Tag Archives: College Counseling

College Counseling

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.

 

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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.

 

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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

 

 

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

The graduate school decision: Four diverse student voices

By Essence Fiddemon, Nayo Tabron, Thomas Latson and Kimberly Cabral April 29, 2016

Choosing the right graduate school for counseling can be both a challenging and exhilarating experience. Applicants have many motivators to weigh when making this decision and often have Group of Graduatesmany choices concerning which school and program will best fit their needs. This article shares the stories of four students who recently chose to enter a master’s program in clinical mental health counseling. Additionally, each student provides tips for other individuals who are contemplating the decision to enter a graduate program in the mental health field.

 

Essence

Before entering graduate school, I found myself caught in a dilemma. I had just finished my bachelor’s in June 2015, and here I was in August 2015 not making enough money with a bachelor’s degree to independently support two children.

I always wanted to complete graduate school, but I was nervous and hesitant about the debt that it might cause. After much consideration, I decided to enter graduate school and view the debt in a different light. Either I was going to put myself in debt by struggling to care for my children, or I could put myself in debt because I invested in my education to get to a better situation financially.

I set my fears aside and began to research schools that interested me. I knew that in my future career, I wanted to have the knowledge, skills and training to counsel all individuals, not just children. I decided to complete a master’s in clinical mental health counseling because I wanted to counsel children, adolescents and adults with developmental trauma.

When choosing a graduate school and field, I knew that I had to choose a field that I liked because it would be hard to invest myself in a school or field that I did not care for. As my graduate school experience began, I felt nervous and anxious. I had to remind myself that nothing comes easy and that the rewards would be worth it in the end. I noticed the further I got into the program, the less scary the experience became. I was more scared of the title “master’s degree” than anything else. The moral of this story is to overcome fear, because fear kills so many dreams and aspirations.

Currently I am a full-time worker with two small children. The support system I have is amazing. Graduate school became more stressful toward the end of my first term, but it was still manageable. In the future, I hope to have my own practice, and I would like to be involved in consulting. I would like to counsel adults with developmental issues and children who have experienced sexual trauma and physical abuse.

Graduate school will challenge you and reward you. In graduate school, you will learn how to master your writing and time management skills. My first tip to readers is to stay totally invested in your education despite your doubts. My second tip as you struggle through graduate school is to remember that to whom much is given, much is required.

 

Nayo

My first encounter with the counseling world happened when I was 8. My parents took me to see a counselor so that I could work through my confusion about their divorce, among other things. At 8, I was far more aware of the world than most, and I really didn’t care to spend my time in a counselor’s office once a week, especially because I felt belittled by my counselor. He spoke to me like an unaware child who couldn’t comprehend my emotions. The anger I felt toward my counselor turned into a sympathetic compassion for others like me — for others who felt like they weren’t being heard.

I turned this compassion into a career path and have aimed to change the system and those who work in it ever since. In my path, I have encountered terrible testimonials that made me weep for those who turned to the mental health and substance abuse care systems. They expressed to me that they too felt belittled. This has driven my passion even further and motivated me to continue my education beyond my undergraduate degree.

Deciding whether I wanted to go to graduate school was a long process. I had to consider if school was necessary to achieve the goals I wished to accomplish. I had to first make sure that the school I chose had an accredited degree program that would prepare me with the knowledge I need to pursue my goals. Finding a school that was CACREP accredited but also helps students obtain licensure was very important.

Currently I am pursuing my degree in clinical mental health counseling. I wanted a school that would build not only my fundamental knowledge but my professional knowledge as well. Not only is the school providing me with the basic knowledge I need to be a counselor, but it also provides me with opportunities to be experienced in the counseling field, which is a bonus. Having proper knowledge about the legalities of my career choice is very important in my pursuit to change the current systems.

I hope to open up more doors for people not only to get the help they need, but also to feel comfortable enough to do so. My future goals are to motivate counselors to take the time to listen to their clients and figure out what their problems are before diagnosing them for life.

Since being in graduate school, I have learned two things that I believe all those in pursuit of higher education should know. My first tip for those considering or starting the graduate program is to always use your resources. Making connections with the faculty around you and using the educational resources provided on campus are good ways for you to excel academically and to grow your network. Talking to people who have already achieved the professional or educational goals you are pursuing is a great way to learn the customs of pursuing professional and educational goals.

The second tip all potential graduate students should know is to develop time management skills. Depending on your school choice, the pace of the school may be more or less than you are accustomed to. This can cause you to become either overwhelmed or stagnant, either of which can have large effects on your grades. It’s important to schedule time to complete and comprehend your assignments while also providing yourself with downtime to prevent burning out.

So, the next time you consider whether graduate school is worth the effort, it is. Taking the time to advance yourself in life, in any facet, can open doors far beyond what you might imagine.

 

Thomas

I was led to counseling in high school after taking an intro to psychology course. Learning about the mind and the way it works piqued my interest because I was coming to accept the fact that I was gay.

Children are very conscious, and as a child I came to the understanding rather quickly that being gay was not acceptable in society. I discovered that I was considered mentally ill until 1987, when the decision was made to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I felt like a normal, conscious person, but society told me that my thoughts were not normal or conscious. I knew that something was wrong with this idea. When I made it to a bachelor’s program in psychology, I realized that I was not alone, and I wanted to help others like myself.

After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I felt that I was equipped with the foundation I needed to start my journey, but I wasn’t qualified to provide help in the context I desired. I quickly realized that I would not be able to fully fulfill my purpose without an advanced degree. My reason for choosing a master’s in the clinical mental health counseling program was because I enjoyed the idea of sitting down and helping people work through their problems as a clinician, as opposed to the assessment and testing angle that a psychology master’s would provide.

I have always been ambitious, and the idea of continuing my education has always been a driving force in my life. I relocated from Florida to Georgia in 2009 for a job opportunity at a residential treatment facility, and I decided to continue my education. Of course, life doesn’t go exactly as we plan it out, and establishing a life for myself via full-time employment prevented me from starting school right away. But I knew the stars would align when it was my time.

It was a difficult decision because I had to continue working full time and needed flexibility. I was determined to make it work, and I was accepted into graduate school for my master’s in clinical mental health counseling in October 2015.

