who taught a course on “culinary therapy” when he was a professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. Although he no longer teaches that class, he continues to weave culinary elements into his work with clients and students in Chicago and has provided workshops and trainings on the topic.

In addition to tapping into a bountiful supply of culinary-related therapeutic metaphors and conversation starters, counselors can consider giving clients the assignment (when appropriate) of cooking a dish at home and debriefing in session afterward. The dish doesn’t need to be anything complicated, Kocet emphasizes. It could be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a simple salad, he adds. Cooking or preparing food mindfully, no matter the recipe, can prompt reflection. Tracking experiences in a cooking journal may also benefit clients who respond well to this approach.

“Food is often a binding element,” Kocet explains. “If I have a client who is struggling in a relationship, I might have them cook a recipe that represents their relationship and talk about that [in session afterward]. Or if a client and their partner are from two different cultures, I might have them cook a meal that incorporates elements from their two cultures. … One aspect to [help] forge cultural connection with clients is to discuss food: what they grew up eating and what was ‘celebration’ food. That’s one way to get to know the client a little more. Clients are often really proud of food and cultural traditions, and it’s one way to connect and break down barriers in a counseling setting.”

Assignments for a client to cook with a partner or family member can prompt bonding and offer a fun and creative way to work on healthy behaviors introduced in counseling, Kocet adds. Also, cooking “failures” don’t have to be failures when talked about and learned from in counseling. Perhaps a client forgot an ingredient or strayed from the recipe. How does that parallel the choices made and lessons learned in their life outside of the kitchen?

Even time spent cleaning up and washing dishes after cooking can serve as a mindfulness exercise, Kocet points out. Practitioners could suggest that clients take time to reflect on how they felt stepping outside of their comfort zone to try a new recipe as they clean up the kitchen and feel the dishwater on their hands.

Kocet has developed a culinary version of the genogram mapping tool that he uses with clients to delve into family issues. He keeps a small collection of cooking spices and a sleeve of mini paper cups in his counseling bag. As he begins the exercise, he lines all of the spice containers up on the table and asks the client to select a spice that represents them and other members of their family circle. The client pours a little bit of each person’s spice into a separate cup. Eventually, a constellation of spice-filled cups is displayed in front of them.

Kocet prompts the client to talk through why they chose that particular spice for each person. Cinnamon or red pepper flakes might signify either a warm personality or a hot temper, Kocet points out. The exercise encourages clients to talk through issues related to their own identity and helps the counselor better understand how the person views their family network, Kocet explains. Similarly, questions that invite discussion of traditions and memories surrounding food can encourage clients to reflect and open up, while giving practitioners additional context on clients’ families of origin and related emotions.

Kocet, an ACA member and a past president of the Society for Sexual, Affectional, Intersex and Gender Expansive Identities (SAIGE), a division of ACA, specializes in grief counseling. “If a client is missing someone they lost, such as a grandmother, it can bring comfort to cook a dish that she used to make,” he says. “Cooking uses all the senses — we can connect with loved ones through the tastes and smells [involved] in the act of cooking.”

As with any counseling intervention, practitioners must be mindful of the ethical ramifications of incorporating cooking and culinary elements into therapy and consider whether it is appropriate for each individual client, Kocet stresses. Clinicians should practice caution in using the approach with clients who struggle with disordered eating, and cooking assignments should not be given to clients who have a history of suicidal ideation or self-harm because knives and other equipment could be involved, he says.

Kocet plans to continue exploring the use of culinary elements in counseling and is in the early stages of a research study on therapeutic cooking as a coping tool for the isolation, anxiety and depression people have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

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Staying within scope of practice

Practitioners considering the use of nontraditional approaches in client sessions must always keep the profession’s ethical guidelines in mind. Professional counselors’ licensure guidelines and scope of practice vary from state to state. Practitioners must ensure that any approach, whether a widely used talk intervention or one of many complementary methods such as aromatherapy, reiki, yoga, acupuncture and others, fall within their state’s scope of practice regulations before using them with clients or students.

