Tag Archives: Creativity


Embracing fandom in counseling

By Samantha Cooper November 7, 2022

Fan communities, or fandoms, are often misunderstood by the public. Fandoms refers to people who share a common interest in an aspect of popular culture. Whether they are huge fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or enjoy dressing as anthropomorphic animal characters, also known as “furries,” people who dedicate their free time to a specific piece of media are often seen as “odd” or childish to others.

For example, according to a 2017 article published in Psychology Today, some people consider furries’ desire to dress as animals as a form of sexual gratification, rather than a form of self-expression. In the case of fans of fictional franchises, such as the British science-fiction TV series Doctor Who, the negativity seems to come from a long-established idea that these fans are social misfits and outcasts and that they place more importance on their fictional world rather than reality.

Being a fan of a certain sport or sports team, however, is seen as more socially acceptable and often isn’t considered to be a “fandom” in the same way pop culture fiction is. But even as science fiction, fantasy and superhero franchises become more mainstream in pop culture, those who are deeply enmeshed in fandom culture may still feel as though their passions won’t be properly understood by mental health professionals because of these stigmas.

“Speaking as a science fiction geek myself — I even have a Star Trek tattoo — this subject is really close to my heart. Empathy is important when supporting any therapy client, but because there can be some stigma around fandom communities, empathy is important when supporting fandom clients. If the therapist is coming from a perspective that perpetuates stigma, such as looking down on furry cosplay artists or fanfiction authors, it’s important for the therapist to do the inner work, to grow as a person, to learn how to see the joy in others’ joy,” says Lindsay Meagher, a licensed mental health counselor at Protea Wellness in Seattle. “It’s important to internally approach fandom clients from an open-hearted, open-minded, empathic perspective.”

Using fandom to build rapport

Some counselors embrace “geek therapy,” which integrates aspects of so-called “nerd culture” such as video games, comic books and science fiction media to build rapport with clients.

Geek therapy operates on the principle of affinity, which is using common interests or background to establish a repertoire with a client. If a counselor mentions they share an interest in a particular piece of media or a love of going to fan conventions, the client can feel more comfortable expressing this part of their identity.

Ashley Myhre, a licensed marriage and family therapist at POW! Psychotherapy in Minneapolis, says it’s important for clinicians who are working with this population to create spaces where the clients can feel safe to express themselves.

Myhre has created her practice around the idea of fandom therapy. The logo for her private practice resembles a sound-effect bubble from comic books: It’s a light blue bubble with the word “pow” written in orange, capital letters. She says this design choice helps communicate that her practice is one where clients can bring their whole self to sessions.

“If that’s the kind of client you want to cater to, you need to make your space welcoming,” she explains. Her office space is decorated with rainbow flags, pop culture figurines and stuffed animals, which are images that signal to her clients that her practice is a safe space for people in LGBTQ+ and fandom communities. Her website also contains a statement saying, “Mental health for nerds, geeks, misfits and others outside of the mainstream.”

Counselors who aren’t a part of fan communities can still show their support in small ways, Myhre notes. For instance, she says that little things such as office decorations can make or break a client’s trust. “Do you have any kind of fan art in your spaces? Is your mug from your favorite TV show? What are [some] visual cues you can be sending to clients that it’s a safe space?” she asks.

Counselors can also find ways to learn about fandom and use this knowledge to build rapport with clients. It’s much easier to make your space welcoming to those in fandoms when you understand the basics, Myhre says. And part of that can be done simply by listening to and respecting clients’ passions.

Myhre advises counselors to listen for cues where the client is talking super passionately about some aspect of fandom such as a particular character or object. When she hears this, she will ask the client questions such as “How has this mirrored some of your own experiences?” “How have you come to better understand yourself through being a fan of this media?” “What are the strengths you see in these characters that you want to bring into your own life?” or “How does this align with your values?”

Doc Davis, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Side Quest Therapy in Austin, Texas, takes this a step further by incorporating games, such as video games or online chess, into counseling sessions. This is the approach he takes with one of his clients; he always begins their virtual counseling session by playing a video game together.

“We start our sessions literally online together playing a game,” Davis explains. “We’re not talking about therapy just yet; we’re just playing a game, … having fun, and then the therapy starts to slip in.” When the conversation starts to be less about the game and starts becoming more about the client’s life, Davis puts the game on pause, and they continue the conversation and move into the therapeutic part of the session.

Kashawn Hernandez/Unsplash.com

Finding a sense of community

Fandom can also provide a sense of community. Those who struggle to connect with others in real-life communities may find their companions online or in person through a shared love of a piece of media. For people who struggle to make friends, outwardly expressing their fandom makes for an easy icebreaker. Two people wearing the same shirt, for example, can strike up a conversation and form a friendship based on their mutual interest.

Meagher says that while anybody can potentially be drawn to fandom cultures, people on the autism spectrum are often drawn to fandoms. “A lot of fandoms and a lot of passions are autistic special interests,” says Meagher, who is autistic. “Many of us in the autistic community lean into our passions in really beautiful ways that are part of the community’s norms, but that can be jarring for a lot of people outside of the autistic community who maybe don’t engage with the world in that way.”

People in fandom often use social media platforms to connect with each other. Both Facebook and Reddit allow people to join different groups devoted to fandoms, and there are several hashtags that make it easy to find people who share similar fandom interests.

“I know that social media has helped people who are isolated, often as a result of physical disabilities like fibromyalgia, or as a result of being in grad school. … Often people in fandoms are seeking friendship with people that they have something in common with, and it can be a little hard sometimes to make local friends quickly who share in one’s passions, so this makes online social spaces, such as Archive of Our Own, Discord, Instagram, Tumblr, and even Facebook and Twitter, really lifesaving for a lot of us,” Meagher says.

Therefore, it’s important for counselors to recognize the role that fandoms play in people’s lives, and the different aspect and nuances that come along with it, including the prevalence of parasocial relationships, which are one-sided relationships that someone forms with a media persona. (For more on parasocial relationships, see the sidebar below.)

People involved in fandom often consider themselves to be their own community — one with a shared interest. So having a therapist who is also familiar with the concept and importance of fandoms will make a client more comfortable in the therapeutic environment.

“I think if you’re in fandom, you get it. We have this shared experience. … It just makes things so much easier,” Myhre says.

Just knowing that fandoms are valid communities and becoming curious about a client’s passion is a good start and helps counselors connect with this population. Counselors can also consider where their own “geeky” interests lie and make those interests known to their clients, Myhre adds.