Currently, as a student in my first term, I am surprised at how much I am analyzing myself while learning the material. I realized that counselors must explore their own lives and personal experiences to effectively help others understand their experiences. Realizing things about myself and how I fit into the spectrum of life gave me a sense of purpose and opened my eyes to the importance of helping others realize their purpose. The curriculum in my Foundations of Mental Health Counseling course definitely helped me solidify and understand my professional identity and equipped me with a wealth of knowledge about myself.

My future now gives me a sense of success and fulfillment. I’m looking forward to studying counseling theories because my goals involve implementing strength-based modalities to help gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning at-risk youth achieve success.

My tips for those considering or starting a graduate program are to be ready to face yourself and any issues in your personal life, such as your sexuality, that may be barriers to your own success. Students should use the experience as a sense of self-therapy in an attempt to prepare to help others. Also, to ensure success, students should become comfortable with writing. I have always been a writer, and I love to express myself through words. With the help of the available resources for writing in graduate school, students should graduate as better writers than they were when they started.

 

Kimberly

My interest in the world of counseling embarked when I decided to leave a life and career in the music industry that was full of glitz and glamour. However, I strongly believed that I was choosing a path that felt much more rewarding. A path filled with light. A path that has purpose and endless possibilities to make a difference in the lives of other individuals who are in need of some guidance and encouragement.

My decision to enroll in the clinical mental health counseling program derived from the passion I have to help at-risk youth gain skills to overcome their struggles and obstacles. This passion came from the struggles I personally faced as an at-risk child. Fortunately, I was lucky to have two individuals who helped me learn the skills I needed to be able to succeed in life, and I was inspired to do the same for other at-risk youth.

My decision to enroll in the clinical mental health counseling program came close to three years after I had received my bachelor’s degree in psychology. My passion to succeed in life and help those individuals who need that extra push or guidance was far stronger than the doubt and obstacles I had about enrolling in graduate school. Additionally, I realized that with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I was limited from being able to achieve my future goals. Furthering my education became almost impossible to ignore.

After doing extensive research on graduate schools, I came across one school that really stood out to me. The flexibility of the program’s schedule, the scholarly faculty and the fact that the program was CACREP accredited was very influential in my decision.

My current experience in my first class has come to an end and has proved to be very informative and motivational. This class is called Foundations of Mental Health Counseling and truly embodies the foundation of everything the clinical mental health counseling program consists of. In all honesty, I was extremely nervous when I first started this class because I had no idea what to expect. I also had reservations about how it was going to affect my personal and work life. Fortunately, now that I am at the end of the course, I can say that this class has helped calm my nerves and given me some insight on what to expect in future classes and in the counseling field in general.

My future goals consist of running my own practice; playing a major role in implementing a program inside school systems to either replace suspension or work hand in hand with suspension; and starting a nonprofit organization that empowers at-risk youth and troubled families while positively influencing school systems and communities worldwide. To some, it may seem as if I am biting off more than I can chew. However, in my eyes, if you truly want something in life, it is up to you and only you to make that dream turn into a reality.

My tips for those considering or starting a graduate program are to make sure you engage in self-care and to study smarter, not harder. Engaging in self-care can help you avoid burnout and keep a healthy balance between work, life and school. Some examples of self-care are working out, meditating and practicing mindfulness.

Learning how to study smarter and not harder is also very important to your success. Staying organized, using good time management, taking good notes and reviewing them consistently are all ways that you can study smarter and not harder. In the end, remembering why you entered the graduate program should be your biggest motivator.

 

Conclusion

The backgrounds, personal stories and inspirations behind counseling students’ decisions to attend graduate school are unique to each individual. Whether those experiences are as a mother, a former patient, someone accepting his sexual identity or just someone with natural talent, we all share a passion to learn about what it takes to help bring about the best in all of us.

Counseling students share a set of values that all people in helping careers possess, including empathy, passion and a nature of selflessness that ensures we are helping our clients reach their full potential. Future counseling students should know that this career is about more than personal gain or financial stability; it is about changing the world one client at a time.

 

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The authors of this article were students in a Foundations of Clinical Mental Health Counseling course at Argosy University, Atlanta, taught by associate professor Allison L. Spargo. Tanisha Johnson, a doctoral student, served as a teaching assistant. Both Spargo and Johnson are members of the American Counseling Association.

 

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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.

Coping with college

By Laurie Meyers March 28, 2016

Often parentally micromanaged, pressured by high expectations, grappling with depression and anxiety, a bit socially awkward or just a little bit lost in a strange new world, today’s college students are seeking counseling in greater numbers than did previous generations, according to college counselors and other experts.

Those who counsel students point to various factors for this surge in clients, including greater overall awareness of mental health issues, higher rates of depression and stress, and a huge increase in the overall student population at colleges and universities. According to the Institute of Education Branding-Images_CollegeSciences, the research and statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Education, between 1992 and 2012 (the latest year for which statistics are available), the number of students enrolled in degree-granting institutions has grown by 39 percent.

National surveys conducted by the American College Counseling Association (ACCA), a division of the American Counseling Association, indicate that the percentage of students struggling with serious mental health issues has also increased. In addition, 42.4 percent of the almost 75,000 undergraduate students who completed the 2015 annual American College Health Association National College Health Assessment reported experiencing greater than average stress within the past 12 months, and 10.3 percent reported feeling tremendous stress. When asked about depression and anxiety during the previous 12 months, 35.3 percent of survey respondents reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult for them to function; 57.7 percent indicated feeling overwhelming anxiety.

At the same time, staff growth at college and university counseling centers has typically failed to keep pace with this increased burden. As a result, these counseling centers are often scrambling to stay on top of their caseloads, and college counselors are using a variety of campus resources and outreach methods to meet the needs of today’s students.

Welcome to the new world

One of the defining features of the traditional college experience is leaving the nest. But many students in the current generation are having trouble finding their wings, according to college counselors. That’s in part because, generally, today’s young adults are used to their parents managing many aspects of their lives, says Suzanne Degges-White, who supervises student counselors as part of her role as a professor and chair of the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University.

“We’re dealing with helicopter parents,” she says. “They’ve done so much [for their children]. And then when you get to college, your teachers don’t care if you do your homework, and your parents aren’t there to remind you.”

“There’s this idea that kids need protecting, so when they get to college, suddenly if they don’t like a class or their roommate, this may bring them in to the counseling center,” adds Degges-White, the ACA Governing Council representative for the Association for Adult Development and Aging.

