This post will be my 12th consecutive post which has me feeling very reflective. This process has been such fun, and such a learning experience. It has forced me to really delve into my thoughts and feelings regarding myself, clients, counseling, other passions, and advocacy. Over the last year, my goal was to write more and really pursue that passion across various platforms. As a counselor, I have known that I needed to network more. Focusing on therapy is essential to help me improve as a clinician. However, networking is also essential as I seek to find a counselor support group to belong to after I am no longer receiving supervision. I have realized that if clinicians are not operating out of an agency, this field can cause us to quickly become isolated. There are always conferences and workshops, but these can be costly and typically take time out of our schedules. So, not everyone is able to afford these opportunities which can further reinforce the isolation. Private practice can especially be isolating; if it’s not a group practice then clinicians are often working by themselves all day, all week. I have been learning the value of networking and developing relationships that can be fruitful as my career advances. These relationships are especially important if any situational issues occur like an ethics or legal dilemma where consultation is needed. But just have a supportive network is essential within this field.
Working on this blog has essentially caused me to reflect on advocacy and my role as a clinician. I have always known that private practice is not something that I have been very interested in. However, I’ve been somewhat unsure about other paths to pursue. After, the last few months, my interest in advocacy work has really multiplied. Additionally, I have found that many of the topics I have written about are impacted by my work, but these topics also reflect back in my work and I carry the lessons through, or at least try to. I have found that I want to do more than just do therapy sessions with clients. I have recognized that the ‘doing’ has been impactful on me. Actionable steps that can be done to propel counseling as a whole forward has really become something that I am interested in. I absolutely love psychotherapy but I have realized that on any given day, I meet people who struggle to understand why therapy is different from speaking to a friend, or why therapy is only for people who have severe mental illnesses, or why therapy is only a North American phenomenon.
Within my cultural community, therapy is even more discredited which causes such severe barriers for those who really need the services. I am feeling called to find ways to reach out to serve these under-served populations. Even within my work now, sometimes I come across African Americans who are extremely distrustful of therapy or feel that it can only be beneficial if they are interacting with clinicians who represent their cultural backgrounds. Caribbean Americans are extremely under-served as we are oftentimes lumped with African Americans who possess a different cultural background. And of course, there are always minorities with these minority groups. Additionally, an under-served minority group within the Caribbean American group are first-generation Americans who have a different experience as they are raised as African Americans but are also raised under an un-American cultural in-home experience. I feel the need for advocacy towards groups such as these who are unlikely to seek out counseling services because of the cultural stereotypes and stigmas attached to counseling and who may also not seek services because of lack of knowledge because some cultures do not propose mental health services as necessary services for wellness. First generation Americans straddle a fine line of balance between their cultural heritage and their assimilation within the dominant American culture they are living in. They do not have the cultural experiences that their parents have but oftentimes have a different experience than Americans with no outside cultural attachments.
From the opposite side of the coin in counseling, cultural backgrounds can be just as difficult. As a counselor who is a minority within this field, I am reminded of this daily in a counseling office that is made up of predominantly white female counselors. I am fully aware of comments, expressions, and actions that can impact me as a counselor as well as a minority. As counselors we are trained to be culturally appropriate but it is also a difficult process when some clients are uncomfortable with us and refuse to work with us. This is entirely within their rights, of course, but the impact this has on the clinicians are not always talked about. As a minority counselor, these areas are not always easy to talk about with peers or supervisors. Because we are trained to look through divisional categories such as race, skin color, sexual orientation, etc; we would like to think that we are always above reproach within these areas, but if we are fully honest with ourselves, we know that this is not always the case.
Therapy can be such a profound experience both on the counselor and the client. If clinicians are willing to participate in the give and take with clients, then the therapeutic relationship can be transcended. I have met quite a few clients who have expressed that they did not have a good impression of therapy because they have worked with clinicians who were more focused on telling them what their true problems were, or rather focus on certain areas of their problems rather than seeing them as a whole. Some clients have expressed that they experienced coldness and disconnect from their counselors where they felt that they were never fully comfortable with the clinicians. I believe that problems such as these go back to basic humanistic principles of being present with the client and working to join with the client and experience them in the here and now. Throw in cultural aspects, and the impact of therapy left on the clients with these negative experiences and the stereotypes and stigma of counseling is strengthened and renewed. As counselors, every experience we have with clients creates or strengthens their impression of counseling as a whole. In our sessions, we are either advocating or strengthening the negative stigmas about counseling. I have learnt this lesson in the last year.
This experience has created a new insight into future goals and aspirations, I am extremely thankful that I was brave enough to undertake this role. Writing these pieces have also demonstrated the need for more roles within our profession to help propel our profession to the next level. A review of any counseling magazine clearly demonstrates a need for leaders who are willing to take up the mantle and the responsibilities and lead our profession. With the current political climate the way it is, we need counselors to take up the mantle to defend our profession and the importance of it. We have only to review the news to be reminded of the importance of our profession and the value we bring to our communities. The need for advocacy is essential. I have also learnt that advocacy does not have to be on a grand scale. Working to make a difference within the communities we operate our private practices or agencies in, or volunteering at a local community center can go a long way in someone’s life. Advocacy is what we each make of it. I consider a friend of mine who presented at the New Jersey Counseling Association’s May 2017 conference. In his own way, he is advocating for a specific population and working to bring awareness to their plights.
I have questioned myself on the areas that I would like to advocate for. I have mentioned above the need for further mental health awareness within the African American and Caribbean American populations. I am also very interested in working with victims of sexual trafficking. This is an entirely under-served population. If counselors had a niche that they focused on, imagine the awareness and support we could provide to our communities. Imagine the services we could provide communities with. As counselors, our roles are to serve. To be clear, in no way would these roles be easy. Nor am I ignoring the fact that some of these populations may be difficult to work with. But should our focus be on what’s easy or what will have the biggest impact on the world we now live in, the world we are leaving for our children?
The reasons for being a therapist will change as we go through different stages of careers. This is as natural as the developmental stages that we move through. Hence, our roles will need to be redefined as we go through different phases of our careers. If we remain stagnant, we risk burnout and dissatisfaction with our lives and professions. This is why personal growth and professional development is necessary. We have to keep reminding ourselves of the reasons why we do what we do and we have to re-evaluate ourselves constantly to confirm that we are still fulfilled by what we do. I look forward to the blogs to come.
Charmaine Perry is a counselor who works mostly with adults and couples in central New Jersey. Her passion is mental health and writing and finding ways to incorporate these two fields to advocate for mental health services for African and Caribbean Americans.