Davis agrees that counselors should be open to exploring aspects of fandom that interest them. The name of his private practice, Side Quest Therapy, is a reference that is instantly recognizable to people who play video or tabletop games. It shows that he’s more than a therapist who just happens to play games, he says. It shows that he integrates it into his clinical work.

Counselors, of course, can’t be a fan of everything, so they will encounter clients with different interests. When Myhre has a client who has an interest she isn’t familiar with — such as a particular anime — she’ll watch a few episodes so she can learn a little bit about it and be able to connect better with the client. For example, she may ask, “What are you getting from anime? Is this particular story connecting with you? Are you bringing some of the lessons into your own life?”

Myhre, Davis and Meagher agree that the most important thing is for counselors to be themselves.

If counselors do not specialize in geek therapy or do not find that it fits well with their clinical approach, then they should refer clients to someone who does have knowledge working with this population, Davis says. If a counselor’s first reaction to somebody whose main hobby is cosplay is “What is that?” then it might not be a good match. But counselors who aren’t into fandom, Davis adds, can still put in the work and educate themselves on what fandom means to their clients.

However, in general, a client whose identity is centered on fandoms often works better with a counselor who also has a passion for them. “Can you imagine what it would be like to go to your therapist and [have] them express to you from that same place because they have that same love, same passion and you can recognize them?” Davis says. “If you don’t have knowledge of fandoms, you could seriously consider creating a referral list for people like me who will look at that and be like, ‘Cool, let’s make that happen.’”




Parasocial relationships

Parasocial relationships (i.e., a one-sided relationship between a viewer and a media figure) and fandoms are closely intertwined. Not every person involved in a fandom has a parasocial relationship, but the relationships with fictional characters or actors is often an important part of many people’s fandoms.

As with any kind of relationship, a parasocial relationship can become toxic, but they can also be beneficial. People who are isolated in their real life may find community and friendship online with their peers and with fictional characters, says Lindsay Meagher, a licensed mental health counselor at Protea Wellness in Seattle. Having parasocial relationships can be a way to make real friendships with people online and/or in person by bonding over a shared love of fandoms, they explain.

These parasocial relationships can be a way of exploring aspects of one’s identity, such as gender or sexuality, that they may not be able to do with the people in their lives. Parasocial relationships provide a sense of community and healing that the person may not otherwise have, Meagher notes.

Ashley Myhre, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Minneapolis, says that parasocial relationships can often be handled in a lot of the same ways as real-life relationships. There isn’t a different technique needed to coach somebody struggling with a parasocial relationship.

Myhre sometimes incorporates the parasocial relationships in session. She may ask a client to imagine what the person or character they are in a parasocial relationship with would say to encourage them when they’re in a depressive state, or she may ask the client to find a positive attribute they share with this person/character. If a client’s favorite character is physically fit, for example, then that client may be more inspired to make healthier lifestyle changes because they want to emulate the character or because seeing this character’s lifestyle motivated them to make changes they were already wanting to make in their lives. In addition, seeing a fictional character go to counseling or talk about their mental health can help destigmatize the idea for potential clients.

But at the end of the day, parasocial relationships with fictional entities often come down to people seeing similarities in experiences that are like their own. Someone who is neurodivergent, for example, may not feel accepted in their real-life social circles, so having a parasocial relationship with a fictional character or celebrity who is also neurodivergent can help them figure out their own identity and accept their differences.

“I think so much of it [parasocial relationships] comes down to a feeling of being seen, a feeling of being understood, validation [and] representation,” Myhre says.



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Samantha Cooper is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at scooper@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.

Rewriting the client’s narrative through colors

By Jetaun Bailey, Heather Hodge, Beverly Andes, Bryan Gere and CharMayne Jackson September 8, 2022

In our work as counselors and educators, we find that others are increasingly receptive to conversations about color preferences and interpretations during our interactions. It is as if talking about colors creates an entryway for open dialogue, mutual respect and connectivity and encourages all who are present to express authentic and insightful thoughts and opinions. Moreover, we have noticed that there is a connective alliance between these conversations and the continued, open discussions about understanding personality and issues related to mental health.

This process begins by asking  a  simple question: “What color or colors do you feel reflect your personality?” The individual or participants almost always pause, smile and then say, “Good question.” This practice of starting the discussion with a nonintrusive question creates a calm, safe space for everyone to become curious and explorative and engage in meaningful dialogue before delving deep into a topic about their mental health concerns.

And the answers to this seemingly simple question can be rather complex. The numerous color mixtures and hues we see — and the myriad ways in which we view colors — invokes meaning in our lives. Regardless of cultural background, influential sport teams, seasons of the year or clothing trends, colors have a way of speaking to the individual as well as the collective. 

The power of colors 

After witnessing the power of color in a staff training, Bryan Gere and I (Jetaun Bailey) first wrote about the psychology of colors in the 2018 Counseling Today online exclusive, “Identifying colors to create a rainbow of cohesion in the workplace for helping professionals.” Since then, we have incorporated colors into our teaching and counseling activities, including classroom discussions, group presentations and individual client sessions, as a unique way to get to know the student or client in a nonintrusive yet welcoming manner.

Recently, the authors of this article used color psychology to help the participants in a process group rewrite their own narratives by using their favorite color. We asked the participants to reconsider their past experiences through the lens of this color. The goal of this exercise was to help them discover what was preventing them from acting as their true selves in the present and to help them learn to move ahead effectively into the future. According to a 2019 article by Benjamin Hardy in Psychology Today, rewriting one’s present and future narratives requires an investigation of one’s past. A person’s outlook on their past narrative affects their present and future narratives, and in turn, their new outlook on the present and future also changes the significance they place on their past experiences. 

During this group presentation, one person described her favorite color as pink. After stating this, she seemed uncomfortable and almost apologetic for her answer. And she downplayed her color by saying, “It is a color that symbolizes weakness.” When we asked her to elaborate on why she felt uncomfortable sharing that this was her favorite color, we learned that she also considered herself “weak.” 

This discovery led to a deeper conversation on how she defined weakness and its relationship to the color pink. She said that pink is a “girly” color and is associated with being kind and pleasant and not speaking up for oneself. She then told us that she had been unable to advocate for herself and had remained in a broken marriage for years. She had allowed herself to be dominated during her marriage, and as a result, she had low self-esteem. By processing with the other group members, this participant began to understand not only the negative cultural and societal norms associated with the color pink (e.g., frail, timid, overly emotional disposition) but also positive traits such as compassion. This discussion and reframing allowed her to look at pink in a new way, and then she used this new perspective to reframe her thoughts about herself. What she once mistook as a representation of her personal weaknesses, she now realized represented her internal strength of compassion. Thus, her story was rewritten. 