ACCA President Amy Lenhart agrees, saying that the students she sees often seem ill equipped to handle many of the demands they face, such as managing their academic workloads, interacting with instructors and other students, and even getting to class on time. Both Lenhart and Degges-White say they regularly encounter students who have trouble making any kind of significant decision on their own. In some cases, parents are still trying to make all the decisions for their college-age children, says Lenhart, who works with students on general counseling issues and career concerns at the counseling center at the Preston Ridge Campus of Collin College in Frisco, Texas.

“I can tell you that even in counseling, parents want to make appointments [for their son or daughter],” she says. She has also encountered parents who want to sit in on their son’s or daughter’s career counseling sessions. In such cases, it is important for counselors to set boundaries and let parents and students know that it is time for these young adults to make certain decisions on their own, Lenhart says.

The consequences for students who struggle to make decisions and manage their lives can be severe, Degges-White says. Not studying, skipping classes and failing tests can quickly lead to academic probation, she points out. Although it is easy to dismiss such behavior as laziness or a lack of interest, Degges-White contends that would be a mistake. Instead, counselors need to ask students about their classes, including why they’re not going or why they think they’re failing a particular subject, she says. The answer may be related to poor time management, and many colleges have workshops to which counselors can refer students.

Of course, there may be other underlying reasons. “Sometimes students don’t go to classes because they are not interested in them,” Degges-White says. “Maybe they aren’t suited to the subject or even need a different major.”

However, if the behavior is due to a lack of accountability, counselors should work with students on making decisions and then accepting the consequences, Degges-White says. She likes to use choice theory to help students explore the options available to them. “How are the choices you are making now going to get you to your goals?” she asks. “If they’re not, what other choices can you make?”

ACA member Nick Patras, a licensed professional counselor and assistant director of the counseling center at Texas A&M University-Commerce, dissects the time management process with his clients. Sometimes students come to the counseling center after their first semester having failed several classes and hoping for an easy and instant answer, he says.

Instead, Patras delivers a dose of reality, but he also tries to provide helpful strategies to get the students back on track. “Do you have goals? Do you have projects? Do you have them broken down into stages, or do you wait until the last minute?” he asks these students. “I educate them on how to plan and manage projects by breaking them down into little bites.”

Knowing your students

Josh Gunn, the director of counseling and psychological services at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, urges college counselors to be aware of their campus culture and who their students are. For instance, Kennesaw State’s student body features a significant percentage of first-generation college students, he notes.

Parents who have been to college generally impart at least a minimal amount of knowledge to their children about how college works, but first-generation students don’t have that advantage, says Gunn, a member of ACCA. Not knowing anything about college life can pile on an additional layer of uncertainty and stress, he points out.

First-generation students are also more likely to be putting themselves through school, which may mean working a job in addition to attending classes, Gunn says. For these students, academic struggles may be at least partially tied to general financial stress or simply not having as much time to focus on their studies, he explains. Counselors should consider how putting students in touch with other resources such as the financial aid office or an academic adviser might relieve certain stressors for students, he says.

It’s also important for counselors to keep in mind that not all college students are young adults fresh out of high school. Some students, especially on today’s campuses, are individuals who are beginning or returning to college later in life, Degges-White points out. These students are confronting many of the same stressors as their younger peers, but they will be juggling those stressors with work and family concerns, she says.

Lenhart’s institution is a community college, which means that its students don’t have to meet the enrollment requirements that applicants at four-year colleges and universities do. Because of this, she explains, some of those who enroll — for example, a 50-year-old student who hasn’t taken classes since high school — might not be ready for the courses he or she is taking. It’s important for counselors to consider factors such as these when students come in with academic problems, Lenhart says. What seems like (or may in part be) a time management problem could actually involve a skills deficit for which counselors should refer students to the tutoring center and their academic advisers, she says.CommunityCollege

When academic performance is a predominant concern for students, it affects every area of their lives, including their mental health, Gunn says. Therefore, when students come to the counseling center and present with depression, anxiety or stress, it is important for counselors to ask how their courses are going, because academic concerns may be exacerbating whatever other issues they are concerned about, he says.

Counselors should also keep in mind that if a student is struggling with academics, that issue doesn’t necessarily go away just because the mental health problem has been addressed. “If you’ve cured someone’s depression but they flunk out, you’ve failed,” Gunn says.

 Making new connections

Joel Lane, who studies the theory of emerging adulthood and is the coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling program at Portland State University in Oregon, says that, traditionally, a person’s late teens and early 20s were when attachment relationships shifted from one’s parents to peers and romantic partners. Possessing the ability to form and maintain these healthy attachments is especially important in times of transition and can affect not just an individual’s personal life but his or her professional life as well, he says.

However, for members of the millennial generation, that process has become more complex for several reasons, according to Lane. One is that young adults (ages 18-25) are “younger” psychosocially than previous generations have been. Millennials’ identity exploration is taking place at a later age when they are no longer adolescents but when they do not consider themselves adults yet either, he says. Also, because their parents often continue to manage their lives, these young adults may be less likely to seek other sources of emotional support, at least in the “real” world, Lane continues. Where today’s young adults tend to turn to seek support and interact with others is social media, he explains. And although social media may be good for those purposes, it does not generally prepare young adults for making connections and conversing in their classes, in social situations or on the job, Lane contends.

Unfortunately, many college counselors report that social anxiety — which negatively influences a person’s ability to form new attachments — appears to be much more prevalent among today’s students than in prior generations and is a factor in a significant number of their clients’ cases. Patras says that about half of his cases involve social anxiety as either the presenting concern or an aggravating factor. Often, he says, the students he sees simply do not understand how to interact with others.

“They don’t know how to talk to people, how to carry on a conversation or how to ask someone out,” Patras says. “It’s partly socioeconomic” — the university where Patras works is located in a rural, impoverished area — “but [it’s] mostly because they are interacting on social media and not in real life.”

Lenhart and Degges-White have observed this as well. Although none of the three counselors believes that social media is inherently bad, they do think it has caused a significant shift in how young adults interact with one another. “They say they are ‘dating,’ but they might just be interacting on Facebook or through texting,” Patras notes.

