By Emily St. Amant, MA, LPC-MHSP, AS (TN); ACA Staff Counselor
Happy Counseling Awareness Month! This month, the American Counseling Association is calling on all counselors to prioritize their own self-care, but through a lens of counseling ethics and equity.
Self-care and wellness strategies need to be adapted to meet the unique needs of counselors and professional healers. Counselors are individuals who have advanced knowledge and practical experience promoting wellness. However, if counselors themselves are not practicing self-care, they may be facing complex barriers to implementing meaningful approaches to protect and improve their mental, physical, social, spiritual and emotional health. And they may need extra support to help them overcome those barriers.
This may be leaving you with the question, what does actually help counselors?
Be self-aware enough to see when your best effort isn’t working. If you find yourself unable to set boundaries and practice self-care, that is a red flag that something is amiss. Stop trying to do more and push yourself harder. Learn to slow down, say no, rest and ask for help. If the “basics” feel impossible because of one’s own lack of boundaries, an inability to set boundaries because of workplace demands, or one’s personal life and mental health experiences, you need support. You also probably need to make some changes. Self-assessment tools, such as the Professional Quality of Life and the Counselor Burnout Inventory, can be invaluable to help provide some concrete feedback on how you are really doing.
Set boundaries and stand up for yourself, because by doing so you are demonstrating your worth and value. When we stand up for ourselves, we also stand up for others. Hopefully, those efforts can help to keep others from experiencing harm. It’s also good to leave harmful workplaces because by doing so, you are giving yourself a chance to heal and making space for future opportunities to serve and grow. Sometimes self-care means making difficult decisions and having hard conversations, and unfortunately it may mean risking conflict and retaliation.
For many of us counselors, our own personal life experiences and health in addition to the long-term impact of working in the field requires that we have support from our peers, mentors and supervisors, and that we seek out our own therapy. Self-care practices may play a vital role, yes, but it’s especially important that we don’t try to address the impact of the unique occupational hazards we deal with alone.
Know the Research
There are additional layers of complexity and difficulty healers face when addressing their own healing. Because of this complexity, a specific body of literature is dedicated to the health and wellness needs of counselors and therapists. Self-care and coping skills need to be adapted so that they don’t invalidate our experiences and knowledge. Know the difference between vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout. It’s important to note that often workplace-related stressors are the source of burnout for many counselors, not the work itself. Burnout prevention and solutions must address systemic and organizational causes.
An Equity Lens
It is vital that approaches to wellness are consistent with professional counseling ethics, and that the messages and strategies about self-care are rooted in cultural responsiveness. I also recommend reading the work of advocates who are decolonizing mental health and wellness. Self-care, including rest and self-love, can be a social justice practice and a form of advocacy.
When counselors have the time, energy, financial stability, skills and support they need to take care of themselves, that is when they are empowered and are able to take care of others.
About the author: Emily St. Amant is a licensed professional counselor and Tennessee board-approved clinical supervisor. She is the counseling resources and continuing education specialist at ACA. Emily has 16 years of experience in a variety of settings in behavioral health and has worked as a psychotherapist, intake coordinator, utilization reviewer, and continuing education course developer and author. Her current passion and area of focus is advocating for and supporting her fellow licensed professional counselors.