Although this color activity was part of a one-session process group, it can be modified and used in regular group therapy as well as in individual sessions. Counselors can also use this activity as a training tool for various organizations. Within a work environment, for example, the color activity would allow employees to learn more about themselves and others within the organization. This insight can be revealed in a nonintrusive fashion that others may not be aware of. I (Jetaun Bailey) once used this activity in a training with a group of university faculty members. One of the faculty members identified with the color gray and associated it with neutrality. She went on to explain how her family life was chaotic, and she found solace in remaining as neutral as possible, which is a trait she had carried over into her work life. This trait led several of her co-workers in the group to express how they had noticed she had perfected the skill of remaining neutral, and although this trait is often considered a positive quality, it sometimes meant she would avoid addressing situations to remain neutral. Asking a nonintrusive question about color allowed the faculty to gain a greater understanding about their co-worker. 

Steps for implementing the color activity 

The group activity of rewriting one’s narrative through colors involves four sequential steps. During these steps, participants analyze their past using their favorite color, and in doing so, they are able to determine what prevents them from being their authentic self. In turn, this helps them to function more productively in the present and move forward into their future. 

Step 1: Connect colors to the client’s personality. Counselors can ask questions to help clients connect the color(s) with what it means about their personality. They can start by asking, “What color or colors do you feel reflect your personality?” While each participant answers the question, counselors should notice their body language or any spoken or unspoken explanations about the color(s), such as the previous example about the participant who closely identified with the color pink. Clinicians can then ask a gentle yet appropriate question about what they observed while the participant was identifying their favorite color. Some participants are forthcoming. For example, a Chinese American who participated in our process group easily connected the color red, which is symbolic in both Chinese and American cultures, to her own struggle with identity. She explained that she had been embracing and respecting one culture while feeling embarrassed by the other. 

Step 2: Investigate negative associations with the colors. Counselors should ask group members to identify one or two negative associations with the color(s) they chose and how it relates to past experiences in their lives. In addition, clinicians can ask the other participants in the group to share the negative connotations they may have heard about the color(s). This allows every participant to stay in a neutral zone so that no one feels attacked personally, and it also offers a broader understanding of the various meanings ascribed to colors on the part of different individuals, cultures and ethnicities. As noted by Iris Bakker and colleagues in their 2015 article published in Color Research and Application, a person’s gender, age, education and personality (e.g., being technical, emotional or a team player) affect their color preferences.

Step 3: Investigate the negative associations with specific colors as potential barriers to personal growth. Next counselors can ask clients to consider how the negative connotations associated with the color could be connected to negative feelings they have about themselves as well as how it might have hindered their growth in the past. It can be helpful during this step to self-disclose. Experts say that in small doses, self-disclosure can be a very effective technique. And when used judiciously, particularly in a group environment, it can help build trust, promote empathy and improve therapeutic relationships.

To break the ice during a group session on one occasion, I (Jetaun Bailey) disclosed that red, my identified color, is associated with aggression and impulsivity and that I am a risk-taker. I noted that I often get into trouble because of my impulsivity and risk-taking nature, and that my association with risk-taking being an ill-advised trait, which I learned from my experiences as a youth, often caused me to remain silent around others. Group processing teaches people how to voice their difficulties, and I believe my self-disclosure in this case increased the bond between the group members and myself. 

Self-disclosing also works well with clients who appear to be introverted. The participant who identified with the color pink in the previously mentioned example was somewhat apprehensive about sharing this color, which could imply that she may have introverted tendencies. But with the counselor’s and group’s own disclosure and encouragement, she began to express herself more freely.

Step 4: Help the client reframe the narrative. After exploring the negative connotations associated with the colors, counselors can ask each group member to think about positive qualities associated with the same color. For example, they could ask, “Now that you are aware of the negativity linked with the color(s) with which each of you have identified, how might you look at that negativity differently?” This technique, which is a form of cognitive restructuring, helps the participants reframe what they find to be negative and reflect a more positive view of the color. 

Clinicians could also have the client replace the negative word associated with the color with its antonym. It may be helpful to provide an example such as how sadness, which is often associated with the color blue, can be reframed by thinking of words that mean the opposite such as hopeful and optimistic. Counselors can then ask each participant to use that antonym or positive word to reconsider how they view their professional or personal lives now as well as how they hope to view it in the future. 

The person who identified with pink, for example, used the word “compassion” to reframe how she viewed herself and her marriage experience. This allowed her to see her strength amid the seeming dysfunction of her marriage, build self-awareness and help her understand that her strength lies in her compassion. In turn, the participant indicated that she would use this strength of compassion to regulate her emotions during difficult moments by using soothing, kind and supportive words or messages rather than self-criticism. She noted that decreasing self-criticism would improve her self-esteem as well as her relationships and communication skills with others. 

During this step, counselors can use a variety of techniques and modalities in addition to the cognitive behavior therapy technique of reframing. In fact, this step is an excellent time to use the “miracle question” technique from solution-focused therapy. For example, the counselor could say, “The rainbow symbolizes many things in Western society and art such as a sign of hope and better days to come. If that were the case, what miracle would your specific color bring you and why? How would that miracle alter the negative connotations associated with your chosen color(s)?” This approach achieves the solution-focused goal of helping clients rewrite their narratives, which makes it a good substitute for the cognitive behavior therapy technique of reframing.

A mindful approach 

This creative approach to rewriting one’s narrative offers inspiration and excitement because it can trigger a child-like curiosity and exploration and disarm tension and the expectation of a stereotypical psychoanalysis. The simple question of “what color(s) best reflects your personality” invites clients to express feeling, emotion and vision, which helps clients break down and deconstruct information into smaller, more manageable categories. Thus, counselors can easily incorporate the mindfulness method throughout this group process.

This question also causes many people to pause and reflect before answering, as though they are engaged entirely in their own mental imagery. The reliance on mental imagery is similar to guided therapeutic imagery, a relaxation technique closely associated with mindfulness. Asking what colors reflect their personality rather than simply asking what their favorite color is requires participants to use an inner sense or senses to elicit sensations associated with the color(s) and consider which color is most closely linked to their personality. 

The participants in our process group transitioned into a state of peace and tranquility the instant the question was posed, coinciding with the mindfulness approach of being fully present. In expressing their colors, they contributed to a sense of belonging created by the shared warmth, friendliness and evident understanding of the issue. The participants continued to work with this prompt in the present moment, completely involved in their own and each other’s experiences of the way their colors were manifesting.