In addition, counselors must consider the potential risks to client welfare, whether the approach is evidence-based (which is called for by the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics), and their own level of competency in using the method.

 

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

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

Online role-playing games as group therapy during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Per Eisenman and Ally Bernstein February 18, 2021

During the challenging era of COVID-19, many young people are experiencing the sort of isolation that can interfere with healthy social development. This may be particularly true for young people who were already wrestling with significant mental health challenges before the pandemic. Telehealth group therapy that utilizes role-playing games offers a hopeful modality for facilitating individual growth in a group context.

Setting the stage

When one of us logs in to the Zoom session 10 minutes early, a picture of a cat immediately pops up. Martin has been waiting all morning for the group to start. He appears briefly and shows us his cat, Betty, sitting on his lap, before turning the video off so that only the photo of Betty is visible.

Gradually, everyone else joins and our game begins. Martin is committed to the group; he has never missed a session and is always early. In Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games, group members play fantastic adventurers, working together to overcome obstacles and gain rewards. The facilitator narrates a story, and the group members describe how their characters respond.

Martin plays an elf wizard named Sylvan who has a cat (also named Betty) as his magical animal companion. Martin was initially a bit shy but has integrated into the group and participates in collaborative decisions; he also loves to talk about Sylvan’s cat and backstory. Martin joined the group after the COVID-19 stay-at-home order in the spring of 2020, once we moved to a virtual environment. As is the case with some others in the group, this is Martin’s only social contact outside his family.

The therapeutic group allows for a structured social interaction — a place where people can connect, practice social skills, and modulate their inner and outer worlds. Many of the young people we work with experience social anxiety, depression or social skill deficits. The experience of a safe social setting where they can experiment with becoming someone else allows them to develop connections that can be both an antidote to loneliness and an opportunity for growth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of isolation. Young people especially are having fewer opportunities to develop socially, and schools are not able to provide as many opportunities for social contact. Telehealth group therapy using role-playing games creates opportunities for social connection and resiliency-building that may not be possible in person during the pandemic.

Collaborative creativity

Role-playing games hold a place in the pop-culture imagination as a niche interest, but their popularity has increased in recent years, and therapists have started implementing the games more widely as a group therapy modality for older children and adolescents. In role-playing games, one facilitator describes an imaginary world, and the participants (playing characters) describe their actions in that world. Sometimes success and failure are based on dice rolls, but players’ creativity and collaboration are also key in helping a group achieve its goals within the world. The game has many decision points, and each player can change the course of the story.

Martin’s character, Sylvan, has blasted open treasure chests with fireballs, duped goblins by pretending to be their grandmother, and hatched a dragon egg. Martin’s creativity influenced the world for himself and the other players, creating a new set of circumstances and changing the direction of the story.

During the game, the facilitator sets the stage: “You enter the pirate’s cavern. As you go in, you see a couple of pirates standing guard.”

The group members discuss how they would like to respond. Should they fight the pirates or try to sneak past them?

“Let’s trick them,” Maya suggests enthusiastically. Maya is shy in real life, but in the game, she plays a tough brute who likes smashing down doors. Martin’s character is cunning and enjoys deception. He likes the idea, and they work together to come up with a ruse.

Martin’s character says, “We are poor pirates who have lost our way in the tunnels. Could you tell us the way to the ship?” He rolls the dice to see whether he can convince the pirate guards to let them pass.

Traditionally, role-playing games are played in person, sitting around a table with maps of the adventure setting, rolling dice, and telling the story together. However, it is possible to play the games remotely through videoconferencing and the use of online platforms. In recent years, remote role-playing game use has increased dramatically. The virtual medium confers new benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic and in an era of physical distancing. It translates surprisingly well to a telehealth group therapy experience. Martin, who struggles with social anxiety, told facilitators, “I like playing online better. I can turn off my video.”

