Tag Archives: Career & Employment Counseling

Career & Employment Counseling

Forty years later, counselors are still asking, ‘What Color Is Your Parachute?’

Compiled by Bethany Bray August 21, 2017

If there ever was a job seeker’s bible, it would be What Color Is Your Parachute?

Four decades after Richard “Dick” Bolles’ seminal title was published, the book continues to influence job seekers and the counselors who support them.

American Counseling Association member Rich Feller worked with Bolles and counts him as a mentor. Feller, a professor at Colorado State University and a past president of the National Career Development Association (NCDA), a division of ACA, wrote a section of Parachute titled “What the Parachute Flower Has Meant to Me.”

Years later, Feller says he gets at least one email per week from people around the world who tell him how influential the book has been in their lives.

Parachute is just as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1972, according to Feller. “Even more so, considering how clients face an augmented workforce within a skills-based gig economy,” he says. “More than ever, clients must manage their career while navigating a lifetime of transitions.”

Bolles, an Episcopal minister and career counselor who studied chemical engineering at MIT and physics at Harvard University before his winding career path led him to write Parachute, passed away this year at age 90 in California.

Counseling Today asked career counselors from across ACA for their thoughts on Bolles’ legacy and how they have used What Color Is Your Parachute? in their work with clients – and their own personal journeys.

 

***

 

Dick Bolles and What Color Is Your Parachute? did more for counselors than any contemporary career development thought leader, bar none. Parachute popularized self-inventory, taught solid job-hunting skills, put color and fun into lifework planning and moved counselors from trait-factor to life-design practices.

Parachute nudged the field to stay current every year, not only about job searching but [about] how career development was a personal responsibility to stay fully alive. [Bolles] provided the framework for counselors to help people transfer skills into possibilities.

Without Parachute, we’d still be focused on “test and tell.” With it, counselors soon embraced positive psychology, life design, field research and job search as a body of knowledge.

I was lucky to have David Tiedeman send me to one of Dick’s first two-week retreats. Probably his first student to be a counseling professor, I later wrote the “What the Parachute Flower Has Meant to Me” section of the book telling how the book changed my life. A lifework planning champion since then, 90 percent of my “Flower,” published in Parachute, still holds true. Having taught the Parachute process to Colorado State University graduate students for 30 years, it has created counseling champions for career development.

Each principle found within Parachute can be seen in how I serve as witness to [clients’] own storytelling and meaning-making from formal or informal feedback. Self-inventory and clarification best precede intentional exploration, or clients end up chasing external motivation, interests shaped by an exposure bias and a hollowness and disengagement at work.

Self-disclosing my “Flower” to 11 million-plus readers has led to hundreds of letters received, suggesting it helped others gain clarity about their desires, assets and possibilities not identified through traditional sources. Each large-scale counseling project I’ve helped to create (lifereimagined.orgcdminternet.comyouscience.com or our Who You Are Matters! board game) are laced with sentences found within Parachute.

  • Rich Feller

 

***

 

 

It’s a fair assumption that most professionals who practice counseling and psychotherapy have heard of, and many will have recommended to their clients, the best-selling job search book of all time, What Color Is Your Parachute? (10 million sold!). Richard Bolles, the author who first published the self-help book in 1972, refreshed or updated the book every year until the last time in 2017. He died at age 90 earlier this year.

For counselors like me who specialize in career, the passing of Richard Bolles might be more personally felt, like the loss of a dedicated mentor. Here was a man whose brilliant mind for several decades gave us an accessible how-to guide subtitled, “A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changers,” who knew from his own hard knocks of being laid off the importance of hope and humor and sprinkled that liberally in the book, and who as a one-time minister, always addressed the further reaches of human beings in the last chapter, [titled] “Finding Your Mission in Life.”

For these reasons and more, my first recommendation to every client, no matter what age or stage of career, is to send them to the source: Obtain a recent edition of Parachute, read it and do the exercises. The core of the book contains a self-inventory to help readers figure out what they really liked doing so that they could find the job that would let them do it.

This assignment did not make my job as a counselor redundant. Rather, it helped me do it at a more advanced level, with better-informed clients who understood the hidden job market, that heart is more important than intellect in choosing your best skills, and how and why to do informational interviews. Bolles, who also co-wrote a guide for counselors, forever transformed the career field, and his words will continue to guide many readers and counselors alike.

  • Dave Gallison, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a practice in Portland, Oregon, specializes in career and personal development. He collaborates with a guild of career counselors in Portland that also publishes a biweekly blog, Career Transition: The Inside Job.

 

***

 

 

I bought my first copy of Parachute in 1990 shortly after graduation from college. Having spent several months in a job that was less than meaningful on good days and completely disheartening on most days, I plunged into what became my first career guidance experience. I have clear memories of working through the prioritization grid and the flower exercise. I remember the realization that there were so many more possibilities for my career than I had previously considered.

Through Parachute, I gained so much awareness about the world of work, myself and the

Images via Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/8JTPuu and https://flic.kr/p/M7zARJ

mysterious job search process, and yet I still felt a vagueness regarding what I wanted to do with my life. My clients now share this familiar feeling with me. Indeed, Parachute was my first encounter with career counseling and guidance.

I recently co-taught a senior seminar – a course designed to facilitate healthy transitions from college to the “real world.” My co-instructors and I chose Parachute as one of the required texts. As I flipped through the book, I was flooded with memories. The blue pages in the back of the book, the résumé with the picture of the heavy equipment salesman and the picture letters pouring out of the mailman’s bag each reminded me of working through a pivotal and frustrating period of my life.

I was disappointed at the end of the semester when my students reported that Parachute wasn’t a favorite for them. A bit dated and “kind of blah” is how they reported their experience with the book. Ouch! I tried to disregard the glaring metaphor. I took my copy to my counseling office. Two weeks later, one of my clients asked to borrow the book. When he returned the next week, he raved about Parachute, insisting that it was just what he needed. It may still hold some relevance.

  • Chris Pisarik, associate professor in the Division of Academic Enhancement at the University of Georgia and LPC with a private practice in Athens, Georgia

 

***

 

What Color Is Your Parachute has provided hope, insight and guidance to job seekers and career-changers for over four decades. I always valued the relevant and practical suggestions that came with each new edition. This was especially true for my clients and students after the Great Recession of 2008, when it seemed the rules of the job seeking game had changed. Richard Bolles consistently modified his book to reflect the current economic landscape and addressed how to thrive within this “whole new world for job hunters.”