Throughout the four steps of this approach, the counselor holds space for mindful listening. They must listen deeply and ask open-ended questions to allow everyone to express their authenticity through their colors, while gaining clarity and knowledge. And they also need to pay attention to verbal and nonverbal communication, especially to each individual’s breathing and physiological expressions. Clinicians should document clients’ comments and suppress clients’ negative self-talk. 

Effective mindful listening eventually creates an atmosphere of collective communication, resulting in each participant rewriting their narrative from self-reflection and collective sharing by way of mindful listening. The participant who identified with pink provides a great example of this. She communicated through both verbal and nonverbal expressions that the color pink caused her some uncomfortable feelings, and the other participants were able to help her see the beauty in her color and connect it to her own compassion. The participant was then able to self-reflect and reshape  her narrative. 

Because each group member brings their own cultural understanding of colors as well as their own color norms and practices with them, the group also gains a comprehensive richness that infuses components of cultural awareness in this activity of rewriting their narratives through colors. Each participant demonstrates cultural understanding by attentively listening to each other’s relationship with a color(s) and indicating how the connections are similar and different from their own. This cultural awareness creates a collective cohesive and appreciation for one another. As a result of this collective communication, a shared sense of culture emerges; the shared experience of discussing their own colors helps them form a community while still embracing each other’s individual identities and unique cultures.


Choosing one’s identifying color and the accurate attributes it holds, as well as the feelings and emotions associated with the thoughts, becomes rich material to work with in the therapeutic setting. Having clients consider the basic question — “Which color(s) do you feel reflect your personality?” — prompts a diverse range of responses and often results in enlightenment. It’s as if sharing colors has some magical or unexplainable way of shifting the discourse or topic in the group’s or individual’s favor. We are often oblivious of the way colors influence our moods, sensations and perceptions. Rewriting our narratives by looking at our interactions with colors from a cultural, personal and biological perspective can teach us something about ourselves, of which we are often unaware.

Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com


Jetaun Bailey holds a doctorate in professional counseling and supervision and is a licensed professional counselor with supervision status. She is also a college professor and a certified school counselor. Contact her at BaileyJetaun@hotmail.com.

Heather Hodge is a graduate student in the mindfulness-based transpersonal counseling program at Naropa University. Contact her at heather.hodge@naropa.edu. 

Beverly Andes is a graduate student in the mindfulness-based transpersonal counseling program at Naropa University. Contact her at beverly.andes@naropa.edu. 

Bryan Gere holds a doctorate in rehabilitation counseling and is an associate professor in the Department of Rehabilitation at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He is also a certified rehabilitation counselor. Contact him at bryangere23@gmail.com. 

CharMayne Jackson is a registered mental health counselor intern in Florida and holds a master’s in counseling psychology with a concentration in clinical psychology and a bachelor’s in psychology. Contact her at charmayne.jack@gmail.com. 


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


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.

Incorporating creativity into outreach on a college campus

By Melanie Broadwater March 7, 2022

So, you may ask, “What can a small college counseling center with a limited budget do to provide outreach to students during a worldwide pandemic that has dramatically impacted all aspects of campus life?”

Well, the answer to that question is “get creative”!

As the director of the Counseling Center at Thiel College, a private liberal arts college in western Pennsylvania with a combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment of a little over 800 students, I have had an up-close and personal glimpse into the ways that campus life has been directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The normal, everyday social lives of our college students became strikingly different at the onset of the pandemic. In March 2020, our students returned home to complete the spring semester virtually. Our campus was fortunate to be able to provide in-person learning throughout the 2020-2021 academic year through strict adherence to safety protocols, and for this we were grateful. However, life outside of the classroom was abnormal.

A once bustling campus, filled with the chatter of students in hallways and cafeterias, became unnaturally quiet. Our director of student activities did an outstanding job of engaging and connecting students through virtual events, which helped ease the disconnection that many students were experiencing.

Despite these achievements, I was very aware that there were students struggling under the strain of anxiety, depression and loneliness wrought by the pandemic. I also knew that some of these students were not connected to the campus Counseling Center. Our typical means of providing outreach and connecting with students were no longer feasible.

This led to brainstorming with my colleague and fellow counselor Jodie Witherite, a licensed clinical social worker, about how we could creatively reach students during a time in which in-person contact was limited.

Outreach efforts

The first thing we did was complete a project that was begun pre-pandemic but seemed to fit perfectly with our need to reach students while remaining socially distanced. Our project entailed developing three public service announcements (PSAs) that focused on suicide prevention and marketed the campus Counseling Center along with crisis resources. We worked diligently with our local suicide prevention committee and our college radio station to complete this project. These PSAs continue to be aired multiple times each day.

Next, we considered a way to bring unexpected cheer to our students and created “Boxes of Sunshine.” These small boxes contained a variety of items that were yellow, such as laptop stickers, banana Laffy Taffy candy, a bag of Lay’s potato chips and other small items that were inexpensive. The front of the box had a sticker of a smiling sun with contact information for the Counseling Center. The boxes were distributed as students entered the cafeteria to pick up their to-go lunches. Students were excited to receive their “Box of Sunshine,” with many expressing gratitude for this small gesture.

Several weeks later, I received a phone call from our vice president of student life asking if the Counseling Center would be willing to host this event again, with additional funds being provided to cover the expense. So, we followed this event with “Out of the Blue Boxes,” which were filled with blue items and distributed on a dreary winter day. “Irish Luck Boxes,” filled with green items, were provided on Saint Patrick’s Day. The students began looking forward to these events and were excited to see what surprises awaited them in their tiny boxes.

The Counseling Center typically hosts an annual “Stress Less Day,” when students gather to engage in stress-reducing activities such as receiving massages by a licensed massage therapist and spending time with a certified therapy dog. With the continued goal of making safety a priority, this event needed to be altered to ensure that students were not gathering in large groups. The result was an event termed “Donut Stress Day.”

Students could stop by at any time during a two-hour time frame. They chose a doughnut of their choice, served by a gloved and masked counselor, took a doughnut-themed craft with them to complete in their dorm room and entered to win a large doughnut-themed basket. This event allowed us to market the Counseling Center in a fun and lively atmosphere but without having students congregate.

We are planning additional events throughout the spring 2022 semester. The first involves distributing sealed bags of popcorn with the phrase “Just poppin’ in to remind you we are here,” along with contact information for the Counseling Center. These bags will be distributed by the counselors as students enter or exit the cafeteria for lunch.