Emergence of change

In the many groups we have run with colleagues, we have observed the emergence of group dynamics and group member interactions that have influenced the choices members make and their participation in the group. Some group dynamics become apparent through the group members’ interactions with one another or from the progress of the group over the course of many sessions. Other patterns emerge in the development of individual group members and the impact they have on the group.

We were particularly struck by the memory of Kendra, who had a very clear vision of how she wanted the game to proceed. She wanted to control the narrative so badly that she soon began frustrating the other players.

“Can I roll the dice to persuade Maya that she should give me her gold?” Kendra asked. She prioritized stealing gold or impressing pirates controlled by the game master over helping the other characters.

This led to frustration among the other group members. Some members began to go silent. One spoke out angrily against Kendra, suggesting the group members’ characters fight Kendra’s character. The frustration of the group turned into a discussion, and Kendra ended up changing her character’s behavior entirely, deciding that her character needed to work with the group and eventually save them, sacrificing herself for the greater good.

She said, “I want my character to help the group, but the shift has to make sense for her character arc. She can’t just change overnight.” We had numerous discussions about what it might mean for her character to develop.

We asked the other group members what they valued about the game, and another member said, “Working together as a team.” The emotional message felt palpable. We were thrilled that the adolescent participants were able to lead this discussion themselves and process as a group with only minimal prompting from the adult facilitators.

Role-playing games involve the players describing the actions of their characters, while the game master describes the rest of the world and the people who inhabit it. The world is imaginary, and visual aids are optional. In a therapeutic group, this system allows for group members to explore identity construction and navigate group dynamics. Therapy groups for teens support the essential task of identity development in the context of relationships with peers and adults.

Much like with any good therapeutic group, what happens within the context of the game often reflects the members’ lives out-of-game. When the game master is also a therapist, questions such as “How are you similar or different from your character?” and “Why did your character make that decision?” make the game a clinical experience. The avatar of the character allows each group member a safe distance through which to explore, process, experiment, fail and succeed.

Group process as an adventure

Role-playing games have long been an effective group therapeutic modality, but creating a shared imaginary world presents unique opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we are unable to safely convene in person.

Every age has different developmental tasks to achieve, and during the pandemic, these tasks have either been interrupted or have required us to make notable changes in how we carry them out. With schools shifting the way education is delivered because of the pandemic, the amount of social interaction has been significantly reduced. On the whole, we are spending more time isolated from others, and young people are having fewer opportunities to develop socially. Role-playing games, a high-interest activity, allow for social experiences to happen through telehealth in a way that might currently be impossible in person.

Role-playing games feature goals, conflict, choices and relationships. Young people can do something together by completing tasks that require creativity and teamwork. Playing every week creates routine and ritual. Having a group means that young people have regular contact with adults and peers outside their immediate family.

Games can be adapted for different age groups and needs. Children and adolescents can develop executive function and practice resiliency. The technology necessary to play the game online can malfunction and lead to frustration, allowing participants to practice patience and engage in troubleshooting. Also, because the games are fun and silly and joyful, the fantasy setting can provide everyone with a much-needed break from the stress and grief of the current world (or a way to process grief and loss, because characters can die too).

This innovative form of group telecounseling provides an opportunity to engage young people who might not otherwise actively participate in a group process. It also provides an opportunity to support the cultivation of interpersonal relationships with group members in serious need of social skill development. Right now, during the pandemic, if we want to offer something that simulates living and striving in close proximity to others, we can. These challenging times call for innovation. Therapy can become exactly what kids need: a safe but exciting place to be challenged to grow. In other words, an adventure.

 

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Related reading, from the CT archives: “The power of virtual group therapy during a time of quarantine

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Per Eisenman (peisenman@csac-vt.org) and Ally Bernstein (abernstein@csac-vt.org) are community mental health counselors in the Youth and Family Services Program at the Counseling Services of Addison County in Middlebury, Vermont. They have been leading therapeutic groups for teenagers using role-playing games since 2015 and 2018, respectively. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they transitioned these groups to telehealth.

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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.