Doing more with less: Time to dust off those advocacy skills!

BullhornHi friends. The post below was my entry for the 2013 ACA graduate student essay contest. Can’t lie, I’m a little bummed I didn’t win after putting so much thought and work into it (although I’m excited to read the winning essays). And yes, the $1,000 scholarship would have been nice. Way more important than recognition or money, however, was the fact that I wanted to share my thoughts with the counseling world.

See, that world is changing rapidly and I’m not sure my fellow soon-to-be-graduates realize this. Heck, I don’t even know what the real world of counseling will be like when I finally get there, but I have a feeling we won’t be in our offices as much as we thought. Not if we care about the profession, anyway. We’ll need to be out there, advocating for our clients and for our profession as a whole if we care about helping others to the best of our abilities, especially as agency budgets and services shrink. We’ll need to get creative on when, how, and where we help people in need, and most of all, we’ll need to be LOUD. So, Class of 2013 and Beyond, get ready to make yourselves heard!

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In this era of budget constriction and data-driven accountability, the newest generation of counselors–those of us graduating this year and beyond–will find ourselves drawing from an expanded skill set. Not only must we effectively help our clients, we must also effectively justify our existence to key decision makers and a public that is often, at best, confused about how we serve. At a time when professional counselors are asked to do more with the same or the same with less, we must exercise our professional and social/client advocacy skills to reach out to the public and key decision makers in a concerted effort.

First, counselors must work together to create and maintain a strong professional identity.  A robust professional identity will help us educate the public on the unique advantages that professional counselors offer over other helping professionals, and efforts like the ACA’s 2010 definition of counseling and our progress toward licensure portability are helping us gain momentum. However, every counselor must see professional advocacy as an important part of the job description, reaching out through a variety of public awareness efforts that extend far beyond each April’s Counseling Awareness Month activities.

Professional counselors must also continue to advocate for our clients and communities. Aside from the critical fact that we can be a force for good in our clients’ lives, client advocacy demonstrates to the public that we care deeply and tirelessly for the welfare of our increasingly diverse clients and communities. Client advocacy may be as small-scale as empowering clients to ask for assistance when needed or as large-scale as lobbying on Capitol Hill for client access to resources when legislation threatens to restrict it.

Last, we must show return on investment whenever possible. Doing more with the same or the same with less means regularly gathering, analyzing, and sharing results with key stakeholders to lend impact accountability to our work and justify their investments. It means reaching out to others with similar agendas to create innovative collaborations that maximize return on investment. Finally, it means advocating for possibilities for growth—decision makers will never invest in our big dreams and ideas if we never share the possibilities.

Gone are the days of seeing clients, taking notes, and going home knowing we made a difference. This generation of counselors will use our advocacy skills far more than we imagined. Advocacy of any kind does not present immediate answers, and shifting public perception of just about anything takes time—in fact, it almost takes a culture shift. However, taking time to positively shift others’ perceptions of the counseling field will yield important outcomes: a stronger sense of counselor identity, increased public knowledge and positive views toward the profession, and as a result, increased services for clients. If we take the time to advocate for our clients and profession now, there may come a brighter day when we find ourselves able to help more clients more effectively, with more resources and public support.

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Thoughts? Are you involved with professional or client advocacy now, or plan to get more involved as a professional? How so?

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3 thoughts on “Doing more with less: Time to dust off those advocacy skills!

  1. Kristen,

    I agree with you that professional counselors need to dust off their advocacy skills…but for themselves and their own profession, first and foremost.

    Within the mental health community, professional counselors are the “poor cousins”. We earn between $14,000-$17,000 less than comparably educated LCSWs.

    We make, on average, a salary that is just $15,000 above the poverty threshold for a family of four.

    We are virtually barred from employment from the VA (despite what they claim), our nation’s Armed Forces, most hospitals, and many private group practices and non-profit agencies.

    And we still cannot join the Medicare/Medicaid insurance panels.

    If things don’t change, these toughening economic times will force many good people out of our field and then there will be fewer of us to help anyone.

    I say it’s time for members of the counseling profession to join together and create a social action movement to end this blatant credential bias.

    I invite you to check out my blog at guerillacounselor.com.

    • Thanks for your comment and link to your blog. You bring up some very good points. In my former state (Nebraska), I’m not sure counselors faced quite the bias due to some very strong advocates. However, I’m seeing some differences here in Louisiana, including advertisements for “counselors” that actually want LCSWs only. I do think many people are working to strengthen the profession–and many aren’t. I also think we walk a fine line between advocating for our own profession and advocating for our clients. Too much for ourselves, and we’ll be perceived as selfish; too much for our clients, and we won’t get what we need.

      • I actually think we are perceived by the general public as a bunch of hippies who don’t care about money. This is largely the result of so many LPCs in private practice who are sloppy about collecting copays, not charging for missed appointments, and writing off unpaid client balances.

        This image is also reinforced by the American Counseling Association’s strong anti-allopathic, pro-wellness stand, which makes us look like radicals.

        How can we expect to earn the respect of other M.H. professions, namely psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers, when we refuse to speak their language (read: DSM-IV)?

        The osteopathic medical profession figured this out years ago and began to downplay their core belief that all disease originates in the skeletal system. This pragmatic strategy eventually opened doors for them to practice alongside M.D.s in regular hospitals and specialist medical practices.

        We might take a page from their book. What we do with our clients in the privacy of our offices can still be wellness-centered. But we need to acknowledge that for better or worse, the so-called “Medical Model” still rules and be willing to work within it.

        By so doing, we will only build credence to our case against credential bias.

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