In What Color Is Your Parachute, Bolles gave people permission and direction to reflect on what was most important in their lives. This reflection allowed them to discover how to leverage their skills, knowledge and networks to reach their career goals. I often directed my clients and students to the pink pages at the end of the book, which included resources [such as] how to discover your life mission and how to cope with your feelings while out of work.

Professionally, I appreciated that Bolles included a guide to choosing a career coach or counselor in his pink pages. Often, individuals who are unemployed or underemployed aren’t sure what steps they can take to improve their situation. I wonder how many people over the past 47 years have picked up this book, read through the pink pages and decided then and there to connect with a career counselor? This book will continue to have a lasting impact on our clients, our profession and ourselves.

  • Rebecca E. Michel, assistant professor at DePaul University, licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) in Chicago and Gallup Certified Strengths Based Coach

 

***

 

 

Richard (Dick) Nelson Bolles brought career planning and job search assistance to everyone. He did so in a folksy, step-by-step manner that put people at ease and demystified a process that seemed, to many, to be unwieldy and unmanageable. Dick was very charming, both one-on-one and in his presentations. When he spoke, he had a charisma that drew you in and made you feel important. His seminal work, What Color Is Your Parachute? set the stage for numerous other self-help career and job search books.

He made interpersonal networking the key to professional success. The myriad of activities he developed have been so often used, modified and replicated that they have nearly become public domain. They are so frequently a part of career development and job search courses that most people who train them to others don’t realize from where they originated.

Dick Bolles not only made a lasting impact upon the field of career development but upon millions of job seekers throughout the world. While he will be missed personally, his legacy lives on.

  • David M. Reile, NCDA president (2016-2017), licensed psychologist, National Certified Career Counselor and Master Career Counselor

 

 

****

 

Dick Bolles devoted his life to empowering people to find work that connects with who they are and who they hope to become. He was a formidable figure in the career development field and the impact he has made on the lives of countless people around the world is truly remarkable.

Personally, I recall when I contacted Dick to invite him to serve as a keynote speaker at the 2004 NCDA conference. Fully aware of his elite status in our field and also aware of what keynote speakers at this level tend to require for speaking engagements, I was bracing myself for an amount that was likely out of our compensation range. Instead, Dick simply replied, “please compensate me at the same level you do others, no more no less.” Moreover, he made every effort to make himself available to our members, providing crucial support and encouragement to beginning and advanced career practitioners.

Dick thought “outside the box” long before this was fashionable. His creativity, imagination, insights and commitment will be sorely missed.

  • Spencer Niles, NCDA past president (2003-2004) and president-elect-elect (2018-2019) and a dean and professor in the School of Education at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia

 

 

****

 

 

See a tribute video Rich Feller made about Bolles and Parachute for the recent NCDA conference at youtu.be/qZhEzRl0er8

 

 

 

****

 

How has What Color Is Your Parachute? influenced your own career path and work with clients? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

 

 

****

 

Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

 

****

 

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.

 

 

Behind the book: Postmodern Career Counseling: A Handbook of Culture, Context and Cases

Compiled by Bethany Bray August 14, 2017

In a postmodern world, supporting clients through career ups and downs demands consideration of the person’s cultural context and background.

“Career counseling becomes not so much a procedure but a philosophical framework for guiding the work of counselor and client,” explain Louis A. Busacca and Mark C. Rehfuss in their book Postmodern Career Counseling: A Handbook of Culture, Context and Cases.

“Cultural context becomes essential as the labor force in the United States becomes more diverse, with marked increases in the number of women, non-White, immigrant and older workers,” they write in the book’s introduction. “… In the uncertainty of today’s workplace, career counselors are increasingly called upon to help clients navigate work and life situations, which are typically in a state of flux. Every client’s experience is embedded in a cultural context, which is a factor that makes each client’s experience unique.”

Postmodern Career Counseling: A Handbook of Culture, Context and Cases was published this year by the American Counseling Association. Busacca is an adjunct assistant professor of counseling and human services at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and adjunct professor of psychology at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio; Rehfuss is an associate professor and director of the human services distance program in the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Old Dominion University.

 

Q+A: Postmodern career counseling

Counseling Today sent co-authors Louis A. Busacca and Mark C. Rehfuss some questions to learn more:

 

In the preface, you write “cultural context becomes essential as the labor force in the United States becomes more diverse, with marked increases in the number of women, non-White, immigrant and older workers.” Can you elaborate on this – what would you want counselors to know?

Why is this (a focus on client context) important – and important enough to write a book focused on it?

Traditionally, multiculturalism in career counseling and development has shown us how clients from diverse backgrounds fit into existing theories and interventions, but it does not fully explain how to process the unique experiences and interpretations of clients. Lacking was how people think of themselves in relation to their culture and social context – social constructionist call this narrative identity. As such, culture in postmodern career counseling (PCC) focuses on the personal meaning and interpretations individuals ascribe to elements such as race, ethnicity, age, sex and sexual orientation, and context involves a focus on individuals interacting with and within their social and environmental contexts.

As career planning becomes more precarious and employment more contingent, clients who come to us feel anxious primarily because their identity no longer holds and comforts them. Social philosopher Anthony Giddens stressed that the demand on the individual to construct her- or himself has become a major social fact of our societies. So, when a client has trouble reconstructing their story, they may feel anxious, discouraged or frustrated. In a postmodern sense, the job of career counselors is to first locate their interaction and experiences within the contextual environment that shaped their story, and then help the client use their own culturally-embedded stories to revise their identity.

Given today’s precarious work environment, we believe it is important to help students and practitioners understand that identity is formed by and expressed in client narratives, and these narratives are culturally and contextually embedded. As we help clients meet demands imposed by career tasks, occupational transition or a work trauma, counselors go beyond the experiences of clients fixed on group membership to the meaning and interpretations that clients ascribe to their culture within a sociohistorical context. Career interventions such as narrative, autobiography, life design, card sorts and possible selves mapping – all discussed in our book – help clients reconstruct their identity through self-reflection, provide a sense of coherence and infuse work lives with meaning.

 

What is postmodernism and why is it important for career counseling today?

The way the term postmodern is used has become so convoluted that confusion may exist regarding its meaning. In general, postmodernists believe that individuals construct meaning or perceive their own reality or truth. This contrasts with the modernist assumption that an external and objective meaning can be discovered. The goal of postmodernity in counseling and psychology can be summarized as an attempt to be more inclusive and to avoid marginalizing the many voices and viewpoints that modernity has overlooked. So, our critique of modernism does not challenge its validity, but the omission of the process. Somehow, modernist career theories and interventions left out the mapmaker (the subject) who may bring something to the picture.

