One of the mysteries of life to me is why the newest and greenest counselors often get assigned the most difficult and complicated cases. In a perfect world, which of course we don’t live in, we would always gradually introduce complexity and difficulty in the cases as counselors build confidence, skills and experience. To some extent this happens- especially in pre-graduate internship settings. But just as frequently if not more so in my experience, new counselors, in supervision for licensure, often have a caseload of cases that would challenge even the most experienced among us.
Partly I think this is due to the increasing severity of all cases in these days of shrinking mental health resources, demands on family life of our clients, financial stressors and reductions in educational and community resources as well. The “village” it takes to raise a child or support a family has been very stressed lately. In addition, the lower rate of pay for Medicaid funded clients or other publicly funded programs means that the more experienced practitioners typically do not work in those programs as direct providers. That’s just a financial fact of life. I can’t put my daughters through college on the pay I would get as a contractor in a non-profit community agency- as much as I miss that environment and the varied work such offers.
In supervising practitioners there, I feel like I can at least contribute to that environment and mentor those that provide the services. In such supervision I have consistently noted how when there is a mismatch of skill to severity , new counselors can wind up feeling inadequate to the task. I find it helpful to remind them that I too feel challenged by the multiple problems and dynamics their clients present. This surprises them but also supports them. They begin to feel more a part of the longer range world of being a helping professional and that we all struggle throughout to provide the best services possible. The other thing I have found crucial in addressing this situation is that supervision must acknowledge and develop understanding of systems of care- not just the encounter and counseling moment or hour. We all have to learn and use the resources in our particular community: after school programs, health department parenting programs, tutoring, financial counseling services, religious institutions, etc. We can’t do it alone and neither can our clients.
The grandiosity that comes from over-valuing the counseling hour is a pitfall that will end the careers of some, when they wind up feeling inadequate and ineffective in the face of daunting problems they are asked to treat. We can mentor better when we include a broader context and this may include suggesting new programs where they are needed, advocating for funding, willingness to collaborate and brainstorm solutions, and other outside-of-session activities. We all have to strengthen our “village” and in doing so we help mentor our new counselors and improve the lives of clients as well.
Joan Phillips is a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family
therapist. She maintains a private practice and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.