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E-Mail: sburns1@kent.edu

Why Worry About Professional Advocacy?

- By Daniel R. Cruikshanks, Ph.D., LPCC (Ohio) and Stephanie T. Burns, Ph.D., LPC (Ohio and Michigan), NCC

The term advocacy most often is associated with work that promotes the interests of clients. Professional advocacy, however, is work that promotes the interests and wellbeing of state licensed counselors. The ACA Code of Ethics (2014)states advocacy is the promotion of the well-being of individuals and groups, and the counseling profession within systems and organizations. Advocacy seeks to remove barriers and obstacles that inhibit access, growth, and development. Therefore, advocating for our profession is part of our code of ethics.

State licensed counselors have worked hard over the past 100 years to establish a distinct professional discipline. We have not always been supported in our efforts. Other professions, like psychology and social work for example, have fought our efforts to become licensed, to seek third party reimbursement, and to provide services that we are trained to provide. It has only been in the last couple of years that now all 50 states in the US have licensure for professional counselors. At any given time, there are efforts being made at state and national levels to strengthen our professional identity and more fully align our scope of practice and the law. Additionally, there are efforts being made to protect the licenses that we have fought so hard to establish. Finally, there are efforts to ensure that state licensed counselors understand the importance of embracing their professional identity.

Professional advocates are those who are concerned about the issues facing our profession and engaging in activities that support these efforts. Advocacy can be simple and easy or it can be very involved. The most important thing about advocacy is action. Whether we write our representatives requesting legislative action, educate the public about our services, provide training in advocacy, immerse counseling students in their profession, and/or encourage others to become engaged, the important thing is that we all work in support of our profession.

Hof, Dinsmore, Barber, Suhr, and Scofield (2009) propose a formal set of professional advocacy competencies that address four categories of advocacy intervention to promote a positive image of the counseling profession and publicizing the services counselors provide.

Professional Advocacy Intervention Categories and Associated Competencies

Category 1: Promote Professional Identity
Promote professional pride.
Promote a unified definition of counseling and specializations within counseling.
Promote credentialing/licensure/ethical standards for practitioners and trainers.
Display professional credentials in the workplace.
Support national, regional, state and local professional counseling associations.
Educate trainees and professional counselors about their professional identity.

Category 2: Increase the Public Image of Counseling
Increase public knowledge of the counseling field.
Increase public knowledge of the positive impact of the counseling profession.
Increase public access to counseling services.
Research public perceptions of counselors and counseling services.

Category 3: Develop Inter-professional/Intra-professional Collaboration
Promote inter-professional and intra-professional alliances. 
Promote communication among the helping professions.
Promote professional accountability through outcome research.
Promote counselor wellness.

Category 4: Promote Legislative/Policy Initiatives
Promote reciprocity of counseling credentials across states.
Promote and disseminate research on impact of counselor credentialing.
Inform members of the profession about legislative activitiesIdentify barriers to practice due to legislation and regulations

American Counseling Association (2014). ACA Code of Ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Hof, D. D., Dinsmore, J. A., Barber, S., Suhr, R., & Scofield, T. R. (2009). Advocacy: The T.R.A.I.N.E.R. model. Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology, 2(1), 15-28.

Why should I be concerned about state licensed counselor professional identity?
I really don’t have time or a need for this.

- By Stephanie T. Burns, Ph.D., LPC (Ohio and Michigan), NCC

I can almost hear the groans and see the eye rolls from just reading the title. “Not another discussion of state licensed counselor professional identity. Don’t they know we have more important things to do? I went into counseling to help others not to help myself. Let me guess, she’s a counselor educator.” The answer is, if you want a job and/or access to more jobs (which allows you to work for and with clients), then there is nothing more important for you to do as a state licensed counselor than be concerned about your professional identity especially since we represent the majority of all the mental health professions. That wasn’t a typo, counselors are the majority.

Let’s face it. If you are in the process of becoming or have already become a state licensed counselor, you are probably exhausted. You may be a student in a counselor education program, a state licensed counselor practicing in your specialty, or a counselor educator. No matter how you slice it, you have at the very least a full time job if not two. You are nothing short of a combination of the Energizer Bunny, Hercules, and Wonder Woman rolled into one.

Students often work, juggle family responsibilities, take on debt, and meet all kinds of demanding education requirements in order to obtain a state license so that they can have the privilege of applying for a job as a state licensed counselor and/or to have the privilege of applying for a job as a counselor educator. Practicing state licensed counselors work; juggle family responsibilities; often earn less than their peers in other professions doing the same kinds of work; pay back school loans; serve on local, state, and national counseling association boards; create and conduct workshops; supervise; consult; and manage their continuing education credits to keep their license current. Counselor educators teach classes; advise students; may see clinical clients; supervise students; serve on academic committees; serve on local, state, and national counseling association boards; create and deliver workshops; consult; update course materials; resolve student issues; write articles; do research; juggle family responsibilities; often earn less than their peers in other departments doing the same work; pay back school loans; and manage their continuing education credits to keep their license current. (Of course, these three lists are not inclusive of everything.) What is clearly apparent is that all three roles have tremendous amounts of demanding responsibilities.