The new social arrangements of work in the United States during the last few decades have made career progression for many people more difficult. Adults increasingly find themselves in frequent transitions among jobs, occupations and organizations. We believe that the turn to postmodern career counseling keeps up with the pace of this transformation and the needs of clients. Since the 1980s, career counseling has increasingly infused its theories and practices with psychological constructivism and social constructionism. When reading our book, it may be useful to think of them as windows or perspectives for how counselors view and approach a client’s experience and reality. These perspectives emphasize subjectivity or meaning making, appreciate multiple perspectives, acknowledge multiple truths, value interpretive or qualitative research and emphasize context. Much of this is taught in counselor education programs today in areas such as marriage and family counseling. Nevertheless, it has slowly emerged in the career field.

As a response to the modernist tradition, the postmodern conceptualization of career represents a unique interaction of self, identity and social experience. In our changing world of work, we encourage counselors to acknowledge this new paradigm for career services that comprehends the diversity in people’s lives for the 21st century.

 

 

What would you want professional counselors who do not specialize in career counseling to know about this topic?

In our experience providing both clinical counseling and career counseling services, we have found that the models and methods of postmodern career counseling are applicable to counselors who work in various counseling modalities and specialties. To understand how this is possible, it is important to understand how career paradigms have changed over time, and how these changes have aligned with counselor education today. Career theories and interventions have evolved to keep pace with the changing needs of society. Thus, four career-service areas emerged during the 20th century: career guidance, career development, career education and career adjustment. Yet, as counselors attempted to apply these practices with clients, career interventions increasingly proved insufficient as social, technological and global changes affected people’s working lives. In fact, during the mid-1990s, vocational and career scholars began to reflect on an anticipated question posed by one astute scholar, “Where is the counseling in career counseling?” Given the changes in work, as we discuss more fully in the book, career and vocational scholars proposed a redefinition of the word career to fit the postmodern economy. Let’s look at vocational guidance as an example and the evolution of career counseling as a distinct paradigm and career service area.

A popular paradigm for career interventions starting in the early to mid-20th century was vocational guidance. Guidance met a societal need because of the changes in work organization. Although guidance interventions were successful solutions to the pressing social needs of their times, it remains the most popular model students learn about in counseling programs. John Holland’s congruence theory of vocational personality types and work environments is a popular example. The overriding goal of vocational guidance was, and still is, to promote the adjustment outcomes of success, satisfaction and stability. Vocational guidance, however, does not teach counselors how to counsel clients who experience career-related concerns, but helps clients enhance self-knowledge, increase occupational information and secure occupational fit.

The move from vocational guidance to an emphasis on more subjective aspects of career became known as career counseling. Career counseling began to distinguish itself primarily through the integration of a process-oriented, subjective and emotional domain. Career counseling began to possess characteristics used in personal counseling. For example, it focuses more on the characteristics of a quality counseling relationship. Although interest inventories are useful, they have an average hit rate of 40 percent. But they are convenient to use. If you can sit with a person, it is better just to ask them their interests and explore from there. Also, because emotions are embedded in all aspects of the client’s experiences, the subjective nature of emotion was particularly suited to career theory and to the emphasis on intervention rooted in psychological constructivism and social constructionism, which informs our book. Today, career counseling models and methods such as narrative career counseling, use of early recollections, career construction counseling, areas of life designing and others focus on emotions in motivational processes. Thus, career interventions have moved from individual differences and resemblance of types to individuality, uniqueness and context.

We would like students and counselors to know, regardless of specialty or modality, that clients who present with distressing symptoms embedded in various contexts often interweave concerns about their work life, coping with transitions, finding purpose and meaning and securing a sense of identity. Regardless if you work with marriage and family, addictions, secondary students or provide clinical counseling, there are parallels in how we help clients cope. For example, narrative methods in career counseling provide patterns of practice similar to family therapy traditions of contextualizing clients’ stressors and exploring how client’s identities and stories are constructed through family relations, attachment patterns and interactions.

Mark Savickas stated during a recent interview in the Family Journal that “individuals who know more about their family, know more of their family’s story, find it easier to tell their story and know their own story to be more resilient.” Assessing family influence in career counseling includes using the genogram, life-design genogram and assessing family constellation (all discussed in our book). As you see, this is similar to what we do in marriage and family counseling. So, as the narrative paradigm becomes more prominent in career counseling, it should resonate with more students, educators and practitioners.

 

Besides your book, what resources would you recommend to counselors who want to bring themselves up to speed in this area (focusing on client context in career/vocational counseling)?

Much of the career counseling literature that examines culture and context from a postmodern career perspective is highly academic and found scattered in counseling and psychology journal articles and various books. We recommend that counselors interested in postmodern career counseling first ground themselves though reading about the similarities and differences in constructivism and social constructionism in the journal article by Richard Young and Audrey Collin titled, Introduction: Constructivism and Social Constructionism in the Career Field in the Journal of Vocational Behavior. This will provide the serious student of PCC with an understanding of the epistemology that frames career counseling.

Next, because narrative is infused in many postmodern models and methods, the chapter by Paul Hartung [titled] “Career as Story: Making the Narrative Turn” in The Handbook of Vocational Psychology introduces the reader to the history of the narrative paradigm in the career field. For a good reflection on client context, Graham Stead’s article Culture and Career Psychology: A Social Constructionist Perspective in the Journal of Vocational Behavior is recommended.

In addition, several books provide a good presentation of practice in postmodern career counseling such as Mark Savickas’ Career Counseling; Larry Cochran’s classic book on Narrative Career Counseling, and Mary McMahon’s Career Counselling: Constructivist Approaches. Also, Peter McIlveen and Donna Schultheiss’ Social Constructionism in Vocational Psychology and Career Development discusses postmodern career counseling from a theoretical background.

 

Preparing for and working through transitions is a big part of a career advancement. From your perspective, what are some ways practitioners can support clients through work/career transitions – and the anxiety that may come with it?

In Mary Anderson’s and colleagues book titled Counseling Adults in Transition, I [Louis] came across a profound sentence that resonated with me, “Today, continuity is the exception, and adjusting to discontinuity has become the norm of our era.” It reflects that the nature of work and the meaning of career have been restructured over the last three decades, and is now characterized by uncertain, unpredictable and risky employment. Work insecurity can stem from the loss of a job or fear of losing a job, lack of alternative employment and diminished freedom to obtain and maintain specialized skills and advance in a position.

