04 Apr Burn Bright, Not Out! Celebrating Counseling Awareness Month
Experts fear a “second pandemic” is sweeping the nation as the urgent need for mental health counseling continues to exponentially grow. COVID-19 created a sense of general uncertainty, spurred major financial adjustments, created a healthcare crisis, and spurred social isolation from government mandated measures. Not surprisingly, the World Health Organization recently reported a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide. This common experience started a national conversation around mental health and wellness that has rapidly created a change in public sentiment toward seeking mental healthcare. Today, nine out of ten therapists report a surge in the number of new clients seeking care. While a welcome reversal from long-standing stigma surrounding mental healthcare, this sudden spike in demand has become overwhelming for mental healthcare providers.
Mental health counselors offer professional support to individuals, families, groups, and communities to help address symptoms of psychological distress, while building coping strategies and habits that support long term health and well-being. While counselors may choose to specialize in certain areas or treat specific subsets of the population, they are typically trained to help address an array of psychological illnesses, social difficulties, traumas, emotional problems, substance use issues, eating disorders, grief support, self-esteem concerns, relationship troubles, and more. They are able to identify reactions or behavioral triggers and offer practical suggestions for new habits, ways of thinking, and new behaviors to develop healthier ways to process stress, address negative thought cycles, and improve overall wellness.
To honor those who contribute so much to the population’s general well-being, the American Counseling Association (ACA) sponsors Counseling Awareness Month every April. The awareness month is dedicated to spotlighting the profession and its growing importance, while recognizing the efforts of counselors who are providing vital mental health services nationwide. This year’s theme focuses on self-care, advocacy, and inclusion. In light of the new demands facing mental health professionals, celebrating the importance of counseling is more important now than ever before.
How the Pandemic Changed the Counseling Landscape
There has been a significant uptick in people seeking mental health services since the start of the pandemic. It sparked a response that brought a multitude of emotional issues to the surface relating to career, personal relationships, isolation, loneliness, and a greater focus on health and well-being in general–all of which have contributed to an increased demand for counselors in various specialties.
The shared mental and emotional response to the pandemic has made seeking help more acceptable than it used to be, further breaking down stigmas around mental health. In addition, public figures, including celebrities and athletes, are more readily stepping up to share their own experiences, which has helped to further normalize the act of talking to someone about your struggles as part of a healthy lifestyle.
The pandemic helped accelerate one of the most significant advances in mental health services: teletherapy and virtual care. This shift represents a promising solution to help increase access to professional psychologists and mental health counselors, whose availability is in low supply. Even outside of safety and social distancing measures, there are many individuals who could benefit from a mental health appointment but live in remote or rural areas without readily available access to care. The New York Times revealed that nearly 130 million Americans live in places with less than one mental health care provider per 30,000 people. In response to the growing need for alternate avenues of care, technology companies are providing a vehicle for patients to access mental health services online. According to recent data, over a third of patients now use telehealth for mental health services. These early indicators of teletherapy’s popularity are promising; the technology offers new potential to expand access to counseling services for a broader array of historically underserved and rural populations.
The Pandemic Response from Counselors
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, counseling professionals had to fundamentally change the way they’ve traditionally provided care in order to accommodate the new virtual care model. Although the shift to virtual care was not by choice, most professionals made the shift and moved their practices entirely online. Now that consumers have experienced a virtual way of living, most people will expect a teletherapy option or, at the very least, a hybrid model moving forward. Professional counselors will need to continue embracing technology and adapting to the ever-changing avenues of providing services to clients.
#BurnBrightNotOut – Guidance for Self-Care, Advocacy, and Inclusion in the Counseling Profession
In the wake of the “Great Resignation,” employee burnout is a common discussion across nearly every industry. Mental health counselors likely address this topic regularly with clients, but are equally at risk of burnout themselves. By the very nature of the profession, counselors can reach emotional exhaustion far more easily as they often give so much of themselves, empathetically supporting clients who may be in severe distress. With the increase in workloads and longer waitlists than before the pandemic, counselors need to prioritize self-care and recognize when their own health is suffering.
