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Jul 26, 2016

Counselors Advocating for Counselors

The counseling profession is built on the concept of advocacy.   When you think about it, that's pretty much what we do as counselors, build relationships and advocate for our clients. There are a number of definitions for the term advocacy. The Webster dictionary defines advocacy as, “the process of advocating or supporting a cause.”  According to the American Counseling Association, advocacy is defined as “the promotion of the well-being of individuals, groups, and the counseling profession within systems and organizations.” Advocacy seeks to remove barriers and obstacles that inhibit access, growth, and development.

 As Counselors, we spend an extraordinary amount of time advocating on behalf of the populations that we serve. We advocated for the civil right for persons with disabilities. If we did not, the American with Disabilities Act would not exist. We fight for equitable treatment for clients with mental illnesses, we fight for access and equity for our clients from traditionally under-served populations.

Nevertheless, I don't think that we spend nearly enough times advocating for ourselves. Standard instructions on airplane flights usually include the following statement: in the event that the oxygen level in the main cabinet becomes unstable, oxygen masks will drop in front of every passenger. Passengers are instructed to secure their own mask before helping other passengers or children.

Metaphorically speaking, as counselors, before we advocate for others, lets engage in some self-advocacy. I'm not talking about being selfish; I'm talking about counselor self-care. I'm talking about counselors advocating for counselors so that we are able to empower ourselves to be stronger when we are advocating for others.

That's not to slight the work that we do as counselors.  Individuals with disabilities are still discriminated against, both in the work place and society in general.  Individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups are still discriminated against, both in the work place and society. Racial Profiling is a real phenomenon.

Stereotyping is still a major problem in this country. The untimely deaths of Alton Sterling  and Philando Castile are clear examples that we are not yet living in a post racial America. Counselor advocacy work on those issues are certainly worthwhile endeavors.

According to the My Brother's Keeper Task Force Report to the President of the United States, 23.2% of Hispanics, 25.8% of African-Americans, and 27% of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in poverty, compared to 11.6 White Americans. Roughly two-thirds of Blacks and one third of Hispanic Children live with only one parent.

While only 6% of the overall population, African-American males accounted for 43% of murder victims in 2011.  In 2012, Black males were 6 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males. Given these grim statistics, I applaud those of you who advocate on behalf of diverse cultural populations. You all are making a significant contribution to society.

Nevertheless, your great work only illustrates my point. As counselors, we spend so much time fighting to advance the agendas of our clients and or potential clients, we rarely come together to articulate and conceptualize our own agenda.

Most Counselors are not in this profession for the money, and we all can agree to that point.  Recently, ACA published the results of the first ever counselor compensation study. Nearly 9,000 counselors from across the nation participated in this survey of the counselor workforce. The study indicated that clinical mental health counselors earn an average of approximately $40,000 dollars per year, Rehabilitation Counselors and School Counselors earned an average of around $53,000 dollars per year and the highest earners among the group were Counselor Educators and they earned an average of 66,000 dollars per year.

I was asked by one of the editors from the Counseling today Journal for my reaction to the results of the survey. My response was that I believe that all counselors should earn a minimum of $100,000 annually regardless of work setting. Given the rigorous academic training and pending debt from student loans, I believe that it is imperative for counselors to be adequately compensated for all of their hard work.  We push and motivate our clients to maximize their potential in all aspects of life.  Gerald Corey noted that effective helpers do in their lives those exact same things that we ask our clients to do in their personal lives. Thus, I believe that counselors should advocate for salaries commensurate with their education, background, and experiences.

Empathy and unconditional positive regards are great traits to possess as counselors.  However, at the end of the day, empathy and unconditional positive regard alone can't pay the mortgage, the light bill, grocery bill, or your children's college tuition. I am not advocating for excessive pay like the salaries some of our professional athletes or CEO’s receive, just equitable and fair pay for the hard work that you do as counselors.

I think we shoot ourselves in the foot when we say I'm not in this for the money. It speaks to a low expectation for just compensation.  Just because counseling is a service profession that does mean that counselors should expect low wages. The law profession is also a service profession, yet lawyers expect high salary compensation. The medical profession is also a service profession, yet physicians expect high salaries. Service in the U.S. Congress is a service occupation, yet Congressmen and Senators expect high salaries.  So, I believe our first challenge is changing society's perception about what we do and how we should be compensated.

Moreover, as a result of several national tragedies, school shootings, military base shootings, movie theatre killings and police related shootings, the counseling profession has been fast tracked to the top of priority list for many governmental agencies and officials in America. Recently, President Obama spoke at the National Conference on Mental Health at the White House as part of the administration's effort to launch a national conversation to increase understanding about mental health and wellness.

The First Lady, Michelle Obama recently gave an excellent speech to the American School Counselor Association. In that speech, she acknowledged all of the hard work that school counselors do with limited resources. She talked about the fact that the national average is 470 students to one counselor and how one in five American high schools do not have any counselors at all.  In essence, the important work that we do is evident at all levels of society. Yet somehow, the contribution of counselors to society is undervalued for the most part.

The messages that you communicate to clients during counseling sessions could be the difference between students staying in school or dropping out of school, dropping out school or going to college, going back to the block or joining  the military, becoming a pastor or joining ISIS. In short, your work as counselors matter. So I think it's time for us to really start advocating for ourselves.  So what does that mean? If the President were to show up today and asked the question, how can I assist you all as counselors? Would we have a well thought out agenda to present to the President? I would say no to that question, and that's why we have to take a step back sometimes and figure out our needs as counselors.

One thing I know about politics and politicians is that you have to ask for what you need on the front end of the election cycle before they get elected.  If we elect someone, but never present a data driven and cohesive agenda, how can we expect politicians to act on our behalf?  In short, “you have not because you ask not.” So I challenge everyone to really start thinking about our needs as professional counselors.

ACA's CEO Richard Yep stated that the counseling profession is being picked on by professional bullies who would rather promote an agenda of confusion and doubt as opposed to admitting that millions of adults, children, adolescents, families and couples really do benefit from the great work that you do each and every day.

Richard yep goes on to quote comedian Lilian Hellman who once said, “I always wondered why somebody doesn't do something about that, and then I realized that I was the somebody.” That's you colleagues and members of the American Counseling Association. You are somebody and you deserve the absolute best in your careers, including higher salaries, great benefits, paid vacations, manageable caseloads, and a low stress high quality of Life.

In conclusion, I want you all to continue doing what you do, advocating for clients, building relationships, advancing the causes of the profession, volunteering to serve on various committees, maximizing limited resources, and enhancing the quality of lives for the individuals that you serve on a daily basis. Lastly, remember to secure your own oxygen mask and take care of yourselves.

David Staten a Professor of Rehabilitation Counselor Education at South Carolina State University. He also co-owns a counseling practice, MERGE Counseling and Coaching, L.L.C The website  is

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