In our work, we have seen the effects of insecurity in clients include a sense of oppression and exploitation, demoralization, demotivation and even feelings of anxiety and depression. From a narrative perspective, identity is found in one’s stories. So, when unwelcomed transitions occur, a client’s life story becomes so challenged that identity no longer provides her or him with a sense of security and continuity, resulting in anxiety. Today, counselors are increasingly seeing clients who require help coping with and adapting to work-related transitions.

We believe that clients experiencing a transition benefit from counselors who are trained in the application of five fundamental features of postmodern career counseling: a) help clients create personal meaning and revise their identity through dialogue and relationship with a counselor; b) apply a strategic use of language which goes from reflecting reality to producing reality and meaning; c) adopt a universalistic stance, which assumes that every client has a unique cultural background embedded in and influenced by the context they live in; d) help clients shift their focus from society’s story for how they should live and work in the United States to the their individual story; and e) encourage the importance of turning to others for support rather than relying solely on self-reliance and independence expected from society’s new metanarrative.

Encouraging relational support is particularly relevant for the anxiety, confusion and grief that may accompany work-related transitions. To a certain extent, employees depend on colleagues or supervisors to provide rules, goals, clear promotional ladders or protection. These holding environments help individuals cope with situations that produce anxiety − but they are eroding. Today, if individuals can’t adapt by scripting their own stories to feel more secure, then career counseling using the narrative-based interventions discussed in our book can be useful. So, when clients find that their story concerning who they are and where they fit in loses continuity, postmodern career counseling helps them revise their identity to integrate new narratives into their ongoing life story.

 

****

 

 

Postmodern Career Counseling: A Handbook of Culture, Context and Cases is available both in print and as an e-book from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-347-6647 x222

 

****

 

Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

 

****

 

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.

 

Vocational counseling in HIV/AIDS communities

By Michael B. Drew July 6, 2017

Following a career-ending injury as a firefighter captain, I embarked on a new adventure as a doctoral student, attending the University of Georgia’s counselor education and student personnel services program. In a leap of faith, my wife and our three small children moved from Rochester, New York, to Suwanee, Georgia, where we quite literally knew no one. I remember thinking at the time that trying to make a career change like this made running into a burning building look easy. Fortunately, I was assigned to a rural HIV/AIDS clinic. The people I was about to meet there would welcome me and ultimately change my life.

As I stepped nervously through the clinic door and my eyes adjusted to the small, dimly lit room, I was greeted by a friendly man seated behind a makeshift desk. During the months that followed, I came to know him — and the important role that work played in his life while living with HIV/AIDS — well. For him, I think that returning to work by answering phones and greeting new visitors to the clinic represented a way to contribute to his community. His bright smile and warm sense of humor made him perfect for the job.

As we shook hands, he jokingly pointed to a piece of tape that stretched across the back of an office chair. On the piece of tape, his name was proudly displayed in handwritten marker. “This is my chair. … They let me work here!” he exclaimed.

Reflecting on that first day, I’ve come to realize that this was more than just an office chair — it symbolized his success in reclaiming a professional identity. What I learned from this inspiring man has since helped me reclaim my own sense of professional identity as I shifted from being a firefighter to a mental health counselor. This article is dedicated to his memory.

 

Professional identity

Each of us possesses many intersecting identities. Some of these identities are obvious, and others not so much. For example, if I didn’t share with someone my disabled status, it is unlikely that they would be able to tell because my injuries are internal, and I go about my day doing everything possible to keep it this way. But when I do share my story, people usually thank me for my service because for many, firefighters are like heroes.

I think everyone should enjoy this type of validation because we are all living courageously with different challenges. Some of these challenges include health problems or sudden loss of employment. In managing the complexities of HIV/AIDS, both of these factors are compounded, and the very real threat of social stigma can discourage a return to work, compromising personal and professional identity.

In all honesty, I can tell you that I’m still affected by a passing fire engine because firefighting is such a deeply internalized identity for me. Similarly, during initial intake and screening, vocational counselors may explore the meaning of work in the lives of their clients with HIV/AIDS, paying special attention to differences before and after infection, and any existential questioning in the wake of serious illness.

For some of these clients, HIV/AIDS was the impetus for them leaving work in the first place, resulting in changes to personal and professional identity. This means that counselors should help these clients explore feelings of loss in social and financial capital associated with their former work environments, as well as strategies for establishing new supports. Other important concerns include management of strict medication routines, side effects resulting from medications, fatigue, exposure to work-related stressors and the risk of contracting outside infections occurring in the workplace. By carefully exploring a range of vocational challenges with these clients, and the role of work in their lives, counselors can facilitate the process of forming new professional identities.

 

Situating vocational needs

Re-entering the workforce is increasingly possible for clients with HIV/AIDS, thanks in large part to continued advances in highly active antiretroviral therapy. These medications are used in combination to reduce the progression of HIV by preventing the virus from making copies of itself.

Thanks in part to such promising medical advances, vocational counselors can begin work with these clients by exploring myriad career opportunities and matching them with each client’s unique skills, interests and health needs. I should note that although returning to work may reflect a significant victory for people living with HIV/AIDS, counselors still need to understand the potential challenges facing these clients related to workplace discrimination, insurance denial and managing health care while working and caring for loved ones. Overlooking these realities risks setting up your clients for possible failure and, even worse, interruptions in health-sustaining insurance coverage.

A vocational model for the HIV/AIDS community (graphic designed by Michael B. Drew)

 

Meeting basic needs

President Obama’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy (2010) explicitly called for increasing career development for people living with HIV/AIDS and using innovative employment strategies to expand potential career options. However, most AIDS service organizations and their clients depend on federal funding provided under the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, including for life-sustaining medications. This leaves many clients feeling threatened under the current Trump administration and the possibility of budget cuts.

A possible consequence of this fear of lost benefits is that many people living with HIV/AIDS may feel pressure to find work that provides private health coverage. At present, federal funding is allocated for housing, medication and legal assistance, leaving very few clinics with the resources or vocational expertise to address the challenges associated with returning to work. For outside agencies that do offer career or vocational counseling services, most are not familiar or equipped to serve the unique needs of the HIV/AIDS community. This leaves many clients afraid to access these services when having to negotiate work accommodations, maintaining a strict medication schedule and coping with episodic symptoms that require frequent and unexpected leaves of absence.

For these reasons, vocational counseling in the HIV/AIDS setting is inherently complicated. This reflects the need to include such specialized services in the familiar and trusted space of AIDS service organizations, where professional networks and community partnerships are already in place.