The American Counseling Association emphasizes the importance of self-care for counselors to manage personal and professional stress. Self-care can be thought of as a practice that prevents emotional depletion and burnout, providing counselors a much needed outlet to unplug, disconnect, and find space for themselves. Today’s technology can make us overly accessible, and learning to set boundaries is a necessary action to prevent burnout. In most cases, work-related burnout is a constant state of physical and mental exhaustion in conjunction with a loss of personal identity. Symptoms of burnout include:
- Changes in sleep habits
- Crying easily or being abnormally emotional
- Extreme stress
- Inability to concentrate
- Lack of satisfaction with achievements
- Physical complaints
Self-care strategies to help ease burnout include:
- Setting professional boundaries to create a divide between work life and personal time, so there is time to relax
- Seeking supervision and support from colleagues who can empathize and help identify new methods for managing the stress of providing care for others
- Participating in personal activities and hobbies, such as painting, knitting, reading, journaling, exercising, or volunteering
- Taking regular vacations to recover from overload
As a counselor, it may seem counterintuitive, but a necessary action for maintaining wellness is to reach out for help and allow yourself to talk through mental health challenges. Whether with a professional counselor, friend, or colleague, it’s critical that practitioners actively seek out peer support and supervision.
The counseling profession is at a significant turning point. While the pandemic helped accelerate the public’s general awareness of mental health, it also generated an overwhelming demand for services that has outpaced existing counselors’ bandwidth. Without broader societal change to promote healthy mental health habits, the need will continue to grow at a rate that outpaces capacity. Counseling Awareness Month’s focus on advocacy this year encourages a collective advancement of the profession’s goal to help prioritize mental health in America.
Impactful advocacy can take many forms. For instance, personal stories are powerful examples of individual advocacy that help give voice to those who are struggling alone. Individuals who are willing to be vulnerable and publicly share their mental health journey stories – in community groups, on social media, on blogs online – help demonstrate that no one is alone, and that healing is possible.
On a professional level, counselors can also act as powerful advocates for the cause by helping to illuminate the value and critical importance of counseling for a healthy society. Nationally, children have been struggling with adapting to new routines and norms through the pandemic, and the rates of adolescent psychological emergencies is on the rise. Nearly 40% of all school districts – or those responsible for nearly 5.5 million children – did not have a school psychologist on staff during the first year of the pandemic. School counselors and psychologists At the same time, when support is needed more than ever before, national school funding to support counseling programs is minimal. Greater levels of advocacy are needed to help highlight this critical gap and convince both the public – and publicly elected servants – that investing in programs to support healthy mental development in our youth is critical for America’s future. Advocacy efforts through April’s CAM and beyond can help drive broader societal change that makes a true impact.
On Friday, April 8th, mental health professionals can engage by participating in Teal Day, a day of celebration for counselors nationwide. It is meant to advance awareness and advocacy efforts, and help share the life-changing power of counseling and self-care for everyone. Taking part in Teal Day – and other advocacy-oriented, community-based efforts – can help spur movement toward significant public sentiment and policy changes.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
While the pandemic brought the mental health crisis to light, deep-rooted divides were occurring across the country surrounding racial and social justice issues. Counselors were not only addressing pandemic struggles, but also incidents of widespread gender and LGBTQ + discrimination, and systemic violence. The ACA stands firmly behind a mission of furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion in support of people from all backgrounds and sexual orientations. Counselors are in a prime position to inject positive change into the communities and should continue to advocate for – and call out – opportunities to involve diverse populations. Professionals may choose to review practices and procedures to uncover any existing bias that may interfere with professional work done with clients and their community. Putting actions behind advocacy helps ensure that the divisive issues of today are recognized and taken seriously by counseling professionals, which will help ultimately make society more inclusive. Amplifying the voices of underserved populations will help improve these situations when they arise in the future, and prove we are indeed in this fight together.
Tying it all Together
The counseling profession will continue to evolve, and the month of April is meant to bring awareness around who counselors are, advocate on behalf of the trade, and advance the work of counselors within the field. The growing accessibility to mental health services through virtual care and new technologies will only further the conversation and change the way society views mental health. Addressing the mental health crisis will require the combined efforts of licensed professionals and the communities they serve to help inspire political action, raise funding, and drive policy changes at a national level. Supporting the noble work of professional counselors worldwide is just the start to realizing change for the prioritization of mental health services for all.
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