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Awaiting the Day that Counselors will Inherit the Earth: What I learned at the 2017 ACA Conference

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This past March I had the pleasure of attending the American Counseling Association’s annual conference in San Francisco California. The American Counseling Association or ACA for short is a professional organization that represents and advocates for Counselors from all different fields from mental health to school to career and rehabilitation counseling. It also represents and advocates for counselor educators and helps to shape the values of the counseling profession through it’s code of ethics.

Ethics were a particularly popular subject this year. This year’s ACA conference was initially planned to be held in Nashville Tennessee. However Tennessee passed house bill 1840 which asserted the right for counselors to refer clients to other professionals based on conflicting values or deeply held spiritual believes which might be in opposition with those of the client. This is in direct violation of the ACA code of ethics which holds that counselors have an ethical obligation to serve their clientele to the best of their abilities in spite of conflicting values and only to refer when it’s a question of competence or expertise for a client’s particular issue. Debates both within the ACA and in the media across the nation and particularly within the state of Tennessee ensued. Ultimately concerns of a partisan conservative legislative bill opening the door for possible exclusionary if not prejudicial practices by counselors in Tennessee led to the 2017 ACA conference being held in what might be the most liberal place on earth, San Francisco California. However the typical celebratory revelry of the conference on the backdrop of the recent polarized political climate in this country turned the focus of this year’s conference towards a shared vision of counselors as advocates and agents of change in their individual communities and in society at large. It was noted on more than one occasion that an organization with 56,000 members, such that The ACA is, can have tremendous influence on the world. Political leanings aside, counselors both as individuals and collectively with a shared vision of unity can wield great power in the world if each Counselor acknowledges and embraces the influence they have.

What many people don’t realize is that counseling is more than just compensating for mental health issues. This became very apparent at the ACA conference as Counselors versed in all different types of psychological theory and therapeutic techniques mingled with Counselor educators advancing evolving ideals of what it means to “Be a Counselor.” The picture that emerged for many attendees is that Counseling is a means of improving the world by better individuals forming better relationships with each other, strengthening communities and everyone else that those communities impact. Counselors have a role and mission that transcends the day to day focus on reducing psychosis or depression symptoms.

As a counselor I personally appreciated this sentiment. I didn’t always feel comfortable with the natural political bend that gets exerted by a setting such as San Francisco (I tend to be a pretty moderate guy and sometimes people’s passion can pull them towards the extremes). I none the less whole heartedly endorse the broadened scope of influence counseling and counselors can and should have in the world. Counselors can and should advocate for the change they want to see in their communities. Some of the notable ways suggested at the 2017 ACA conference that counselors can perform such a broader mission were; Counselors can provide outreach education, and skill building opportunities in the form of classes, workshops or groups, they can provide expertise and contribute to the discussion of issues through the media via op-Ed pieces in local newspapers, blogging, hosting or even sponsoring events, going into schools, businesses and organizations to teach, inform and advocate, creating Counselor groups and networks to support each other and the industry at large, and most importantly exemplifying the ethics of inclusion respect and tolerance that we would show to our own clients to the whole wide world. This is indeed a tall order for those of us counselors who tend to appreciate and enjoy the solitary, almost apart from the greater world, one on one nature of our individual counseling sessions. None the less, the challenge and call to action was made, and it remains to be seen how many of the over 4000 counselors and educators in attendance at the 2017 ACA conference will accept that challenge.

Not a Counselor? No problem! There are several ways that you can contribute to counseling and this broader mission too, and none of them require you to be a counselor yourself or even go to grad school. For example; you can attend counseling yourself, to grow, to change, to learn about your self or others, or to improve a skill set or just to see what it’s like. Then if you’re comfortable you can share your counseling experience with others, inspiring them to possibly take action to improve themselves and their relationships with others too. You can ask questions about how you want the future of your communities to be, and then you can organize your own groups of like-minded community members to advocate for and promote this vision. Then you can even partner with us counselors to address the concerns and needs your group has for the community.

By sharing your stories and visions of the future with people that you know and trust you’re helping to break down barriers and stigma associated with counseling and mental health. This will make it easier for future individuals to find, obtain, and get the most out of a counseling experience for themselves. And, just like throwing rocks in a pond, the ripple effect of Counseling continues to grow and expand into the ever deepening waters of the world we live in.

The 2018 ACA Conference is scheduled for Atlanta GA April 26th to 29th 2018. I wonder what I’ll learn there next year?

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