 

The role of legal services

In addition to these formidable challenges, HIV criminalization laws currently exist in roughly half of the 50 U.S. states, leaving clients at risk for further marginalization in the workplace following intimate partner complaints and subsequent arrests and convictions. In some cases, these arrests have even resulted in prison sentences and mandated sex offender status, making a return to work exceedingly difficult.

This unfortunate reality is even more problematic for women, who are often diagnosed with HIV/AIDS before a male partner due in large part to having regular gynecological exams. This means that women are at additional risk for legal prosecution for “knowingly infecting their partners” despite the possibility that the virus originated from an accuser. This perpetuates a veil of secrecy, adding to the complexity of HIV/AIDS treatment options, particularly among infected mothers who may face persecution for passing the virus on to their children. Not surprisingly, such discriminatory practices become disincentives for HIV screening and follow-up care. Furthermore, surveillance reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014) reflect that African American women represent a disproportionate number of newly infected cases.

Given that more women than men are responsible for the care of children and elderly family members, vocational counselors should explore flexible work opportunities that align with individual needs. This should include legal counsel from the local community that is available for clients who wish to make informed decisions about returning to work.

 

Exploring career interests and abilities

In the wake of my firefighting injury, and facing a lifelong disability, I can attest to the significance of vocational counseling as an integral part of the healing process. This is a familiar narrative among people living with HIV/AIDS, who sometimes struggle to explain why they have not returned to work given their outward appearance of health. Counselors can help these clients respond to any concerns involving gaps in employment history, the need to update work skills, résumé writing, professional attire and preparation for job interviews.

This need for personalized vocational counseling remains largely unmet, however. The counseling profession can respond to this increasing demand for career-related services by attending HIV/AIDS conferences and workshops to learn more about living and working with the virus. Community-based partnerships are also invaluable. Many AIDS service organizations provide internship opportunities in which counseling students can gain field experience and insights into the process of cultivating new personal and professional identities.

 

Flexible career opportunities

Many individuals must manage episodic symptoms associated with HIV/AIDS. In response, vocational counselors can expand these clients’ career opportunities by helping them connect with employers that offer flexible scheduling or the possibility of working from home.

In dealing with HIV/AIDS, episodic symptoms may remain dormant for years, only to reappear and become disruptive to work scheduling and the person’s ability to perform routine tasks. Many clients are fearful that under such circumstances, employers will expect them to share personal information when they are absent from work. Managing personal privacy surrounding any chronic illness is challenging, and in the case of HIV/AIDS, an added threat of stigma remains.

It is important for counselors to share information with their clients concerning extended Medicare and Trial Work Period programs, which are designed with flexibility for people who have disabilities. This may help to alleviate concerns about losing Social Security disability benefits, which is a common theme among people living with HIV/AIDS when contemplating a return to work.

 

 

****

 

Michael B. Drew is a retired firefighter captain from upstate New York. Following a career-ending injury, he completed a bachelor’s degree in advanced fire administration and a master’s degree in mental health counseling and is currently a doctoral candidate in counselor education and student personnel services at the University of Georgia. Contact him at mbd01283@uga.edu.

 

****

 

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

Career counselors: On the front lines of battling student stress

By Neil O’Donnell March 27, 2017

It won’t be news to most readers that undergraduate students everywhere encounter an incredible amount of stress throughout their college years. Colleges and universities offer a considerable range of services and programming to address a variety of stressors, including test anxiety, financial hurdles and personal struggles.

Even with all that focus on helping students to mediate stress and anxiety, I think one source of stress often gets overlooked: career stress. After nearly 15 years serving as a career and academic counselor for undergraduates, I am disheartened that such an oversight remains prevalent, both nationally and internationally, among administrators in higher education.

In a recent survey of 131 undergraduate students, I found that only 12 percent remained undecided regarding what major they wanted to pursue. To assume that only 12 percent of these students remain stressed is misguided, however, especially when learning that 56 percent of respondents to the survey were still uncertain concerning the career path they wanted to pursue. From firsthand experience, I know that this uncertainty causes considerable stress and anxiety for undergraduates.

As for the survey? Of the students who participated, 49 percent indicated that they endured stress over deciding on a major or career path.

Why are so many students battling this stress? We certainly have incredible assets in place to provide undergraduates with career guidance. Most four-year colleges and universities have

career centers staffed with career counselors to help students research majors and career paths. In addition, career centers often offer enrolled students access to free career assessments, including the Strong Interest Inventory, FOCUS, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or an array of other assessments based on the Holland Career Codes. But even with all these resources available, students rarely utilize career centers for much beyond getting help writing a résumé or cover letter during their senior years (admittedly, I was guilty of this too). Therein lies the problem.

Fellow career counselors and coaches know the following advice all too well, but for other counselors who are working with undergraduate students, I’d like to offer some insight into helping them navigate their career research and mitigate the stress that all too often accompanies that search.

 

1) Get students to visit their campus career center during their first semester at college. I understand students have a lot to contend with as they enter their first semester of college. Between getting comfortable with the layout of the campus, the location of their classes, college-level course work and the campus food, the first two weeks of the semester are not an easy time for students who are seeking to begin their exploration into majors and career paths. By the third week, however, I find that students are ready to invest time into career research, and a visit to the career center is a good first step. Before sending my students to the career center on campus, I provide them with an overview of the center’s resources and the services the staff provides to undergraduates. Additionally, I discuss career assessments with my students and the information they can glean from assessment results.

Counselors familiar with the career assessment used by a student’s campus career center can provide students with background on the assessment, including information on the assessment’s format and how to access the assessment online if that is an option. Additionally, it is a good idea to stress the importance of seeking a full interpretation of the assessment results by one of the career specialists at the campus career center. In some instances, students can receive assessment results without having to speak with a career counselor or career coach whose expertise includes interpreting these assessments. As I tell my students, they will undoubtedly be able to gain insight from the assessment themselves, but I also stress that there are a multitude of intricacies they will likely overlook. These are bits of information that a career specialist would be able to identify and interpret for the student — information that could be crucial in helping a student identify an appropriate major or career path to pursue.

To avoid a lot of the hesitation and accompanying stress that students have with visiting a career office, I find it helpful to provide students with a few questions to ask the career center staff. In particular, I advise students to ask about the center’s career assessment and how to set up an appointment to go over the results. For those students with majors already in mind, advise them to ask if a particular career center counselor has experience helping students in that major.

A final step is to make certain students know where to find the career center. Yes, it is relatively easy in most cases for students to determine where on campus the career center is located. However, I find that providing the contact information to the students increases the likelihood that they will follow through and visit the career center. Take the extra minute or two to show students the career center’s website, and then email students the center’s contact information, including room location, email and phone number.

