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An Introduction to Professional Counseling

A [very] brief history of professional counseling.

Professional counselors exist in a landscape that also includes practicing psychologists (counseling, clinical, school), psychiatrists, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners. Given the wide array of those who have professional missions of helping, I aim to use this brief historical overview to identify what establishes the core values of the field of professional counseling that are present today. While the time between reformation and the election of President Clinton represents an immense time of growth for this field, I am interested in providing a few tidbits about the origins of our work.

1881 marks the year when any term was referred to in the literature describing someone along the lines of a professional counselor. Lysander S. Richards wrote about vocophers, professionals with an emphasis on career decision-making. In 1909, the text, Choosing a Vocation, by Frank Parsons, was posthumously released. It established a clear tone that counselors, as originally conceived, were helping professionals dedicated to career development. This focus was given a clear mission with the transition of America from an agrarian to an industrialized society. This period of time was accompanied by an increase in immigration from Eastern Europe, and the introduction of child labor laws. In reflection, it would stand to reason that a core identity of counselors has been helping folks respond to cultural dynamism by helping them to transition and adapt.

Concurrently, the educator, Jesse B. Davis, was becoming quite the pioneer, recognizing that children, who were all now federally mandated to attend school, needed academic enrichment AND life skills training. This established the first place of prominence where counselors could be found. They were educators who added to their duties character education and classroom guidance.

A series of cultural events, laws, and authors have revolutionized and legitimized the practice of professional counseling. In the time between the 1920s and the 1980s, assessment, couples and family, group, addictions, and general mental health (both wellness boosting and pathology remediation) became pivotal parts professional counselor's scope of practice.

What is the philosophy of counseling?

Counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals (Kaplan, Tarvydas, & Gladding, 2014). Counseling meets all the standards for a profession, and has for a significant period of time (Myers & Sweeney, 2001). It emphasizes growth, development, prevention, and strengths as primary features of clinical practice (Gladding, 2012). That, however, does not preclude symptom reduction, treatment of pathology, and other forms of remediation efforts from the scope of practice for professional counselors. It is an interdisciplinary specialty, drawing on “anthropology, education, ethics, history, law, medical sciences, philosophy, psychology, and sociology” (Smith, 2001, p. 594). A primary goal of professional counseling is an increase in full human functioning, as best captured by the construct social-emotional intelligence (Egan, 2010). This form of intelligence seeks to increase one’s ability to engage in affect self-regulation, levels of insight, empathy, and one’s ability to find a place of fit in the world (Egan, 2010).

We use the term “clients” to refer to those we serve for a number of reasons. Most notably, we use it to form a distinction between the medical model used by physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners. The medical model simply does not apply very well to the sorts of concerns addressed by mental health professionals (e.g., responses to oppression, feelings of being stuck, transitions, grief, career development).

Counselors fundamentally subscribe to the thinking that while clients are the experts on their lives, we are the experts of the clinical process. It is also important to know that the terms psychotherapist, therapist, and clinician are used across the mental health disciplines as general terms for mental health providers.

What makes counseling hard (for both the therapist and the client)?

We are in the business of working with concerns for which there are likely no blood tests or neural scans to detect. Concerns too delicate for scalpels, injectables, or lasers. The concerns we address do not fully remit when addressed with pharmaceuticals, and clients do not experience the luxury of being sedated while we expose pain, and work through it, whatever that takes.

We counselors do not have the luxury of being able to compartmentalize all of our emotions to address the task at hand. Instead, we are required to be present with them more often than not. As clients recount to us some of the most devastating and heart-wrenching experiences of their lives, we are to be there, fully present. Our effectiveness is marked by our willingness to continually process our stuff, and engage in critical thought. Training enables us to fine tune a series of lenses that will enable you to conceptualize clients’ experiences from multicultural and ethical perspectives. The skilled therapist is thoughtful, considerate, slow to be sure about clients, and always willing to step into their shoes.

Our stuff is always coming up, especially when we perceive we have addressed it. The therapist who is willing to consistently engage in processing their countertransference is exhibiting the characteristics of clinical virtuosity. I argue that a brilliant helper is one who is willing to use their humanness in their work, perhaps seeing it as their only gateway to clinical effectiveness.

All helpers need to be in therapy, consult with peers, and engage in supervision throughout their work. Among other things, this helps to mitigate burn-out in a high burn-out field. Although we renounce the use of the medical model for our purposes, counselors are indeed healthcare providers. Although our focus is on the social, psychological (cognitive, affective, behavioral), and spiritual aspects of the self, our work also benefits physiological functioning. Health psychology and psychoneuroimmunology are representative examples of the multidirectional roles of biopsychosocial-spiritual forces on wellbeing.

The education of professional counselors.

The field of professional counseling is designed such that all new counselors receive a 60 hour master’s degree, after which they are eligible for state licensure and national board certification. The licensure process is different across states, but typically requires two years of post-master’s supervised clinical work, during which time approximately 3000 hours of clinical services are rendered. There are also practitioners in this field who possess doctoral education and are also licensed as counselors. While there are actually quite a number of different types of professionals who fall in this category, I want to focus on counselor educators, those with doctoral training in counselor education, supervision, and advanced counseling practice (for more information on counselor educators, see the post On Being a Counselor Educator.)

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