It's inevitable. I'm on social media or out and about and I see memes, fun graphics, handbags, and even t-shirts with odes to the sacrifices and hard work that nurses, teachers, police, and social workers put in. The thanks and self-congratulations for these professions are everywhere.
I think that's great, yet I'd love it if the t-shirt or meme gods would throw a little love our way - in the direction of the professional counselor. It would be nice to browse piles of shirts or canvas tote bags in stores and see "counselors rock" or "I love counselors" without the word "school" weaved in.
Don't get me wrong, these other professions are all helpers just like me. I'm grateful for each of them. Each one has an important place culturally and in the lives of the many clients I work with. There is no denying the difficult work they do.
Professional mental health counselors work hard too. We're a large profession too. It stands to reason we couldn't grow or exist without people utilizing the service we provide. It's just that for most people, bragging about going to therapy isn't a thing. It's an unthing - you don't tell people about it, and you can't very well go around appreciating in a loud way a profession you don't necessarily want others to know you tap for help. Maybe that's why I'll be waiting until I cave and make my own congratulatory memes on my hard work.
Perhaps the lack of public hollerback is due to a lack of understanding about what we do or how we do it (an issue we attempt to tackle every year during Counseling Awareness Month).
Perhaps the professional organization and attitude of the oft-thanked professions is somehow older, better, bolder, wiser. Maybe we counselors, in all our evidence based glory, are so uncomfortable pointing out what we do for others because that might make us braggers.
I'll leave that up to our ACA leadership and my colleagues to debate.
But just for the record, here are some reasons we're just as awesome as the long lauded professions.
- We are in for the long haul. I once had a teacher friend tell me a horror story about a student in her classroom. The student behaved aggressively, his parents didn't seem to care, etc. Eventually the school psychologist evaluated him and referred him for counseling. My teacher friend continued, "But I don't know what that'll do. Playing with fidget spinners won't help." So often when I work with an adolescent it is after everyone else has given up. The teachers, school counselors, school administration, and even parents - and sometimes juvenile probation have thrown in the towel. Then it's my turn to show this kid that an adult can care and be helpful and nonjudgmental even when every other adult they've encountered has been. I don't get to pass the buck or bail when things are hard. I have to carve a trail through rock and find a way past it. I do. And I love this part of my work.
- We create space for pain and know what to do with it and what to help others do with it. A few years ago I helped out with my community's Stop the Silence campaign for child abuse, sex assault and violent crime prevention and awareness month, during which I got to work with many community stakeholders. One was a police officer who referred to my colleagues and myself as "fuzzy puppy and rainbow types". After I stopped mentally screaming at this outrageous statement I said: Our work continues long after you close a case and walk away. We sit and hear and feel the pain crimes cause people and far longer than it takes to write a police report and walk a case through court. Pin drops could be heard. While we may seem like granola eating hippies to those on the outside, we are science backed, practice-what-we-preachers. Knowing how to handle pain and hurt in a positive way doesn't mean we don't feel, hear, or see the tough stuff.
- We are grotesquely underpaid. A lot of those memes I see are focused on paying police and teachers more. I agree, we should. In my little neck of the woods, though, the shift managers at fast food chains make more than counselors working in agencies who spent a minimum of 6 years in school and no fewer than 50,000 dollars on that education. The food we eat is important to be sure. So is mental health. So is sleeping at night, living another day, learning to cope with stress (which can kill you), making it through the changes life tosses out at random, managing anxiety so life can be lived, healing from loss - I could go on all day. Some of the numbers show counseling to be the lowest paid graduate degree. The majority of newly graduated counselors enter the field working for poorly regulated nonprofits on a salaried basis, where 60 hours in a week earns as much as 40.
- We tolerate a good amount of professional tromping. Every state has different regulations on who can use what title. In Texas only state licensed counselors can use the phrase "professional counselor", but anyone can use the word "counselor". Camp counselor, counselor at law, social workers are called counselors (but licensed counselors can't call themselves "social workers") and unlicensed people working for nonprofit entities or religious based organizations can provide counseling, call themselves counselors, and skip that whole 6 years of school/national exam/supervised experience/internship/licensing thing. This leaves a lot of counselors trying to be heard over the din of lesser trained, unprofessional, unrelated, or unqualified others giving advice and calling themselves counselors. We bear it with grace. It isn't easy.
- We are under-recognized for contributions to our communities or lumped in to another category all together when we are recognized. We tend to be filed under "social worker".
- We are an evidence based and science backed profession charged with providing proven interventions and treatments. You don't get "just talking" or "venting" from counselors.
- We can and do work with serious mental illness AND regular life transitions.
- We work long hours. Find me a counselor that doesn't work at least some late evenings and I'll show you someone who has very few clients and the income to prove it. No one wants to come to counseling during the day. We give up our own family and evening time to see clients. We're prone to feeling like we can always squeeze one more late night appointment into the schedule- because we want to help.
- We genuinely care and want to help. It's a passion just as deep as with all other helping professions. Maybe a little more so...The flip side of all the thank you memes aimed at other professions are their public complaints with student, patient, or citizen behavior. I've seen so many teacher, nurse, and cop social media rants about the job they do in general I can't count. I've seen a few that were specific to a particular person even.
- We respect our clients. All the time. You won't see us ranting about the alleged hassles of working with our clients. You will see memes about pillow fluffing and being thankful the school year is over - but we take our work and client privacy too seriously to make light of issues in public forums.
- We work all year and only take regular vacations. When we do take off we give our clients ample notice.
- We write treatment plans, chart, write notes, take call, respond to emergencies, interview victims of crime, and advocate for causes both mental health related and not.
- We work with doctors and psychologists. We work alongside other professionals and integrate treatment to provide the best possible service.
- We use recovery language and models. We aren't about keeping people in a sickness mentality or coming to treatment for years. We're about wellness and empowerment. Period.
- We are dedicated. We supervise new counselors. We consult with others even after we aren't newbies to continue it ensure our quality of service. We have to have hours (and hours and hours) of continuing education each year (and our employers don't cover all of it). We gatekeep our profession at the university level- if someone isn't making the grade or showing the skill necessary, they're pulled aside and worked with. In some cases they're removed from programs. We do all of that for our clients, to make sure they're cared for.
Counselors work hard and in some cases we work hard to help clients cope with trauma following injury after leaving hospital care when the nurses have moved on to caring for someone else, in others we work hard caring for victims of crime long after the police have packed it up and the courtroom has gone dark, and in others still we provide counseling for children and teens whose teachers have long since thrown up their hands.
So, congratulations, counselors. You rock!
Whitney White is a counselor working in Texas in multiple settings with diverse populations. Some of her areas of passion are anxiety, non-suicidal self-injury, and compassion fatigue. With an integrated approach utilizing client strengths, she supports others in achieving their best self. For more information please visit counselingbywhitney.wordpress.com. The thoughts expressed in Whitney’s blogs do not represent her employers.