Although it’s true that adolescents and young adults are establishing social networks online, they typically do this in solitude at their computers or on tablets instead of learning face-to-face communication and interaction skills, Degges-White says. She adds that many of today’s college students spend their social time video chatting with friends from home rather than going out and making new friends.

Technology does provide its own kind of connection and access to a wide array of helpful resources, Lenhart acknowledges, but it is also easy to hide behind, particularly for those with social anxiety. “We want them to actually be out in the world,” she emphasizes.

Which is why some college counselors are gently but firmly pushing students out of their comfort zones.

For instance, Patras holds workshops on social skills. He teaches students how to integrate into an unfamiliar group by first finding one person within the group to talk to. When participants ask how to start a conversation with someone they don’t know, he tells them to ask the other person about himself or herself. “Everyone likes to talk about themselves,” he says. In the workshops and in individual counseling, Patras also teaches students relaxation and emotional regulation skills such as mindfulness meditation and deep breathing to help ease their anxiety.

Lenhart asks students to try attending social events such as campus group meetings or parties. “Just challenge yourself,” she urges students. “Make sure you have a way you can leave if you get uncomfortable, and just stay, even if it’s only for 10 minutes.”

Degges-White believes a combination of cognitive behavior therapy and a bit of desensitization therapy is effective in helping students overcome social anxiety. Her counseling center also refers students to small group sessions in which students can practice talking to one another. Degges-White has also found that giving “homework” assignments to students, such as having them talk to at least one person in one of their classes each week, encourages greater social engagement. Because a lack of social skills is becoming more common in young people, even high schools are beginning to offer groups that focus on these skills, she says.

Managing mental health needs

College counseling centers don’t just deal with students’ issues related to time management, academic adjustment, social skills, being away from home for the first time, getting used to living with other people and, as time goes by, choosing a major and career path. The age range when most people go to college — late teens to early 20s — is also the age at which serious mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia often appear. College is also a time when many people choose to begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol, which can lead to substance abuse problems.

Unfortunately, the level and length of care that college counselors can provide to students experiencing serious mental health issues varies greatly. Patras says that his counseling center currently has the resources to work with students for as long as they need it and are willing to do the work. According to Patras, the small city of Commerce has only two mental health professionals, and many of the university’s students don’t have private insurance, so the school’s counseling center is a particularly essential resource.

Other institutions are forced to limit the number of sessions that each student is entitled to or else maintain long waiting lists because demand is so high, Lenhart says. Because of these limitations, many college counseling centers focus on triage. This involves getting the most severe cases in or, if necessary, referred out for hospitalization or psychiatric care immediately, and using brief interventions such as solution-focused therapy for less severe cases, she says.

Some colleges are relying more frequently on group therapy, which doesn’t count against students’ allotted center visits and has the added benefit of helping students interact with others, Lenhart says. This is especially important in cases in which students are dealing with depression or social anxiety, she adds. Groups can also be particularly beneficial for students dealing with grief, working through issues related to their sexual or gender identity and a wide range of other challenges.

Gunn says some of the counselors in his center are taking on the role of case managers in the more complex cases. These counselors get students who just got out of the hospital or have special needs set up with a psychiatrist or an on-campus counseling group.

College counselors are also reaching out to students to raise their awareness of the many services that counselors can provide; distributing psychoeducational materials and doing public screenings; and educating faculty and staff on spotting the signs of behavioral problems.

Gunn’s counseling center gives regular workshops on everything from decision-making to general wellness to sexual assault awareness. He believes that college counseling needs to become more proactive; not just to let students know where the center is located and say, “Come see us when you’re ready,” but to actively look for potential problems in hopes of preventing bigger ones. His staff regularly provides information about identifying behavioral problems to the resident life program, department heads and other faculty and staff. In addition to encouraging prevention, he hopes that counselors can help create campus cultures in which the belief becomes that safety is everyone’s responsibility.

Lenhart bemoans the lack of residence halls on the community college campus where she works because she believes that hall staff — due to their more frequent contact with students — serve as a sort of first line of defense for identifying students who may be struggling and in need of counseling. That doesn’t mean the college’s faculty and staff aren’t vigilant. In fact, she says, faculty and staff often bring students to the counseling staff’s attention and even walk those in need of help to the center if need be.

“We train them [faculty and staff] for what to look for,” she says. “Dropping grades; changes in appearance, such as becoming disheveled, not bathing; maybe acting out in class; maybe being angry — any kind of change in behavior that is unusual for that student.”

“We have to work harder at promoting counseling to students because of the come-and-go nature of our [community college] program,” Lenhart says. “I think, sadly, the assumption is that counselors at community college campuses are like guidance counselors.”

So, Lenhart and her counselor colleagues educate, educate, educate, conducting psychoeducational sessions and distributing informational fliers for national events such as Depression Awareness Day. Professors also have the counseling center staff visit classes and give presentations on stress and anxiety, she adds. She believes that classroom sessions not only help demystify what college counselors do but also get students more comfortable with the idea of coming to the counseling center.

Many colleges now have a kind of “college 101” class for incoming freshmen. The counselors interviewed for this article said it is important for college counseling centers to be involved with these efforts, either by providing educational materials or giving presentations.

Patras’ counseling center maintains liaisons within all of the university’s major academic departments and also works closely with campus police, who refer students to counseling if they have had trouble related to alcohol or drug use. The counseling center also educates other faculty and staff about possible indicators that students may need help, such as unusual acting-out behaviors (for example, outbursts in class), slipping grades or a previously responsible student who is now missing classes or not completing assignments.

Behavioral intervention teams are also becoming common on college campuses. The problem-solving teams typically include counselors and representatives from campus departments such as student affairs, campus police or security, student conduct and resident life, explains Brian Van Brunt, a past president of ACCA and author of Harm to Others: The Assessment and Treatment of Dangerousness, published by ACA. These teams meet regularly — typically once a week — to exchange information. The goal is to identify incidents or patterns that might indicate a possible problem — such as increased substance abuse arrests or a rash of suicide attempts — and to formulate a course of action with the goal of preventing larger problems.

Events such as the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech provided the impetus for the creation of behavioral intervention teams, Gunn says. Even so, he cautions college counselors not to focus exclusively on such large-scale events. “Don’t waste all your time preparing for a mass shooting that may never happen,” he says.

Events such as a student’s suicide are more common, he explains, and likely to have a significant effect on campus mental health. To reach as many students as possible, counselors need to encourage an environment of multidepartmental sharing, he adds.