It inspires me that there are so many individuals in these three roles within our profession who help others on a daily basis through the unique philosophy underlying the work of state licensed counselors. At other times, I feel disheartened when I hear students, state licensed counselors, and/or counselor educators gang up on one or two of the other roles in our profession to put down their unique contribution(s).  Students are the future. Practicing state licensed counselors are the present; the heart; and the purpose. Counselor educators extract the best from the past to lay newer, better, and stronger foundations from which the future of the profession can unfold. It’s a three step process, and each step is dependent upon the other two.

Further, our profession is weakened by the emphasis placed on our specialties (career, mental health, school, etc.), which brings significant challenges to presenting a united profession. For example, most psychologists and social workers present themselves as psychologists and social workers who work with a specific population. They most often join their national association and only after that will consider joining a division. For example, counseling psychology became a distinct profession in the 1940’s (Forrest, 2008). Yet despite its newer development than the profession of counseling, a vast majority of counseling psychologists join their national association (the American Psychological Association), but only 21% of them join Division 17 (the counseling psychologist division) (Forrest, 2008). Somehow for counselors this is reversed. For example, most state licensed counselors present themselves as a career counselor, mental health counselor, or school counselor rather than as a state licensed counselor with a specialization in career, mental health, or school.  Further, counselors most often join their specialty’s division and not their national association. By more often joining the various specialty associations, we weaken our own position and it is harder for us to rally behind specific causes on behalf of state licensed counselors.

We won’t survive without each other (roles and specialties) and we’re stronger and better when we work together.

So what does all of this have to do with the professional identity of state licensed counselors? Plenty.  We now have state licensed counselors in all 50 states; a huge milestone in our profession thanks to the incredible work and effort of some very dedicated people. Unfortunately, the general public; legislators; insurance companies; hospitals; the government; agencies; companies;  and K-12 administrators, staff, teachers, parents, and students, often still don’t know who we are, what we do, or why they should look to us for services. We have a lot of people to educate and inform about our profession. A few very-dedicated people aren’t going to be enough to get the job done this time. There is good reason for that.

Did you know that you as a state licensed counselor are the majority of the mental health practitioners in the United States? Psychiatry holds 38,436 (7%) of the licenses, Psychology holds 88,491 (17%) of the licenses, Social Work holds 99,341 (19%) of the licenses, Psychiatric Nursing holds 18,269 (3%) of the licenses, Counseling holds 111,931 (21%) of the licenses, Marriage and Family Therapy holds 47,111 (9%) of the licenses, Psychosocial Rehabilitation holds 100,000 (19%) of the licenses, and School Psychology holds 31,278 (5%) of the licenses (Manderscheid & Henderson, 2004). Counselors are the majority of mental health practitioners! How can it be that we don’t have a voice in our work domains? How can it be that we feel like the unknown underdogs when we have the biggest share of the licenses?

Our lack of a cohesive and easily identifiable professional identity out in society is our major hurdle and our biggest threat. While we have an identity with 50 state counselor licensing boards and with 50 Boards of Education, what we desperately need is a professional identity in society. As a student, a practicing state licensed counselor, and/or as a counselor educator, it matters that state licensed counselors don’t have a narrative in the social fabric or hold a narrative that is so limiting to us.

Students, if you want to have a well paying job when you graduate, then you need to be concerned today about state licensed counselor professional identity. Practicing state licensed counselors, you may have a job and a license today. If you don’t work now to preserve what you have in your scope of practice and make strides to increase your professional visibility in society, you might not have a job, better jobs, or a license in the future. For example, in some states schools are increasingly hiring social workers to counsel children while Licensed School Counselors are doing more clerical work. Counselor educators, if you don’t take action today and there are no state licenses for counselors and/or no jobs, there won’t be a counselor education department.

Remember, the reason you can be a student in a counselor education program, can have a job as a state licensed counselor, and can be a counselor educator is because someone before you worked hard to afford you that opportunity. Now it’s your turn. It’s time to pay it forward. We hold the majority of the licenses so we can do this! We can change the discourse about state licensed counselors in the United States.

We’re all overworked and underpaid no matter our roles within the profession. No one outside of our profession will form our professional identity out in society for us. Now that we have licensure in 50 states, if we don’t work to weave our profession into the fabric of society, it will continue to be very easy to silence us, keep jobs away from us, and even write us out altogether, which is crazy when you consider that we are the majority.

If society can find a place for a smart phone app that has you time how long you can hold down a virtual button (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/hold-the-button/id294785375?mt=8), then state licensed counselors can certainly find their place in society too! We need to become part of the discourse in society and that will require all of us to get talking and get active.

“But the economy is bad; we’ll have to wait to do this until the economy is better.” Believe it or not, economic downturns are the perfect time to launch new initiatives by taking advantage of an already changing discourse in society. Floyd Bostwick Odlum, John Maynard Keynes, and Chevrolet (just to name a few) all created fortunes during the Great Depression. The state of the economy is not a logical excuse to wait. It’s time to get the narrative started.

Please use www.statelicensedcounseloradvocate.org as a resource to help you advocate for your place in society as a state licensed counselor.

Forrest, L. M. (2008). The ever evolving identity of counseling psychologists: Musings of the society of counseling psychology president. Counseling Psychologist, 36(2), 281-289.

Manderscheid, R. W., & Henderson, M. J. (Eds.). (2004).