ACA Blog

Feb 26, 2013

Part 2: Needed Changes Toward Interns in Professional Counseling Culture

In Part 1 of “What’s Wrong with the Counseling Intern Picture?”, I made clear that the way counselors-in-training approach the internship phase of their programs needs changing. I’d now like to turn our attention to what needs changing in Professional Counseling culture toward young people in general, and especially toward counseling interns.

Philanthropist John Templeton once said, “The greatest charity is to help someone change from being a receiver, to being a giver.” It makes sense, don’t it? This is the selfish becoming others-focused, the uncaring becoming responsible, children becoming adults. It’s also students becoming professionals.

If you’ve read any of the myriad blogs I’ve written for the ACA or at counselinginternships.com, you know I’m a straight-shooter. I don’t take it easy on counseling interns. I tell them to snap out of their slumber and get a move on. I tell them to get entry-level mental health work their first year of graduate school or sooner. I tell them to expect that the hard work of securing and finding internship placement is their responsibility.

And it is.

But the rest of us need to do our part.

Change #1: Creating Space.

At the 2012 ACA Conference in San Francisco, I had a blast. Really, I just loved it. I loved hearing from Irvin Yalom – what a gem. I loved my writer’s workshop with the Coreys. I loved listening to Craig Wyndham’s keynote (I’m a bit of an NPR-phile!).

But, in spite of all these wonderful experiences, I was also very dismayed. Actually, these experiences point out the problem. On average, most everyone on stage was in his or her mid-50’s.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that anyone who was up there didn’t deserve to be. Are you kidding me? I gushed about Yalom (who is now 81 years young) for months after. I even downloaded another of his books. I’m ready to call him up for a quick session next time I’m in Palo Alto or San Francisco. Everyone on stage deserved to be there.

However, I am suggesting that you can probably tell a lot about who an organization values by whom they feature when all of their members get together. The conference did show a video about the “future” of counseling with smatterings of young people. Fair enough. But the youngest people who actually made it on stage in real-time were the choreographed dancers (yes, there were dancers). And it’s probably worth mentioning that the dancers were part of a dramatic look at the past 60 years of the ACA. History lessons aside, it’s hard not to suppose this was a purposeful bit of nostalgia for the boomers, who comprised a massive portion of the audience and stage cast.

In case you think I’m being too harsh or making this up, here are the breakdowns from the 2013 ACA Conference Exhibitors Prospectus regarding the 2012 Conference:

• 71.3% of attendees were over the age of 36.
• Of those, 25.4% were 55-68+.
• The other 45.9% were age ranged as “36-55” – I’m taking bets about how many of them were 50-55. Go look at the on-stage 2012 Conference Photographs here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/23682700@N04/sets/72157629725128411

This phenomenon isn’t just something that’s happening within the ACA. Because of sheer numbers, it’s easy for any organization where boomers comprise a share of the overall membership to simply overlook everyone else.

Think about it.

You have a conference and your boomer membership fills the seats. You look out at the crowd and think – “Wow! We’re really doing it here. Look at these numbers!” Then you realize – 75% of the heads in the crowd are gray or white. The numbers are there, true. But precious few of them will be there in 10-20 years. And you have a problem on your hands.

At the risk of incurring their wrath, I’m going to suggest that the powers that be need to start paying a little more attention to the generations of counselors following them. And to share the spotlight. Counselors 35 and under (of which I will soon no longer be a part) aren’t just the future of counseling – they are the present. And they should be made a more regular part of who shows up on stage at any ACA conference.

Change #2: Creating Names.

Part of the struggle in our industry culture is not just for young people, but for counseling interns of all ages. It is the utter lack of homogeneity in defining their station with effective nomenclature. States like Texas and California (and a host of others) use the term “Intern” to describe a counselor-in-training who has completed their Master’s degree and is pursuing hours toward licensure. They choose this designation (and typically, similarly named provisional licenses) to differentiate individuals from their fully licensed counterparts. But, I guess I can’t help but wonder, do the State Licensing Boards in these regions not realize that counseling students must go through an…um…”internship” to complete their Master’s degrees?

I love the ol’ US of A. I enjoy the concept of States’ rights as much as the next person. But seriously, this sort of thing is really, really confusing.

In 2005, Freakonomics pointed out the startling differences in trajectory of children with names common to certain socioeconomic strata. We watch our politicians control the tide of public opinion all the time with words like “Death Tax” and “Pro-Life” or “Pro-Choice”. The nation of Turkey once had so few words to describe female sexuality that dialoguing about it required learning a new language. Language is important.

Like women’s sexuality in Turkey, you can’t discuss that for which you have no terminology. This reinforces the timeliness of ACA President Brad Erford’s call for the standardization of our industry in his December 2012 CT column (http://ct.counseling.org/2012/12/raising-the-bar-the-power-of-standardization/).

Here are the terms I propose we use:

Counseling Intern: Counselors-in-training in the practicum and/or internship phases of their educational program.

Counseling Resident: Counselors-in-training in the post-Master’s, acquiring hours toward licensure phase of their journey. This should be the required designation for all states wishing to issue a provisional license (LPC-R).