We are also planning a workshop series titled “Coping Through Creativity,” which will use artistic and creative means to emphasize healthy ways of managing emotions and stress. These events will be held in a large room to provide opportunity for adequate distancing. The first session of the workshop series will focus on the benefits of journaling. Students will be given a composition book with a plain front and back cover. They will have the opportunity to decorate their journals as they desire with craft supplies that will be provided. They will be encouraged to make their journals a reflection of their own individuality. They will also be given a handout outlining tips on journaling.

Relying on others

Finally, with the Counseling Center seeing an increase in requests for treatment, along with more faculty members requesting that Counseling Center staff visit their classrooms, we are creating a video to promote positive stress management. It will also serve as a marketing tool for the Counseling Center. This video can then be played in classrooms, during athletic team practices, or at any function in which students may benefit from this information. Ultimately, this should reduce the amount of time that Counseling Center staff must spend away from the office and allot more time for clinical care of students.

Along with our outreach efforts, we also rely upon the good-faith efforts of our dedicated staff and faculty to steer students toward the Counseling Center when a need is recognized. In addition, trainings are provided to our Residence Life staff and to mental health-related student organizations to guide them in how to compassionately approach students who may be struggling with mental health concerns. They are taught how to make a referral to the Counseling Center and the process for seeking help in emergency situations.

The unique challenges of conducting outreach to students on a college campus during an ongoing pandemic has led to the stretching of both our imaginations and resources, which I have actually found quite fulfilling. Although there is no way to say with certainty that our outreach efforts have led directly to our growing caseloads, I’m of the belief that outreach has brought some students through our office doors who may not have entered previously. As we all look forward to life post-pandemic, I hope that through continued creativity, our small college Counseling Center will continue to reach students who may not have sought our services otherwise.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com



Melanie Broadwater is a licensed professional counselor and a national certified counselor. She is employed by Thiel College as the director of its Counseling Center. Contact her at mbroadwater@thiel.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.

Fostering healing and community through an art and wellness magazine

By Russ Curtis, Lisen Roberts and Merry Leigh Dameron September 29, 2021

As a nation, we have faced several grim statistics in the past few years. Suicide rates have increased more than 30% in half of the states in the U.S. since 1999, and the opioid crisis has become an epidemic. In addition, adverse childhood experiences will likely rise because of the increased isolation and lack of school support services during the COVID-19 pandemic. These statistics are further troubling considering that mental health and addiction issues often begin in adolescence and lead to long-term disability, failure to achieve one’s highest potential and premature death.

Thus, it’s paramount to reach young people using multivariate, systemic and effective outreach methods. Using social media and other online venues can be more effective in reaching larger audiences than using simple public awareness messages, and this method is particularly salient during times requiring social distancing. With grant funding from the Jackson County and North Carolina Arts Councils, the Western Carolina University (WCU) counseling program collaborated with local public schools throughout western North Carolina to create an online art and wellness magazine called Masterpeace. We invited K-12 students to submit art for consideration in this publication, which was designed to do the following:

  • Create an engaging online (and print) magazine that celebrates local student art
  • Build university-school partnerships
  • Collaborate with counseling graduate students to provide mental health and wellness education to children, adolescents, parents, teachers and counselors
  • Destigmatize mental health issues
  • Increase conversation among parents, students, faculty and community members about the importance of seeking help for mental health needs

Healing through art

Coupling art with wellness information is particularly advantageous because research indicates that creating and appreciating art is therapeutic. Creating art elicits similar brainwave activity to what is observed in people while meditating. Art therapy is effective in helping clients who have experienced domestic violence, trauma, depression, personality disorders and schizophrenia.

Artists are visionaries who follow their hearts, not crowds, and are regularly at the forefront of societal change. Often it is music, paintings, graffiti or murals that bring much-needed awareness of inequality and oppression to the public. The aim of this art and wellness magazine is to encourage and nurture students’ creative genius to inspire others to instill a more collaborative and just society.

Expanding the reach

An online magazine can be an effective tool because 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, 89% of them are online multiple times every day and 40% say they prefer to receive health information online versus face-to-face medical visits. In addition, accurate online health information decreases anxiety and depression and increases stress management, healthy relationships and academic achievement. Evidence suggests that online health education is particularly salient for stigmatized topics that adolescents would typically avoid in face-to-face settings.

The WCU counseling program tested the efficacy of including art with mental health information on the university’s social media platform. First, we placed suicide prevention information on the counseling program’s Facebook page. Then, the next day we included student art with the same suicide information post. Adding art to the post increased the reach of the suicide prevention message: 46 more views (168 total), 152 more engagement (165) and 11 more likes (17).

Strengthening university, school and agency relationships

Masterpeace magazine enhances our university, agency and school partnerships by providing an engaging way for students, parents, counselors and teachers to interact during a period of social isolation. The teachers have told us how much they appreciate having the online magazine to discuss with their students and inspire them to create art. For instance, a middle school counselor was working with a student who was new to the school and struggling to fit in. He suggested she join the art club, so she did. And one of her artworks was published in Masterpeace. The counselor said it significantly improved her attitude and school engagement. Another art teacher told us that one of her talented high school student’s intermittent depression was visibly improved after their art was published in the magazine, and the teacher also believed that this publication would increase the student’s chances of receiving college scholarships. It may sound cliché but helping even one student thrive is well worth this publication.

Excitement for the magazine was evident from the number of students and schools that participated. There was a 100% increase in the number of students and a 27% increase in the number of schools that contributed art between the 2020 and 2021 editions. To date, the first two issues of Masterpeace have been viewed over 4,700 times, a reach that is significantly more than faculty could have accomplished by speaking to schools and community groups.

We hope that collaborating with community schools and agencies will also increase their involvement in counseling student field placements, service-learning opportunities, internships, practicums and other partnerships.

Another benefit of this project is that it involves counseling graduate students using what they learn in classes about mental health wellness and prevention to provide salient information throughout the magazine. In turn, this project benefits both graduate and K-12 students because it encourages counseling graduate students, who will become future counselors, to apply course material so that K-12 students will understand and use it in their lives.

Honoring the foundation of the counseling profession

We believe this magazine has a broader and more nuanced purpose. The counseling profession was founded on prevention and wellness principles, and it has increasingly been a leader in the behavioral health field on diversity, social justice and equality issues. The beauty and originality of art are emblematic of the counseling profession’s desire to honor the truth and uniqueness of everyone and allow them to express themselves in their own way. Much like the vision and imagination it takes to generate art, we believe this magazine speaks to the ethos of the counseling profession by honoring the varied and meaningful ways we all contribute to the world, creating an ever-evolving and highly complex beautiful tapestry of humanity.