In many ways, counselors interviewed for this article say, college counseling has become a campuswide effort.

 

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Additional resources

For those who would like to learn more about the topics addressed in this article, the American Counseling Association offers the following resources.

Books (counseling.org/bookstore)

  • Group Work and Outreach Plans for College Counselors edited by Trey Fitch and Jennifer L. Marshall
  • Harm to Others: The Assessment and Treatment of Dangerousness by Brian Van Brunt
  • Eating Disorders and Obesity by Laura H. Choate
  • A Contemporary Approach to Substance Use Disorders and Addiction Counseling, second edition, by Ford Brooks and Bill McHenry
  • Treatment Strategies for Substance and Process Addictions by Robert L. Smith

Webinars (counseling.org/continuing-education/webinars)

VISTAS Online articles  (counseling.org/knowledge-center/vistas)

  • “Counseling International Students” by Julia F. Kronholz
  • “Distressed College Students Following Traumatic Events” by Simone F. Lambert, Joyce C. Lambert and Samuel J. Lambert III
  • “Helping College Students Develop Mental Wellness Skills Through Journaling Techniques” by Julia Y. Porter
  • “Needs Assessment for Counseling GLBT Clients” by Rebecca Gardner, Joshua Adkins, Whitney Gillespie and Cristen Wathen
  • “Passport to Wholeness: The Effects of a Campus Mental Health Fair on Help-Seeking Attitudes” by Lucinda C. West and Anita Knight
  • “Recovering College Students: Practical Considerations for College Counselors” by Mark S. Woodford
  • “The Effects of a Brief Mindfulness Intervention on Self-Compassion Among Undergraduate College Students” by Danielle Richards and William E. Martin Jr.

 

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The American College Counseling Association, a division of ACA, focuses on fostering student development in colleges, universities and community colleges. Visit collegecounseling.org to learn more about the division and to access its array of resources.

 

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To contact the people interviewed for this article, email:

 

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

College enrollment boom expected in 10 years

By Bethany Bray December 14, 2015

If current trends hold, the fall of 2025 will bring the largest and most diverse freshman class to colleges and universities across the U.S.

U.S. births surpassed 4.3 million in 2007 – a number not seen since the post-World War II baby boom, when rates of college enrollment were much lower. If current college admissions trends continue, these youngsters – who are now third-graders – will be America’s largest-ever college Graduation!freshman class.

They’ll also be the most diverse. Increased enrollment of Hispanic and Asian students is expected due to rates of immigration and births of second-generation immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center. Last year, U.S. public schools reached a watershed moment as the number of students of color, overall, surpassed the number of white students for the first time.

The predictions for 2025 only increases the need for college counselors to be fully aware of and able to meet the needs of a culturally diverse student body, says Amy Lenhart, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and president of the American College Counseling Association, a division of the American Counseling Association.

Colleges should prepare for the 2025 enrollment boom with diversity awareness training for all staff, as well as ensuring that campus counseling centers have enough practitioners to meet the needs of a much larger student body, says Lenhart, a counselor at Collin College at Preston Ridge in Frisco, Texas.

“I believe that many colleges will need to focus on having the adequate number of [counseling] staff to address the needs of more students, focus on a more diverse counseling staff, continue to be aware of the needs of more diverse students [and be] aware of the needs of first-generation students,” Lenhart says. “I think that it is and will continue to be important for all counselors to continue to understand the needs of a more diverse population and [the idea] that we are all there to attend to those needs in the best interest of the student/client and work together as professional counselors to ensure the future of mental health and academic success in the college setting.”

It is imperative for counselors who work with college students to be trained not only in student development and mental health, says Lenhart, but cultural competencies as well. College counselors, in turn, can assist in educating college students, faculty and staff about the needs that a more diverse student body may bring to campus.

The Pew Research Center reports that the overall makeup of the nation’s public school graduating class is becoming more and more diverse. In 1995, 73 percent of American public high school graduates were white; that percentage decreased to 57 percent in 2012. For 2025, Pew projects that demographics will shift to a nearly half-and-half ratio, with 49 percent of the graduating class identifying as nonwhite.

Current trends indicate that roughly 70 percent of high school graduates enroll as full-time students at a two- or four-year college, according to Pew.

“How can anyone know what college enrollment will look like a decade into the future?” writes Richard Fry, a senior researcher with the Pew Research Center. “No projection is perfect and there are many unforeseen factors, such as the economy’s performance and how successful parents and schools are in getting students to graduate from high school. But generally, the number of first-time, full-time college freshmen tracks closely with the number of births from 18 years earlier.”

According to Pew, the last peak in college enrollment – 2.5 million first-time, full-time freshmen – occurred in 2009, 18 years after 4.1 million babies were born in 1991. Since then, America’s freshman college class has decreased slightly, to 2.4 million students in 2013.

The 2007 spike in U.S. births did not prove to be a long-term trend, however. Since then, the U.S. birth rate has decreased to less than four million babies annually.

 

 

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Find the American College Counseling Association online at collegecounseling.org

 

From the Pew Research Center: “Class of 2025 expected to be biggest, most diverse ever

 

ACA members: For resources on college counseling and multiculturalism, visit ACA’s VISTAS collection of peer-reviewed articles: bit.ly/1ODgAQN

 

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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: facebook.com/CounselingToday

Extending the reach of counseling

By Laurie Meyers November 23, 2015

People in need of help don’t always show up automatically on counselors’ doorsteps and request services. Sometimes counselors have to be intentional about first forming connections with potential clients and inviting them to investigate the therapeutic process. In other instances, counselors may Mountain-Climber-Helpneed to get out of their offices and connect directly with people in their own environments to even make them conscious of counseling and let them know that help is available

The American Counseling Association members we spoke to for this article have engaged in different kinds of outreach and advocacy efforts so they can better assist communities in need. In the process, they have deepened their own understanding of different cultures and client populations.

Traffick stop

Human sex trafficking is not something that is limited to developing nations. The practice also goes on in the United States and is more common than most people would ever imagine, according to Stacey Litam.

A doctoral student in counselor education and supervision at Kent State University in Ohio, Litam also works as a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and clinical resident at Moore Counseling and Mediation Services in the Cleveland/Akron area. The practice, which specializes in mental health and substance abuse treatment and mediation, has developed a partnership with the Cleveland court system to identify and assist women who have been or are currently being trafficked for sex.