I live 1 hour from the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville, VA. I live 2.5 hours from Duke University’s Hospital. If I am in a crisis, I have no problem being airlifted to either of these fine institutions. I have no problem being under the care of a resident, maybe even one doing something “experimental” that might save my life.

But in our industry, when we’ve got no name to even identify our Counseling Residents or Counseling Interns, when it takes me 5 minutes to explain to a discerning consumer the difference between them and myself, I just end up sounding like I’m scrambling for an answer – like I’m trying to convince them, “No – they’re really good. I swear!” It’s quite tragic when you consider that this could be fixed with a little change in wording.

Again, the fact that this issue has taken up so little of our attention is telling about where our priorities lie. Time for a change.

Change #3: Creating Community.

If you haven’t seen me mention it prior to now, there really is a crisis in counselors-in-training finding internships. In the 1.5 months since the official launch of counselinginternships.com, we’re already netting 3000+ hits per month. As I said in Part 1, Google reports 10,000+ searches monthly or the terms “counseling internship(s)”. Simply put, the field has got tons of new graduates coming in, and no one seems particularly interested in helping them find and secure internship placement.

Most of the professional counselors I talk with are outwardly sympathetic, but have no intention of arranging programs within their practices, agencies, or other systems to accommodate our newbies. I suspect some of this is ignorance about how profitable interns can be, financially and otherwise. The rest is just plain ol’ indifference. There seems to be a general “suck it up” attitude toward counseling interns that complain about the difficulties in finding placement. Sort of – “Well, we went through it and made it through all on our own. You’ll be fine. Quit complaining and get to work.”

There’s certainly a time and place for this message.

But here’s a similar reality check for us in positions to make a difference: this is not the world in which you cut your counseling teeth. Deinstitutionalization, the worst recession since the Great Depression, increased regulations on what it takes to even gain entry level mental health worker status (QMHP), technology, etc. – these things have made it very, very difficult on would-be counseling interns. So, while you’ve undoubtedly walked a mile in their shoes from a clinical perspective, the “find a job” portion of their journey is something you really don’t get. The quicker we realize that, the quicker we can start helping.

And that’s just it – for whatever measure of success I currently have, I would never, ever, in a million years, be where I am without having had a ton of help. I’m the kind of guy that gets in someone’s hip pocket and just keeps pulling the watch chain until I get his or her attention. Really, ask my mentors! My philosophy has always been, “If I’m bugging you, you’ll tell me. Otherwise, I will assume that I am not.”

I appreciate the ACA’s efforts over the past few years to establish a mentorship program, but as a rule, mentorships are typically more organic than that. I’m fully confident that my mentors chose me as much as I chose them. They saw something in me – something that quite often I did not see in myself. They said, “I can help this kid,” or, perhaps more likely, “This kid needs help!” They were right.

So let me ask – who are you mentoring? How many slots at your practice, agency, organization are dedicated for counseling interns? When was the last time you took a graduate counseling student to lunch? When was the last time you let someone under 35 pick your brain without charging your hourly rate? How have you used your influence to help the next generation of counselors?

If the answers are indicting, I don’t know what you’re waiting for. Pay it forward. If you’re anything like me, you owe it. Someone did the same for you.

Bringing It Home.

I’ve tried to speak practically and plainly here about what needs to change in Professional Counseling culture as it regards young people and counseling interns. Now that a whole bunch of you are certifiably ticked off, I hope to soften the blows by way of closing.

With almost no exceptions, all of my mentors are in their twilight years, and I’m not talking bout Edward Cullen. I’ve noticed over that most have slowed a bit as of late. It takes them longer to remember. Their hair has gone from its original brown or black to gray and silvery-white. Their responses are softer than they might have been even 10 years ago. I confess – I have watched them go through these changes with the wonder of a child, even as I am going through many changes of my own – settling into married life, the births of my children, the broadening of my career, etc. It’s been quite a journey.

My own father is a mentor to me. These days, he’s known to speak with dewy eyes of “planting trees”. It’s a sappy metaphor I suppose (pun intended), but it makes sense. There is something that calls out to each of us, suggesting we ought help lay the foundation for a kingdom of which we may never be heirs.

In the book I picked up last year by Irv Yalom, he picks the apt metaphor “Staring at the Sun” to address the can’t-wrap-your-arms-around-it reality of our mortality. In it, he says,

“…the belief that one may persist, not in one’s individual personhood, but through values and actions that ripple on and on through generations to come can be a powerful consolation to anyone anxious about his or her mortality…. Rippling…assumes far more power in the context of an intimate relationship where one can know at first hand how one’s life has benefited someone else. Friends may thank someone for what he or she has done or meant. But mere thanks is not the point. The truly effective message is, ‘I have taken some part of you into me. It has changed and enriched me, and I shall pass it on to others.’”

Whatever you’ve read above, let me sum it all up in one line that I think you’ll find hard to dispute – Professional Counseling culture toward young people and interns needs to reflect more rippling.

The next generation of counselors needs more attention.
The next generation of counselors needs intelligible and standardized language.
The next generation of counselors needs what you have to offer, and that’s a lot.

Don’t you agree?


Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CounselingInternships.com, and helps counselors-in-training and student counselors find internships and direction in clinical practice. Find a counseling internship now at http://counselinginternships.com.

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