Enjoy flipping through the 2020 issue and the 2021 issue of Masterpeace, and follow us on Instagram @masterpeace.artmag.

“The New King of the Jungle” by Marina Mace, the cover art for the 2021 issue of Masterpeace magazine (published by Western Carolina University in collaboration with the Jackson County and North Carolina Arts Councils)



Russ Curtis is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and a professor of counseling at Western Carolina University. Contact him at curtis@wcu.edu.

Lisen Roberts is the department head of human services and an associate professor of counseling at Western Carolina University, where she oversees 10 academic programs. She continues to be involved in school counseling, counseling ethics and social justice issues. Contact her at lroberts@wcu.edu.

Merry Leigh Dameron is a licensed school counselor and assistant professor of counseling at Western Carolina University. Her research interests include social justice in education, alternative education and school counselor cultural competence. Contact her at mdameron@wcu.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.

Yes, and … improv can be therapeutic

By Lindsey Phillips September 7, 2021

Two of the main rules of improv are that you must agree with the other person and add to the conversation. One of the most commonly used improv games “Yes, and …” illustrates these principles. 

Two people face each other. One person starts by voicing a single statement. The other person accepts this idea and builds on it by responding, “Yes, and …” For example, if someone says, “The lake is full of alligators,” the other person could respond, “Yes, and one of them is swimming toward us.” 

“In a lot of ways, improv is like a therapist,” says Andrea Baum, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Texas. “It’s giving that unconditional positive regard but also reflecting, tracking, and conveying empathy and understanding.” 

Baum discovered improv when she started looking for more playful counseling modalities. She decided that to enhance her role-playing, which she was using with clients, and to help herself focus more on being in the moment, she would take an improv theater class. In the process of having fun, she also observed several parallels with counseling. 

“I noticed that what I was trying to teach my clients to do, improv was organically doing,” she says. “Things like keeping them in the present moment, accepting themselves, finding their voice, expressing their authentic selves [and] connecting with other people. There were so many risks people were taking because they felt safe in [the improv] environment.”

Later, she learned about how improv could help caregivers better communicate with their loved ones, and this hit home for her. When Baum was 15, her father suffered a brain injury, which led to early onset dementia. Improv now served another purpose for Baum: “I started using these techniques that I had learned in improv with my dad, and our entire relationship just completely changed for the better. It was life-changing.”

Her experience with improv inspired her to partner with an improv educator and open Stomping Ground Comedy Theater in Dallas. She serves as the director of Improv for Life, a series of therapeutic improv classes and workshops that she designed for several populations with unique needs. 

Building connections 

In preparing to transition his counseling practice online a couple of years ago, Gordon Smith, a licensed clinical mental health counselor with a virtual private practice based in Asheville, North Carolina, began researching ways to build intimacy more effectively and efficiently in online spaces. His search led to him taking improv classes at the comedy club Second City. After participating in four online sessions, Smith was hooked. Immediately thereafter, he signed up for an improv group for counselors at the Improv Therapy Group, an organization that provides improvisation training with the goal of improving mental health. 

“I was immediately struck by how this modality allowed for practically instantaneous levels of trust, intimacy, risk-taking and laughter among total strangers,” Smith says. “I realized that I’d found what I was hunting for and was also having a really good time cutting up with a bunch of therapists.” 

Smith, who now serves on the Improv Therapy Group’s advisory board, has created improv groups tailored to working with gifted adolescents, adults and families. In a recent improv group, many of the participants reported that they felt mirrored and seen in the group in a way they didn’t often experience in their daily lives as neurodiverse individuals.   

Improv can also help disrupt toxic patterns in relationships, Smith says. He once worked with a family whose members all felt unheard and unseen by one another. The dynamic was so toxic that the family constantly argued in session, Smith recalls. While counselors can try to engage family members in therapeutic activities during therapy sessions, these activities may elicit only eye rolls or hurtful comments when the relationship is so badly damaged, Smith observes. He finds that the spontaneity of improv activities often interrupts these toxic patterns and opens the possibility of the relationship looking different. 

“All it takes is that first moment of spontaneity where something new happens and toxic patterns are disrupted, if only for a moment, which is what we’re going for in family therapy,” Smith says. Family members can explore how their relationship might look different by breaking out of an assumed role such as “mean mom,” for example. The mom can instead pretend to be “fun mom” for a few moments. Improv allows clients to play with the family narrative and “break” it in fun, nonthreatening ways, Smith explains.

Baum points out that mirroring is a great way to teach empathy and for people to connect with others. One of the first games she uses, especially when working with caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease, is having group members introduce themselves by saying their name and doing a silly gesture that expresses themselves in some way. The rest of the group then repeats this gesture three times before moving on to the next person.

When introducing improv games to clients, clinicians need to provide sufficient detail for how to play and show examples from across the spectrum. With the gesturing game, a counselor could exhibit both a small way to gesture, such as barely raising one’s hand, and a big way, such as jumping up and down and waving. 

“It seems like a simple icebreaker, but really we’re giving people the experience of being silly, being themselves, and then everybody accepting and supporting that by mirroring them,” Baum says. “There’s so much that benefits us when we mirror one another. We naturally mirror people when we’re connected to them. It helps us to listen and stay in the moment … and it’s a type of empathy … [to] really listen and repeat what you’re hearing.” 

Caregivers can also apply this skill in their own work, Baum says. They can mirror the ones they are caring for, matching their tone and volume of voice and what they are doing nonverbally. “That can help you connect and create mutual trust quickly,” Baum explains.  

Improv can also be a fun way to end a difficult processing session, says J. Claire Gregory, an American Counseling Association member who is an LPC and a licensed chemical dependency counselor in Texas. She presented on how improv can foster connection with clients and counseling students at ACA’s Virtual Conference Experience this past spring. 

One game she sometimes uses at the end of a process group is “Place, Hobby and Reason to Leave.” The game involves two people acting out a scene. One of the two leaves the room, while the others in the group determine a place (e.g., Texas), hobby (e.g., ballet) and reason to leave (e.g., stinging bees). The first individual returns to the room, and the second person acts out the place, hobby and reason to leave using only gestures and gibberish. The point of the exercise is to get the clients laughing and end the group on a fun note, Gregory says.   

Incorporating improv into counseling 

Comedic improv itself can be beneficial because it teaches communication, connection and acceptance in a supportive environment. So, counselors could recommend that clients who are struggling with social anxiety, confidence issues, self-esteem or relationship issues take a general improv class, Baum says. 