The practice’s CEO, Martina Moore, has a doctoral degree in counselor education and advocates for trafficking survivors, but it was the Cleveland Municipal Court that approached Moore with the idea of collaborating to create a human trafficking docket (a list of legal cases to be tried in court), says Litam, who became part of the collaborative team at the time of her hire in October 2014. Litam notes that fellow Ohio city Toledo has the fourth-highest rate of human sex trafficking cases in the United States, and she suspects that the success of that city’s human trafficking task force influenced Cleveland’s decision to find ways to identify and help trafficking survivors. Moore Counseling staff members had previous experience working with the Cleveland Municipal Court on other specialized dockets, such as those being heard in drug court.

The Cleveland Specialized Human Trafficking Court Docket identifies women who have been charged with solicitation of prostitution and assigns them to probation officers who work with Moore Counseling to set up an evaluation. Litam conducts the evaluations, looking for criteria indicating that a sex worker is being trafficked or has been trafficked in the past. Sexual trafficking is defined as the recruitment, harboring and transportation of a person for a sexual act using force, fraud or coercion, Litam explains.

For many Americans, the phrase sexual trafficking conjures up images of kidnapping and forced servitude, of someplace “other” or foreign. Litam acknowledges that she held those same perceptions before she began working with the trafficking docket.

“When I first I got into this [work], I thought it was an issue that other countries dealt with,” says Litam, a board member of the Ohio branch of the Association for Humanistic Counseling, a division of ACA. However, she quickly learned that a substantial percentage of women and girls who engage in sex work are actually trafficked.

“I have probably completed about 45 assessments, and about three-quarters of those women met the criteria for trafficking,” says Litam, who adds that trafficking is “very insidious and pervasive.”

“A single woman might meet a man who helps her pay for food for her child or helps her with the rent,” Litam explains. “And then the guy says, ‘If you loved me, you would do this [have sex for money].’ He’s not using violence, but if the woman doesn’t do it, she may lose her housing or her child will go hungry.”

Another tactic that lures women into sex trafficking is a seduction of sorts, Litam says. A trafficker will pursue a romantic relationship with a woman, lavishing her with praise and gifts, until suddenly the woman “owes” him for the “gifts” of fine jewelry or nice clothing and has to pay off her debt, Litam continues.

In other instances, sex trafficking is all about survival, Litam notes, citing the experience of children living on the streets as an all-too-frequent example. “Children who are trafficked are usually runaways, ‘throwaways’ or [in many cases] LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender],” she explains. “Once they are on the street, they will be approached by a trafficker within 48 hours. Imagine that — you are an adolescent, and you are alone and need help. Traffickers are really good at finding them.”

Indeed, traffickers possess many of the skills associated with predators, such as the ability to sniff out the “wounded” and vulnerable, Litam continues. For many adult women who are trafficked, their journey to the streets began years earlier, because they were either trafficked or sexually abused as a child. In other cases, she says, women get caught up in trafficking to feed an addiction.

If Litam’s evaluation determines that a woman has been trafficked, she is eligible — after serving jail time for any solicitation charges — for the voluntary rehabilitation program that Moore Counseling has designed. The two-year program includes mental health counseling, intensive outpatient or residential treatment, substance abuse treatment and group counseling.

Trafficking survivors and women who are still being trafficked often live in unstable environments — typically with other women under the control of a trafficker, in housing they have a hard time paying for, with people who have substance abuse problems or in a home where they are being abused. In some instances, they may even be homeless. Living under such precarious circumstances makes it more difficult for these women to get off the street, let alone seek assistance for substance abuse or mental health issues, Litam points out.

“The two-year duration [of the rehabilitation program] was established in the hope that within this time period, our services would stabilize the client’s mental health, provide addiction treatment and aftercare, and help the client establish safe and stable housing,” Litam says. “Ultimately, I would like to see clients attend at least eight counseling sessions with me. Or, if the client is in need of substance use treatment, I would love for her to complete intensive outpatient treatment and aftercare while meeting with me once a week and perhaps continue to receive counseling afterward if needed.”

However, multiple factors keep many of the women from committing to the full program. “Women do not want to disclose,” Litam says. “I’ve never had a woman say outright, ‘Help me.’”

Some women aren’t ready to leave their traffickers, and those who stay, even if they are willing to come to counseling, are up against a fundamental problem. To the trafficker, time is money.

The women come to Moore Counseling and the rehabilitation program after spending time in jail, which can be as long as five days. By that time, the trafficker is already angry because he’s losing money, Litam explains. So the women are very vigilant and fearful of any time they spend away. Even an hour away will be noticed and questioned, Litam says.

“The benefit of counseling has to outweigh the cost of being away,” Litam says. Most of the women who are still being trafficked determine that isn’t the case, she concludes sadly. Many of the women who are eligible for the rehabilitation program will attend only a few sessions — or even just a single session. Litam says she treats each session as if it were the last one because, in many instances, it might be.

At a bare minimum, Litam makes sure that the women get a card that includes the phone number for the national human trafficking hotline. She also talks with them about having a safety plan, which involves figuring out where they can go, even if only temporarily, if they feel they are in danger. She encourages them to always have a “go” bag prepacked with any necessary personal items. Litam may also use motivational interviewing to help a client explore her ambivalence about her addiction or toward her relationship with her trafficker.

Women aren’t necessarily ready to engage in intensive counseling even if they are no longer being trafficked, Litam says. On average, trafficking survivors come in for four or five sessions before stopping, she says. But it’s not uncommon for these women to contact the program to begin counseling again a few weeks or months after their initial round, she adds.

“Some women may need to briefly touch on the trauma for a few sessions, take a few weeks off, then come back,” Litam explains. “I always welcome the women back when they do call. Trauma work is not on my time; it is on theirs.”

Litam uses a variety of techniques based on the client’s history and current circumstances. “Of course, every survivor will present with different needs depending on her individual resources and history. It’s whatever the client needs,” she emphasizes. “Sometimes they just want to sit and talk and not be judged. Sometimes it’s [the conversation] just about how worried they are about their child.”

One of Litam’s clients has made a significant amount of progress using creative-based interventions to express and release her trauma experiences. “We have also focused on addressing and reframing the cognitive distortions she developed while being trafficked,” Litam says.

