Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Need an Identity? Try Riding an Elevator

by Don Durkee

“Who am I, and why am I here?”  Most of us have encountered a client struggling to establish a sense of identity and a corresponding feeling of self-worth.  This is often a difficult, even anxiety-ridden effort.  But when it comes to having an identity crisis, it’s hard to beat the level of angst to which counselors can rise.  If you believe everything written about who we are and what we do, you could get the idea that we all have knowledge and skills enough to provide almost any kind of service in almost any kind of setting.  Not only that, we work with populations so varied, they would almost seem to have nothing to do with each other.  Possessing incredible powers of empathy and insight, we psychic superheroes can be found in hospitals, schools, business offices, churches, public treatment centers, and various other facilities.  In these far-flung settings we dispense aid and comfort to everyone from chronic schizophrenic patients to troubled second-graders to addiction suffers to working citizens unhappy in their jobs.  In short, we do it all for everyone everywhere.  It is axiomatic, of course, that when you set out to be everything for everyone, you are not likely to be anything for anyone.  Small wonder then that the public has such difficulty understanding who counselors are and what we do.

My suspicion is that the problem begins with what we call ourselves, or rather with what we don’t.  In the past month, I had occasion to meet several people who asked what I do.  When I replied that I am a Professional Counselor, one asked me to represent him in his divorce and another inquired what I do in the off season when I’m not teaching children to swim.  When I quickly added, “I’m a shrink,” both people nodded and gave me a look of recognition.  “Counselor” wasn’t clear to them, but “shrink” was.

Since “counselor” can be taken in so many different ways, many states qualify the term used for licensure with “mental health” or some variation thereof.  We should also note that LPCA is the Georgia chapter of the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA).  The reason this is important is that the focus on mental health is our common thread; it is what provides consistency whether the counselor works in a school or a hospital or a private office.  

Lacking a title that specifies “mental health” as a focus, it behooves counselors in Georgia to be able to state clearly and simply exactly what we do and why it matters.  It turns out, however, that counselors have not done very well with this — in Georgia or elsewhere.  If you consult Wikipedia, you find a description of counseling that lists ten specific job tasks with no indication as to why someone might want counseling.  In 1997 ACA adopted a definition of counseling as “the application of mental health, psychological, or human development principles, through cognitive, affective, behavioral or systemic intervention strategies, that address wellness, personal growth, or career development, as well as pathology.”  While it is less complicated than the statement in Wikipedia, it is no more helpful.

Naturally each state has its own definition of counseling.  One state licensing board describes counseling as “involving the application of clinical counseling principles, methods, or procedures to assist individuals in achieving more effective personal, social, educational, or career development and adjustment.”  Another state board insists that “’Licensed professional counseling’ means the application of counseling, human development, and mental health research, principles, and procedures to maintain and enhance the mental health, development, personal and interpersonal effectiveness, and adjustment to work and life of individuals and families.”  The board in a third state defines the practice of “clinical professional counseling” as “the provision of treatment, assessment and counseling, or equivalent activities, to a person or group of persons to achieve mental, emotional, physical and social development and adjustment.  The term includes counseling interventions to prevent, diagnose and treat mental, emotional or behavioral disorders and associated distresses which interfere with mental health.”

If you think these statements are convoluted and confusing, just consider the definition of counseling included in Georgia law.  Frequently called our “scope of practice” statement, this Herculean effort consists of a single sentence containing 134 words.  It begins, "Professional counseling means that specialty which utilizes counseling techniques based on principles, methods, and procedures of counseling that assist people in identifying and resolving personal, social, vocational, intrapersonal and interpersonal concerns; utilizes counseling and psychotherapy to evaluate and treat emotional and mental problems and conditions, whether cognitive, behavioral, or affective; …”  It goes on from there.  By the time you get to the end of this sentence, it’s hard to remember why you began reading it.

I often wonder if the reason counselors struggle so much with these statements of service is that we write them more to satisfy lawyers or law makers than to reach the people we actually serve.  Or maybe we are hoping to find a means of reassuring each other that we truly have a clear identity as mental health professionals.  Whatever the reason, the results are consistently overly complicated, expressed in something akin to “legalese,” and full of everything-for-everybody provisions.  Most of us would not even consider inflicting such a statement on an existing or prospective client.

In a former life, I spent some time as a consultant, and I learned a lot about an important tool known as an “elevator statement.”  The idea is to be able to describe your service and how it will benefit someone in the time it takes for the two of you to ride from one floor to the next in an elevator.  For a consultant, failure to get your message across in that time means losing an opportunity, and probably a client.

Perhaps we counselors should consider creating our own elevator statement.  To do this, we would have to discard the details and the variations and the legalese.  Instead, we would have to state our common focus and how it applies in what we do for our clients.  In my own practice I have constructed such a statement.  I simply say, “As a Professional Counselor, I help people with mental health problems heal and grow and feel better about themselves, so they can have a better quality of life.”

I consider my elevator statement to be a work in progress, which I think it will be for as long as I am in practice.  And for all the counselors reading this piece, I offer you a challenge:  Create your own elevator statement and share it with others.  In doing so, you can help us all be clear in our thinking and shape the way we communicate with all the people who truly need our services.  This clarity will help both the public and the profession; it might even enable us to resolve our own identity crisis. 

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