Therapeutic improv, however, differs in two ways: 1) It tailors the improv games to address a specific mental health need or population, and 2) it allows participants to process and apply the skills they learn in the games to their own lives. 

Alison Sheesley, an LPC and play therapist with a private practice in Denver, uses improv to create experiential activities that help group members learn skills needed to overcome some of the mental health issues confronting them. Although general improv classes are about being present, listening, being receptive, building connection and having fun, they are not as focused on helping participants connect what they do in class with their own personal lives, she explains. That’s one of the biggest differences between general improv and therapeutic improv. Sheesley’s focus is never on having clients be funny. She uses improv as a method for imparting life skills, but the humor often still happens intrinsically.

At Stomping Ground Comedy Theater, Baum has created therapeutic improv programs focused on anxiety, autism, caregivers, dementia/Alzheimer’s, kids and anxiety, health care professionals and physicians, and stress management. When working with an improv therapy group, Baum selects or adapts improv games based on the needs of the group population. 

One game she often uses for clients with social anxiety is to have them create a character — either someone they know or have made up — and imagine that character’s most distorted thought about themselves or the world. For instance, maybe the thought is “I’m stupid.” The person then acts out a scene with another person in the group who is also thinking their character’s most distorted thought. For example, the person whose character thinks they’re “stupid” may order a cup of coffee at Starbucks from the other person’s character, who is thinking, “The world is out to get me.” The first person may act nervous while ordering and stumble over their words, while the other person eyes them suspiciously.  

After acting this scene, Baum teaches the group how thoughts, emotions and behavior influence each other. They also learn to reframe thoughts using cognitive behavior theory. Baum asks the group how the characters could change their thoughts to neutral ones. They aren’t allowed to create a new thought, she explains. Instead, they must reframe the current one. The two members of the group assume these new, neutral thoughts and replay the same scene, noticing how things flow differently. 

Improv games such as this one have real-world benefits, Baum says. They give clients tools to communicate so that they won’t feel so lost or self-conscious, she explains. In the process, clients learn how to express themselves or how to position their hands or eyes when they first meet someone.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com

Baum has also used improv games to help people with dementia or Alzheimer’s learn how to better express their emotions. After playing the game, she briefly processes with them by asking, “How did that game make you feel? What did you learn from it? How could you use this in your life?” Her goal is to have clients come up with their own conclusions because then they are more likely to apply these lessons outside of session. 

Improv games are similar to techniques that many counselors already use, Smith observes. For example, clinicians may have clients externalize their feelings: “If your feeling could talk right now, what would it say?” That is a form of improv, he points out. This activity helps clients consider how their experience can go differently depending on subtle changes in how they think or act, he explains, which is in line with cognitive behavior theory.  

Reducing anxiety

Improv games work well with people who have anxiety, especially social anxiety, Sheesley says, because it allows them to lean into their social discomfort in a safe — and often humorous — way. Sheesley and her colleagues discussed how comedic improv therapy can treat social anxiety through group cohesiveness, play, exposure and humor in a 2016 article published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. 

Sheesley, an ACA member who holds a doctorate in counselor education and supervision, runs a therapeutic improv comedy group in Denver that incorporates skills from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). At the beginning of a recent group session, she explained the concept of defusion, an ACT skill that involves creating space between a client’s sense of self and their thoughts and feelings to lessen their negative impact. This skill helps empower clients to make choices that align with their life values. Sheesley then asked group participants to identify a self-critical thought that contributed to their feelings of social anxiety so they could work on defusing it. In a circle, they repeated the self-critical thought multiple times using different silly voices, which is a well-known ACT defusion technique, Sheesley notes. 

However, she had the participants take it a step further by incorporating aspects of improv. They created characters to represent this self-critical thought and acted out how these characters spoke, walked, dressed and interacted with others. After getting comfortable in these roles, group members performed improvised scenes of inviting these self-critical characters to a party. One person pretended to be the self-critical character, while another person pretended to be the “self” that is negatively affected by this character. Sheesley instructed them not to reject the character but to treat it with acceptance, kindness and empathy. If she noticed a group member was not fully in the moment or was making a T sign (a sign Sheesley taught them to use when they needed a timeout), she would pause the improvisation to allow group members to process their feelings using a feelings chart. At the end of this exercise, group members told Sheesley they were able to view their self-critical thoughts and feelings through a different, more helpful, lens.

Improv can also help reduce anxiety among gifted individuals. This population often lives
in a state of overwhelm because of all the cognitive, sensory and emotional information they are processing, which can cause them to be more guarded and less trustful of the moment, Smith says. 

“The improv space allows for the rule for the room [to be] spontaneity and presence,” he notes. “It allows [gifted individuals] to come into the present and learn more about trusting … and feeling safe in the present. … They have time to practice going with their intuitive sense … and seeing how it works out in a no-stakes way.”

Smith once worked with a 13-year-old client who, like many gifted individuals, presented with asynchronous development (uneven intellectual, physical and emotional development). The client would overthink social situations, and by the time he figured out what to say, the moment had passed. His peers judged him negatively for his awkward and delayed responses. 

When the client first came to see Smith, these rejections had caused him such anxiety that he found it difficult to even open his mouth to speak. Their first few sessions together were only 20 minutes long because it was so painful for the client to talk. “His anxiety was so high,” Smith recalls. “I could see him so bottled up and having difficulty getting words out.” 

Smith knew the client enjoyed playing games, so he asked the client if he would play a game with him. The client agreed. Smith chose the improv game “Energy Ball” because he was also working on building the client’s emotional vocabulary. The game involves passing a ball that can transform into any feeling. Smith began the game by pretending to hold a ball of despair in his hands. Then, he threw it to the client. 

At first, the client played it safe by naming emotions such as happiness or fun, Smith recalls. He would also describe a feeling when he wasn’t sure of the emotional word, and Smith would “catch” the ball and name the appropriate feeling. But after about eight or nine passes of the energy ball, the client relaxed and started talking.

After playing this and other improv games, the client started doing hourlong sessions and grew confident enough to attend summer camp, where he made several friends. 

In improv, “everything that happens is a gift to be taken … and built upon versus some sort of threat. It’s just opportunity after opportunity after gift after gift,” Smith says. “And that can be a cognitive shift: The story I’m telling of what others are expecting of me or how they’re judging me … [changes] to ‘Well, here’s what they’re giving me.’”