Another of Litam’s clients has taken what she has learned through psychoeducation about how trauma affects the brain and applied it to her emotional regulation. “[She] finds peace in her ability to self-regulate her emotions outside of our sessions, has identified triggers and uses diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation as part of her daily self-care routine,” Litam says.

With other clients, Litam uses narrative exposure therapy to help them integrate complex trauma experiences into the context of their lives. “Establishing a timeline may look like placing a piece of rope on the ground with one end representing ‘birth’ and a balled up end representing ‘life that has yet to be lived.’ Clients place objects along the rope to represent positive and traumatic events along their timeline,” Litam explains. “Processing the trauma narrative in a safe place empowers clients to habituate to the trauma. Also, clients can feel empowered to see that much of [their] life has yet to unfold. It is a beautiful reminder and metaphor that things can get better.”

Litam also started a women’s resilience group at the practice where she works. She established it primarily to serve as an extra source of support for her female clients who have been trafficked, but she didn’t want the participants to feel labeled in that way, so she opened the group up to other female clients as well. She says the group represents a place where any woman can feel comfortable seeking peer support. Litam and several other counselors facilitate the group, which meets weekly.

Litam’s advocacy work doesn’t stop at her office door. She is also raising awareness within the law enforcement community about the prevalence of sex trafficking. Currently, she is working with a probation officer to set up a trafficking panel to better educate police officers.

Litam says police officers often lock up women for solicitation without looking for signs of coercion, even if the woman has visible bruises or other injuries. Her hope is that greater awareness by police officers about how common sex trafficking is might lead to earlier intervention and assistance for those being trafficked.

Litam is also an adjunct professor at Northeast Ohio Medical University, where she teaches students to use empathic communication in their patient interviews and examinations to look for signs that an individual is being trafficked or might be in danger. These indicators include constantly watching the door and being hypervigilant of her surroundings and the passage of time (time for which a trafficker will be wondering why she isn’t out making money).

Litam is also excited about research she is conducting with Jesse Bach, executive director of The Imagine Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Cleveland dedicated to ending human trafficking. Litam and Bach are studying human sex trafficker behavioral patterns, demographics and other characteristics in an attempt to establish a kind of trafficking “typology.” Their hope is that by identifying how different human sex traffickers operate, they can better understand how women (or men) are selected and kept under the trafficker’s control. Litam thinks that understanding these factors will also help identify intervention methods that might be more successful when counseling survivors and those currently being trafficked.

“Take, for example, a survivor who came from an unstable home and lacked a strong support system. Unfortunately, traffickers are predators and are excellent at identifying vulnerable women,” she says. “After months of ‘courting’ behaviors in which the trafficker convinces the woman he loves her and showers her with nice things, she may become conflicted in her ability to resist when he finally asks her to engage in commercial sex acts. This woman may need more intensive counseling on topics such as establishing appropriate boundaries, increasing self-efficacy, building strong support systems and CBT [cognitive behavior therapy] techniques.”

Litam says working with survivors and victims of human sex trafficking has become her passion. She believes that she can help these individuals not only by using her counseling skills with them but also by raising awareness of the prevalence of human sex trafficking.

“I would love for the average counselor to know that this is not a problem specific to Third World countries or inner cities, but that it is everywhere,” Litam says. She emphasizes that no neighborhood is exempt from human trafficking, regardless of whether that neighborhood is located in an upper-class suburb, a small town or even a rural area.

‘Learning’ rather than ‘teaching’

Counseling must always start with an understanding of the client’s cultural values, says Rachael Goodman, an assistant professor in the counseling and development program at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia. This is one of the underlying tenets of counseling and a thread woven through all that counseling students learn as they work toward their degrees. However, Goodman says, experiencing others’ cultural traditions firsthand can impart an understanding that is more powerful than anything learned in the classroom.

In 2013, Goodman, as part of an effort facilitated by Counselors Without Borders, helped lead a group of GMU graduate students on a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. There they spent time with the people of the Oglala Lakota Nation as they prepared for and performed their annual Sun Dance ritual. Counselors Without Borders, founded by ACA member Fred Bemak, a professor of counseling and development and director of the Diversity Research and Action Center at GMU, is an organization committed to providing culturally sensitive humanitarian counseling in post-disaster situations.

Goodman thought it was particularly important for the students, who were taking a cross-cultural counseling class, to be exposed to other traditions. “It’s important for us [counselors] not to simply impose what might be misaligned Western models,” she says. “With any community, understanding what their traditions are is important for social justice so that we are not exacerbating marginalization.”

Goodman, who is also a member of Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA, planned the trip to coincide with the Sun Dance ritual so the counseling students could see practices that have both spiritual significance and a healing purpose for the Lakota people. A girl’s coming-of-age ceremony was also taking place at the same time.

Goodman and the students arrived before the ceremonies began to help with the preparations. For Lakota traditional services, the ground must be prepared in a certain way — for instance, the students helped build a circular space and a traditional arbor. (Because the Sun Dance is so sacred to the Lakota, Goodman says she is not comfortable giving details about the ritual). The counseling group also helped the young women with their rituals such as quilting and quillwork, which involves dyeing porcupine quills for use in traditional art.

These ceremonies have many healing and spiritual elements, perhaps the most important of which is a reclaiming of the Lakota culture, Goodman says. “It’s very important because of the history of genocide,” she elaborates. “For a long time, the United States government outlawed a number of native practices. The idea that you [as a Lakota person] wouldn’t be able to practice these ceremonies is in itself a trauma, so being able to perform them again is healing in itself.”

The Lakota are reclaiming not just their traditional ceremonies but also their native language, which was also outlawed for a long time, Goodman says. The group she led spent time with school students who were taking a language immersion class intended to sustain and widen the use of the Lakota language.

“I wasn’t aware of the importance of language in spirituality,” Goodman says. “They [the ceremonies] are conducted in Lakota, and if you don’t know [the language], you would have trouble understanding spiritual traditions.”

Goodman and her group also learned about the Lakota method of equine assistance therapy, which she describes as an interesting mix of Western culture and native practices. She says that for the Lakota, the horse doesn’t serve simply as a “feedback” instrument but rather is part of a person’s healthy connection to nature and all beings.