2) Seek a follow-up with the student. Before I end my initial meeting with students, I ask them to meet me after their meeting(s) with career center staff. I find that doing so encourages students to follow through on the guidance and their career research. These follow-up meetings offer the opportunity to mediate any stress that arises from visiting the career center. Specifically, students are often stressed that one visit to the career center did not help them immediately decide on or discover the best major and career path for them.

During these follow-up meetings, I help students develop (or adjust) their career research plans. Those counselors who are certified and proficient in the career assessments their students have taken can use these meetings to address student misunderstandings about their assessment results and expand on any feedback the students received from career center staff.

3) Seek additional follow-up after the student completes the assessment. In the event the student took an assessment but did not review the results with a career specialist at the college career center, advise the student to return for a review from the career center staff. It is critically important that students receive that feedback from those who are trained to interpret the results. I have found that the majority of students who meet with career center staff for guidance report that these meetings help reduce their stress and anxiety related to career concerns. In my current survey, 78 percent of respondents indicated that their meetings with a career counselor helped them decide on a major or career path. Furthermore, 69 percent of respondents indicated that meetings with a career counselor helped reduce their stress surrounding career and educational planning.

4) Advise students to communicate with professors on campus whose specializations match the students’ career interests. Even the most experienced career counselor has limited knowledge of the diverse job opportunities afforded by every major and degree. For example, from my personal experience, none of the career counselors on my college campus knew the array of specialties within anthropology, a field that leads to careers beyond professorships, museum curators and forensic specialists.

This is where campus professors are so vital to a student’s career research. The professors in each department likely possess a wealth of knowledge regarding job opportunities and career specializations that a given major affords students. Unfortunately, students often fail to seek career guidance from department professors earlier on (i.e., freshman or sophomore year).

As career counselors, it is incumbent upon us to direct our students to department professionals. Again, drawing from my own experience, speaking with department professors helped me to identify and focus on short-term and long-term careers, which ultimately reduced my stress (especially when many individuals asked me what in the world I was going to do with an anthropology degree).

5) Advise students to communicate with professionals in the communities surrounding the college campus. Connecting with campus professors/professional staff is often not enough to provide college students with a full understanding of the potential (career-wise) that each major offers. To that end, it is important to encourage students to reach out to community professionals to gain an extensive understanding of the possibilities that exist. Another benefit to reaching out to community professionals is that students may learn of unadvertised job opportunities during these discussions, all while expanding their professional networks. What’s more, engaging with professionals who have already put the student’s major into practice often helps to put the student’s mind at ease.

6) Encourage students to seek field experience during summer breaks. Summer vacation is a time for college students to reenergize. That said, there is no reason why students can’t use the summer months to further investigate their major and the career opportunities the major offers. Finding part-time, full-time or volunteer employment opportunities is a great way to gain firsthand experience in the field. Encourage students to speak with their professors and the community professionals with whom they connected to determine what jobs or volunteer opportunities exist that would provide related experience and help students gauge the appropriateness of the major they are currently pursuing.

Such summer experiences are more prevalent than most students and counselors might realize. It comes down to asking the right people what opportunities exist. In addition to giving students related experiences to include on their résumés, such jobs could provide money for college and help students expand their professional networks. Based on my own undergraduate experience, such opportunities reduced student stress by helping them gain a better understanding of the course material from the major, while also revealing hidden career paths not often attributed to the major.

7) Remind students that it’s OK to change their minds regarding their career goals. So what happens when students follow the above advice and determine that they are pursuing a major or career path that is unsuited to their interests, strengths and long-term career goals? Changing a major can be extremely stressful for students because they often feel it is a sign of failure. I remind students that changing a major is a common occurrence. At the same time, I also remind them that it is better to change directions with their newfound knowledge of their major and themselves now than to wait; it is a decision that could save them considerable time and money later on. It is also important in such moments to congratulate students for their efforts. This is encouragement that will help them tackle the stress and worry that often follow a change in major.

 

Collectively, these strategies have aided me in reducing my students’ stress, while simultaneously helping them determine a worthwhile career and gain valuable field experience prior to graduating. It is especially rewarding when one of my advisees follows through on this advice and has a full-time job lined up before graduation because of connections that he or she has made with community professionals. It is even more rewarding when graduates from years past return to say they still love the major and career paths they pursued after completing the aforementioned research. I believe other career counselors might find similar results as they assist students in managing stress related to choosing majors and career fields.

 

****

Neil O’Donnell is a senior counselor for SUNY Buffalo State’s Educational Opportunity Program, where he provides personal, academic and career counseling to undergraduates. O’Donnell is also the author of The Career-Minded Student, a book that provides a plan of action that helps undergraduates succeed in class while preparing to compete for jobs immediately after graduation. Contact him at odonnenp@buffalostate.edu.

 

****

 

Related reading

From the Counseling Today archives: “Unprepared, undecided and unfulfilled

Anxiety, confusion and questions of identity greet many college seniors as they consider their impending graduation and the necessity of determining their next steps in the ‘real world.’ wp.me/p2BxKN-3PD

 

 

****

 

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.

Seeing people, not prisoners

By Kathleen Smith September 28, 2016

Upon being released from prison in the United States, the prospects for ex-offenders are grim. In some states, they might get $20 and a pair of clothes to wear out the door. If they’re lucky, they will receive a bus ticket back to the county where they were arrested. Almost immediately, they must secure or arrange for transportation, food and shelter in a world that might look very different from the one they were living in before their incarceration.

Rebuilding a life that is empowering and free of crime is anything but easy for ex-offenders. If your family lives in public housing, you can’t return home with them. If you have to check the box on employment applications saying that you’ve been charged with a felony, many people may hesitate to hire you. You might struggle to regain custody of your children, or you might be returning to a traumatic environment that is violent and unstable.

According to the National Institute of Justice, almost 80 percent of former offenders will be rearrested within five years of their release. Of these, an average of 30 percent will return to branding-images_prisonprison because of a parole violation. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that ex-offenders are also two to four times more likely than the general population to have a mental illness, which puts them at increased risk for substance use issues. The odds certainly aren’t in their favor.

When faced with the task of helping and empowering individuals who are exiting the criminal justice system, counselors confront a looming initial question: “Where do I begin?”

The answer to that question is as diverse as the counseling profession itself because many practitioners commit to tackling different facets of a client’s transition from incarceration to life on the outside. For instance, counselors facilitate career development. They connect ex-offenders with social supports and mentors who show that there is hope for a different life. Counselors provide invaluable trauma treatment to heal old and present wounds, and they train professionals within the penal system to empathize and start real conversations about change with those who are imprisoned or are preparing to transition out.