Creating a safe space 

Counselors also need to cultivate a safe, supportive space when using improv. Baum and Gregory recommend establishing clear guidelines at the beginning. Gregory makes it clear that inappropriate or offensive words are not allowed, and she tailors her guidelines to the population. When she runs groups for individuals dealing with addiction, for example, she asks participants to avoid referencing drugs or drug use. 

The Stomping Ground theater has an oops/ouch policy, Baum says, that encourages group members to let others know if they are uncomfortable or offended by another’s actions or words.

“With improv, you can’t prepare for all things,” acknowledges Gregory, a doctoral candidate of counselor education and supervision at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “There’s going to be times where maybe a client gets over-triggered, but that can turn into an individual session” or learning experience, she says.

Smith had his own awkward moment in which he felt he crossed a line when acting out a scene in his personal improv group. The game involved group members destroying fear with an imaginary object. Smith picked up a “lamp” and proceeded to aggressively beat the fear out of it. At the end of the scene, he worried he had been a little too violent and may have triggered another group member, so he asked the group, “Was that too much?” 

The improv teacher responded in a supportive way, Smith recalls. She acknowledged that the performance could have been triggering, and she advised him to redo the scene in slow motion, which took the threat out of it. So, the group laughed while he slowly replayed the scene. 

Smith recommends that counselors also apply the “Yes, and …” principle to situations that create discomfort in their sessions. Acknowledge what the client was doing, he says, and show them another way to approach it to ensure that others feel safe. 

The need for proper training 

To successfully incorporate improv into their practice, Baum recommends that counselors take several improv classes and get training. She also stresses the importance of partnering with a highly skilled improv instructor. 

“The person who’s leading the group has to be able to build rapport and trust really quickly and in a playful way to get the buy-in,” she says. “If a therapist tries this once for the first time [without training], it could flop very quickly.” After doing improv for seven years, Baum says she just now feels she could lead a class by herself.

It was through an improv class that Sheesley met Stephanie Jones, an experienced improv coach and therapeutic improv consultant. Sheesley decided to partner with Jones and start an improv comedy play-based therapy group for social anxiety. Jones leads the improv activities, and Sheesley operates as a group facilitator, observing the group through a therapeutic lens. 

Before Gregory started using improv techniques with her in-patient group, she spent time training and discussing the ethical implications with her clinical director. She also sought consultation with other mental health professionals, all of whom advised her to continue learning by going to improv and psychodrama workshops. 

Smith has learned a substantial amount from Improv Therapy Group’s trainings, which allow him to play improv games with other mental health professionals and reflect on how best to use them with clients. Later in training, clinicians learn to create their own games tailored for the populations with which they work, he says. 

What counselors can learn from improv

Sheesley was working in a coffee shop in New Orleans when she first learned about improv from a friend. She started going to the local comedy theater and immediately loved it. Later, when she entered a master’s in counseling program, she noticed the parallels between the two. She recalls thinking, “Improv is exactly what we’re learning in my counseling classes about being receptive and present, listening and responding in the moment.”

She believes improv has also improved her skills as a counselor because it has given her confidence in her ability to handle whatever arises in session. “I’m much more accepting and less reactive to whatever comes up because I’ve practiced that in improv,” Sheesley says.

Smith agrees that in many ways, clinicians are already using improv skills by actively listening and being present with clients. Counseling sessions unfold naturally just like an improv scene, he says. In fact, some of the things he loves about both improv and counseling are “the immediacy, intimacy, uncertainty [and] mystery of how things are going to unfold,” he says.

Smith has also benefited from improv because he now has a deeper vocabulary to explain counseling concepts. He constantly uses “Yes, and …” with clients to build on what they are saying in session. Improv also allows him to crystallize therapeutic language in a casual way. For example, he can talk about “being in the moment” through these games and not from a Gestalt, psychoanalytic perspective. 

Baum thinks improv classes have made her more perceptive. “I’m able to read people really well nonverbally and verbally and pick up on cues. My intuition has improved on what might be going on with someone,” she explains. 

Gregory often found herself in her own head in sessions. She feared saying the wrong thing, and her focus on adhering to a specific counseling theory sometimes caused her to feel less connected with the client. Improv taught her how to step aside from that strictly clinical, structured mindset, she says.

Learning to be spontaneous and in the moment has allowed her to move past her own anxieties and fears to focus more on what her clients need. Spontaneity in improv “doesn’t mean being impulsive,” she adds. “It’s about being tuned in and being authentic to yourself and to the group.” 

Improv has also taught Gregory how to “fail.” She once tried an improv activity with a group, and it completely fell apart because no one wanted to participate. She had the group sit in silence for a few moments while she collected her thoughts about how to proceed. Finally, she asked the group what had happened, and she discovered some tension existed between two group members. 

“You’re going to fail with it,” Gregory admits. “There’s going to be times where you will try [an improv game] … and [clients] are just not really into it. And that’s OK because it leads to a different conversation, which can be therapeutic in itself.”

Learning to laugh again 

Gregory, Sheesley and Baum all agree that improv is a form of play therapy for adults. “At some point when we are becoming adults, we become self-conscious, and we stop playing. We stop expressing ourselves, and we start hiding parts of ourselves,” Baum says. “Improv is helpful because it’s a type of play that adults and children can have to express themselves.”

Sheesley finds that counseling frequently revolves around theories, mainly developed by white men, that are serious and often unapproachable. This isn’t the type of therapy that she wants to cultivate with her clients. She wants to make counseling a safe, playful space. “Laughter is just as therapeutic as crying, and yet we focus so much on crying as the ultimate cathartic expression,” she observes. She argues there is room for both. 

Smith recently led an improv workshop at a Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted mini-conference. He noticed one woman who looked like she wanted to participate but kept hesitating. So, he invited her to play in the next game. She reluctantly said yes, but a few minutes after playing, she was cracking herself up. 

Later, when they were processing the game with the group, she admitted that it was the first time she had laughed since her husband died two years earlier. “And it wasn’t because we were doing grief work,” Smith points out. “We were just playing and being supportive.” 

“Part of our job is helping people become aware of their own patterns, habits, scripts and narratives. … And improv is a way to disrupt those habits and patterns in a very safe way that allows for new perspectives,” Smith asserts. “So much of our work as therapists is just trying to help clients grow and broaden their perspectives on their own lives and to see opportunity and possibility. And that’s what [improv] is.”

People often think counseling must be serious all the time. They incorrectly assume that “if it’s fun, it’s suspicious somehow; if it’s fun, it’s not ‘real’ work,” Smith says. “We need to go to those other places that are sad and scary. [Yes,] those things can happen, and we can play.”



Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@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.