Goodman says all of the activities the group participated in taught the counseling students not only about Native American cultural practices but also helped them realize that counseling and therapy don’t necessarily have to occur in a formal, 50-minute, one-on-one sit-down. Counselors can provide support to clients and communities simply by listening, understanding and witnessing, she says.

Something else that struck Goodman during the trip was how the historical trauma of the Lakota is still very much a part of their present challenges. The people she spoke with emphasized that while the media and even well-meaning helping professionals often focus on issues such as substance abuse and violence on Native American reservations, they are seeing only the surface issues and not recognizing the historical trauma that underlies it all.

The people of Pine Ridge also had a parting message for Goodman and her group: “Let people know. Go back and tell our stories.”

Creative college counseling

Sometimes the biggest need for outreach is in a counselor’s own backyard — or campus. College students remain one of the counseling profession’s most underserved populations, not because there aren’t counselors available to help students but because these students are unlikely to come to the college counseling center for help, even when they desperately need it.

Research indicates that many college and university students aren’t just stressed, but depressed and anxious as well. In fact, 42.4 percent of the almost 75,000 undergraduate students who completed the 2015 annual American College Health Association National College Health Assessment reported experiencing more than average stress within the past 12 months, and 10.3 percent reported feeling tremendous stress. When asked about depression and anxiety during the previous 12 months, 35.3 percent of survey respondents reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult for them to function; 57.7 percent indicated feeling overwhelming anxiety.

At the same time, only a fraction of students in distress appear to be seeking help. The 275 college and university counseling centers that participated in the 2014 National Survey of College Counseling, an annual report sponsored by the American College Counseling Association (ACCA), a division of ACA, reported that only 10.9 percent of college or university students had sought services at a campus counseling center in the past year.

Clearly, “build it and they will come” is not a fitting slogan for campus counseling centers. Tamara Knapp-Grosz, who was the director of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) counseling center for 15 years, wondered what might happen if the center was proactive about going to the students instead. She started the process by offering workshops on depression at the counseling center and at various other campus meeting facilities, but most students still chose to stay away.

“I started thinking, ‘What is the goal of outreach?’” says Knapp-Grosz, an ACA member who is leaving SCAD to become director of the counseling center at the University of North Texas. First and foremost, she believes college counseling outreach should build a connection not only between the counseling center and the students but also between the students themselves because they have the potential to serve as secondary sources of support for one another.

But Knapp-Grosz, who had become interested in positive psychology during the beginning of her tenure at SCAD, was also struck by the idea of creating “shifts in the energy and atmosphere” during stressful times such as final exams. As she and the counseling center staff brainstormed ways to bring some positivity and levity to the students, their first creative outreach endeavor was born.

When stress levels got high, the counseling center staff and interns would visit various classrooms and celebrate a famous artist’s birthday. Knapp-Grosz, the immediate past president of ACCA, wanted to truly personalize the events and target the students by their areas of study, so the birthday parties were specific to the students’ specialties. For instance, a class of painting students might celebrate Van Gogh’s birthday with a themed cake and trivia. A birthday party for Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, thrown for students in the sequential arts (narratives accompanied by illustration such as those found in comic strips, graphic novels and storyboards), produced laughing and dancing, she notes. Word would spread throughout the building about the birthday parties, attracting additional students to join the celebrations.

The birthday party tradition continues through the present day, and Knapp-Grosz believes the benefits extend beyond providing students a brief break from stress. “Students start to connect with each other,” she points out.

They also start to connect with the counseling center personnel. Fliers detailing the services that the counseling center offers are always available at the parties, but that is secondary to the influence of the interactions between the counseling staff and the students, Knapp-Grosz asserts. By being at these “parties,” counseling staff are introducing themselves in a nonthreatening way and helping students become familiar with mental health professionals, perhaps even demystifying their role in the process, she says.

Other in-classroom interventions include “brain breakers,” a brief interval during which a counseling center staff member arrives with a limbo stick and music and invites students to limbo.

Yet another outreach tool, the Pizza Fairy, has achieved almost cultlike status, Knapp-Grosz says with amusement. The Pizza Fairy is a counseling center staff member who shows up in the student residence halls with free pizzas (accompanied by counseling center fliers) that are donated by a local hospital. There is no set schedule, so it is always a surprise when the Pizza Fairy appears.

“He’s become almost an urban legend,” Knapp-Grosz says. “People will text each other about it — ‘Have you seen him? Is he coming?’” In fact, students have even shown up at the counseling center looking for the Pizza Fairy, she notes with satisfaction.

The creative outreach doesn’t stop there. The counseling center has also featured Doughnut Divas who dressed up in costumes and handed out doughnuts in front of classroom buildings in the morning. The Doughnut Divas were replaced by Granola Goddesses when the students requested healthier food.

Then there is a certain iconic character in a big red suit who makes appearances on campus. “Toward the end of the quarter, we do ‘psycho Santa,’” Knapp-Grosz explains. “[Staff members or interns] put on a typical Santa costume but with goofy socks or something, and we’ll have an article about [topics like the] holiday blues. They [the Santas] usually go to the dining halls and hand out candy canes. We’ll sometimes have elves and reindeer too.”

The creative outreach seems to have paid off. Knapp-Grosz notes that over time, use of the counseling center at SCAD has risen to include approximately 50 percent of the student population.

The unconventional approach to outreach also seems to benefit the counseling center staff, Knapp-Grosz observes. “You have less burnout and compassion fatigue,” she says. “It’s refreshing to be out and about, and we are interacting with a broader student population.”

Knapp-Grosz says that before she starts making similar outreach plans at her new job at the University of North Texas, she will need to meet the center staff and learn more about the needs of the student population. She does, however, have an idea involving therapy dogs, inspired by her own dog, a standard poodle. As a breed, poodles have a penchant for dancing.

“If it fits the culture, I would like to have poodle dancing [in the classroom or other campus locations],” Knapp-Grosz says with a laugh. “I just think that would be really cool.”

Connecting with communities

Advocacy and outreach are two of the values at the core of the counseling profession, says ACA President Thelma Duffey, who has made counselor advocacy and outreach one of her presidential initiatives.

“I think counseling outreach provides a way for us to connect with our communities and to participate in advocacy and services,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for counselors to contribute to their communities by offering their areas of knowledge and expertise — at times to people who feel, and sometimes are, unsupported or disconnected.”

 

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To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:

 

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

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org