What these methods have in common is one of the unique qualities of the counseling profession: a person-centered approach that focuses on making space for a new narrative. Together, and from many angles, counselors are helping ex-offenders create new stories for themselves that don’t have to end with a clanging prison door.

Fostering career development

In 2012, a student in Mark Scholl’s career development class inspired him to consider a new kind of work. The student, a probation officer by day, created a career support group for ex-offenders and invited Scholl to co-facilitate. Scholl, a member of the American Counseling Association, used his expertise in career counseling to design skill-building activities for the group, and he found that he loved the work.

When Scholl moved two years later to join the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University as an associate professor, he wanted to continue this work in the community of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After consulting with friends, he found that the public library was the safest and most encouraging space to work with ex-offenders. “The library doesn’t have the politics of other settings, which distinguish between social workers and counselors and psychologists. It doesn’t have those turf issues because it’s just about serving people in the community,” he says.

The New Leaf Career Development Group has been running steadily ever since. Over a period of five weeks, Scholl guides a group of four to six ex-offenders through a series of workshops. Topics include job skills assessments, résumé writing, interviewing skills and job search strategies, all of which Scholl approaches with a postmodern slant. Activities also reflect many techniques found in solution-focused and narrative therapies.

“There’s a tendency on the part of the clients who’ve been released from prison to dwell on the past and to focus on their problem,” Scholl says. “Turning that around and focusing on positive alternative narratives is both therapeutic and empowering to the members.”

To engage these narratives, Scholl asks participants in the first session to create a metaphor for how they relate to their futures. He believes this technique provides therapeutic leverage because he and the other participants can encourage the individual group members to construct more adaptive metaphors throughout future sessions.

One group participant, whom Scholl calls “Sandy,” used the metaphor of being a runner in a baseball game. Sandy felt like she had been stranded at third base and frustrated that she couldn’t make it home. Scholl and the other group members helped Sandy open up her metaphor, suggesting that perhaps there was only a rain delay in the game or that she was “rehabbing” after an injury.

“We helped her emphasize her self-advocacy,” Scholl says. “She began to see her ability to choose her own direction and access resources.”

In their final graduation session, participants share their narratives about what they gained from the workshop and how they view the next chapter in their lives. Family members and friends are invited to respond with how hearing their loved ones’ stories has affected them.

Because many members of the group face additional challenges, such as homelessness or substance use, Scholl admits that success for group members is sometimes difficult to define. He and his colleagues at Wake Forest are currently conducting a qualitative study to evaluate the impact of the workshop on participants’ lives.

Individual successes do stand out, however. One member, whom Scholl refers to as “Carl,” completed the workshop series this past summer. Carl was an ex-offender who came to the workshop after looking for employment for an entire year without success. “He had difficulty remaining positive during mock interviews,” Scholl recalls. “We worked with him on emphasizing his strengths and how he could potentially contribute to a prospective work setting. During the last workshop, he announced that he had been hired as a forklift operator in a warehouse position. This, as you can imagine, was a very memorable success for the client and for our team.”

Reflecting on his experience with the career development group, Scholl says the possibility of empowerment motivates him to continue the work. “There’s a feeling of futility when you have to check a box on an application [saying you are an ex-offender]. It feels like a strike against you before the employer even meets you. So,” he says, “I really feel a strong inclination to do what I can to empower these folks.”

Mentoring ex-offenders

Before she began working with ex-offenders, ACA member Bethany Lanier’s inspiration came from television. “I loved Law and Order: SVU. I wanted to do that kind of work and figure out why people do what they do,” she says.

As a master’s student in clinical mental health counseling at Radford University in Virginia, Lanier worked with women who were up for release from prison, teaching them life skills and strategies for navigating their home environments. When she moved to Alabama to begin a doctoral program in counselor education at Auburn University, Lanier’s passion for that work didn’t end.

The numbers are daunting in the Alabama justice system. Facilities are operating at 190 percent of capacity, leaving little to no money (or energy) left to focus on combating recidivism. But rather than choosing to feel overwhelmed, Lanier, as a graduate assistant, began helping to develop a mentoring program for the local women’s prison and writing grants for funding. While doing research, which Lanier has since presented at an ACA Conference, she found evidence of the effectiveness of mentoring programs with the ex-offender population. She cites one program in particular, the Mentoring4Success initiative in Kansas, that effectively cut the state’s recidivism rate in half.

Inspired by other successes, Lanier continued working with her colleagues at Auburn to train mentors in Alabama. The mentors serve a number of functions for women exiting the correctional system, including teaching them how to navigate applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) or the Women Infants Children (WIC) program. Because many of the mentors are themselves ex-offenders, they also provide inspiring examples of success and needed social support.

“You have to have somebody that’s going to be supportive, somebody who’s going to answer all your questions and help you get where you need to go,” Lanier says. “It’s good for people to see somebody and say, ‘I don’t have to be like this, because she made it.’”

As a future counselor educator and a member of the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors (IAAOC), which is a division of ACA, Lanier has also given careful consideration to how to talk with students who are hesitant about working with ex-offenders. “Students say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that because it’s not safe’ or ‘It challenges my beliefs’ because we’re in the Deep South. But once people get out into the field, they realize you’re going to see these issues anywhere you go.”

For instance, Lanier explains, anyone working in a community mental health center or even in schools is likely to encounter the challenges and rewards of working with ex-offenders. For that reason, she believes counselor educators need to prepare students to think about the unique needs of this underserved population.

As for current counselors who would like to explore the power of mentorship in working with ex-offenders, Lanier encourages these helping professionals to consider the unique skills they can bring to the work, including active listening and empathetic understanding. “Don’t be afraid to take a risk,” she emphasizes.

Addressing trauma

In the literature, rates of posttraumatic stress disorder among incarcerated populations range anywhere from 4 percent to 21 percent, with women being disproportionately affected. Regardless, advocating for trauma work as a component in reentry preparation can be a tough sell. While focusing on basic needs such as housing and employment, ex-offenders may not have the money or the time to find effective therapy for trauma. Therefore, counselors have begun working with prisoners while they are still incarcerated to address their trauma and connect them to resources on the outside.

ACA member Tara Jungersen had already spent a significant portion of her career working with trauma and intimate partner violence before coming to Nova Southeastern University in 2009. But after arriving there, her colleague, Lenore Walker, introduced her to the Survivor Therapy Empowerment Program (STEP). A manualized treatment program, STEP uses principles of feminist therapy, survivor therapy and trauma theory to address common issues found in the incarcerated population. Its goal is to empower victims to become survivors.

“If somebody is stuck in a trauma cycle, if they are completely disconnected from experiencing emotion and safety in relationships, then they may lack the protective factors that can help them move forward in life,” Jungersen explains.

As the acronym suggests, the treatment program walks participants through 12 independent “steps” that help in dealing with trauma and its effects. Leaders teach relaxation skills, interpersonal skills and cognitive restructuring, and they also help participants examine their attachment patterns in relationships and grieve past relationships. The program is also focused on connecting women to resources on the outside to reduce recidivism.

“A person may be on a five-day hold, and they’ll be gone the next week. So we want to make sure that each step we teach can stand alone and that [participants] are able to find a qualified trauma therapist when they are released,” says Jungersen, who has led STEP groups herself and trained others to lead the groups. “We know that it’s challenging to find reduced-cost and pro bono services.”

Jungersen also notes that leaving prison can feel different for each person depending on the individual’s experience. For some women, jail provides structure and a departure from the chaos of their daily lives, which often can include drug addiction or physical and sexual abuse. But for others, the experience of incarceration itself is highly traumatic. For instance, a victim of sex trafficking may find herself in the same prison as her trafficker, or offenders may face abuse or neglect by correctional officers. Running a treatment program that promotes safety and stability can prove difficult if individuals are always on high alert and constantly feel exposed to danger, Jungersen says.

Despite the challenges, the STEP program has been employed successfully with both men and women in the United States and internationally. Jungersen acknowledges that when working with ex-offenders, measuring success requires different parameters than those used in traditional counseling settings. Qualitative data collected by Jungersen and her colleagues have indicated that STEP participants, who learn about their trauma symptoms and how these tie in with their substance abuse or other behaviors, are more open to seeking mental health treatment after their release as compared with their attitudes prior to participating in the program.

Regardless of whether counselors are doing trauma work specifically, Jungersen encourages them to consider the ways that trauma can affect ex-offenders and to avoid making generalizations about this population. “You’re going to have a wide distribution of cognitive functioning, a wide distribution of social skills and differences in individual trauma triggers,” she says. “Most ex-offender treatment is done in a group format. You’ve got to scan that entire group, recognize the nonverbals that indicate someone is getting triggered and adjust the conversation accordingly.”

Fostering motivation 

Melanie Iarussi was first introduced to motivational interviewing in her master’s program. She liked the method so much that she decided to become “trained as a trainer” so she could teach others how to elicit meaningful, change-oriented conversations. Now an assistant professor of counselor education at Auburn University, she has found an opportunity to provide training for probation and parole officers in the state of Alabama. By teaching the officers motivational interviewing techniques, Iarussi and others are introducing a different mindset to the people who work in corrections.

Motivational interviewing is an increasingly common technique encouraged by the National Institute of Corrections and other organizations. The technique’s focus on creating collaborative conversations and guiding people toward prosocial change is a drastic departure from many of the punitive, fear-based techniques the criminal justice system has traditionally employed. Because counselors have fairly limited interactions with ex-offenders, Iarussi and others see an opportunity to educate those who have the most access to this population — parole and probation officers.

“We know the prison system as it is does not work, and we know that taking a punitive approach is not effective in facilitating behavior change,” says Iarussi, a member of ACA and IAAOC. “By introducing MI [motivational interviewing], we’re trying to capitalize on what does work, and we’re bringing some counseling concepts to the conversation that can facilitate lasting change among people in the legal system.”

To teach and improve motivational interviewing skills, Iarussi asked her trainees among the probation and parole officers to record their conversations with their clients. In turn, she listened to the conversations and provided feedback. She says the officers who were able to make the shift to use the new skills noticed that they were having completely different conversations with their parolees.

“They were able to help their clients recognize that they do have choices over what they want to do. It’s not that they are trying to force them into something or back them into a corner, but they can present them with options,” she says. “You can have the conversation, but the choice is ultimately theirs.”

Iarussi acknowledges that empathy, a cornerstone of both counseling and motivational interviewing, is a challenging concept to teach. “Probation and parole officers have multiple roles. They’re not counselors,” she says. “Their primary job is to enforce the law. So … they have to make decisions about when it is appropriate to be empathetic and have these conversations, and when it is appropriate to enforce the law. And when it is maybe a combination of those two.”

One probation officer stands out in Iarussi’s mind because they both noticed a remarkable change in his work. In one training, Iarussi presented a video of a probation officer who wasn’t paying attention to the client. The officer was constantly interrupting and not giving the client the time he needed. Her trainee came to her later and said, “I was that person. I was that officer who treated people that way.”

Iarussi describes how the officer soon after began submitting tapes that featured longer, more in-depth conversations, whereas previously he had been meeting with his clients for only one or two minutes at a time. In the new tapes, he and his clients were discussing concerns and issues about parenting and work. The officer noticed the difference he was making. “He definitely felt the shift,” Iarussi says. “By changing his approach, he was making a significant impact in his clients’ lives.”

A unique perspective

Because each person who is incarcerated receives a range of services and interventions and faces a unique set of challenges, it is difficult to know what exactly keeps ex-offenders from returning to jail or prison. As research expands, however, professionals are gaining a clearer sense of what can decrease recidivism. Among the elements that have been identified as effective: assessing for risk, engaging individual motivators, using cognitive-behavioral strategies and providing ongoing support in the community. These are all strategies familiar to those in the counseling profession.

Whether it is using career counseling skills, trauma treatment or motivational techniques, counselors are taking their existing skills and intervening in the lives of people who are exiting the correctional system. They are also serving as advocates for systemic and legislative changes that give ex-offenders a better chance for success.

Above all, Iarussi and others believe counselors are in prime position to help their communities and the criminal justice system begin viewing ex-offenders as individuals rather than a series of daunting statistics. Counselors are trained to take off the lens of judgment and to empathize with experiences that might be far from their own. Both of these skills make the field uniquely suited to work with this population.

“What I experienced is that ex-offenders expect us to treat them like everyone else does,” Lanier says. “Sure, there is an extra layer of rapport building, because maybe they haven’t had anybody listen to them [before]. All they wanted was for me to hear them and understand they weren’t terrible people, but [rather] people who had made some bad decisions. As their counselors, we have to put our preconceived notions behind us and move forward.”

 

****

 

Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. She also works as a mental health journalist and is the author of The Fangirl Life: A Guide to All the Feels and Learning How to Deal, published earlier this year. Contact her at ak_smith@gwmail.gwu.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

****

 

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