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Keeping it Green: Maintaining a Positive Focus as a Professional Counselor

by Robert J. Chapman, PhD

1 Your Role
I want to learn about treatment options for:

2 Basic Information
The Person is:
years old

graduated high school

3 Condition Information
Caron Treatment Centers accepts patients aged 13 years or older. For more information on services available to those 12 and under, please learn more about Caron's Student Assistance Program.

The issue—or some might say problem—of managing frustration and avoiding cynicism as a behavioral health professional is one that may be more pervasive than many in higher education imagine. Addressing the issues of high-risk student behaviors like underage and dangerous drinking, indiscriminate use of illicit substances, or unprotected sexual activity to mention but a few of the more frequently cited examples from the media, is enough to dampen the spirits of even the most stalwart prevention professional. Not only can media-reported national stats about percentages of high-risk drinkers and untoward incidents related to alcohol or other drug use on campus prove to be frustrating for professional in higher ed, the potential threat to their optimism in and efficacy regarding the behavioral health profession would appear to be an all too likely consequence of a steady diet of bad news from the media and personal stories of heartache resulting from high-risk student behavior on their individual campuses. At times it may seem that practitioners are like the knot in the middle of a rope in a huge tug-of-war with individual students refusing to change their individual behaviors on one end and national trends regarding high-risk or "dangerous" drinking on the other. Yet not only do we not see prevention professionals leaving the field in droves, unlike many religious orders, the number of vocations that attract young professionals to a calling to work in counseling, student affairs, and other behavioral health fields in higher education are encouraging.

It would seem that regardless if individual professionals weather the problems on their individual campuses or know something the media seems to be oblivious to that allows them to keep their collective heads above water, it would appear that as much—if not more—of the frustration and cynicism experienced by some practitioners results from their personal perceptions on the issues that arise when working in this field. In other words, dealing with high-risk students and their behaviors may be an occupational hazard associated with being a behavioral health professional, but that does not mean that each professional in the field will experience the chronic frustration and institutional cynicism. As with so many things in life, one tends to find what is expected. The practitioner that expects to see new prevention strategies fail or individual students refuse to change, regardless of the evidence presented to them supporting such, will likely find evidence to support this belief.  If this sounds vaguely familiar, I suggest you dust off your old notebooks from undergraduate social psych and review "confirmation bias" and "illusory correlation." Because one thinks something is true, the relatively few cases experienced that support the belief held are touted as proof that the hypothesis IS true. The classic example of this in addiction counseling is the belief that effective addictions counseling necessitates breaking through a client's denial with directive confrontation (some call this "attack therapy") in order to enable clients to improve. True, some individuals exposed to such counseling techniques respond and get sober; unfortunately, most clients introduced to treatment via attack therapy drop out prematurely. Ironically, these clients are deemed "not ready" to get sober so the client is blamed for the failure to improve when it is more than likely that an inappropriate treatment choice was made by the counselor. This is also roughly similar to what we have seen over the past several years in the published research from the Harvard School of Public Health. This research reports on the steady if not increasing rates of "binge drinking" and then assigns "blame" to social norms and other proactive strategies as being ineffective and unsubstantiated.

So how does the counseling practitioner keep from burning out or becoming so cynical about addressing high-risk student behavior as to consider a career change to welding? There are numerous ways to accomplish this and here is a representative sample:

1. Like the bumper sticker on a liberal's hybrid gas-electric powered auto might suggest, "Think globally, but act locally." Counseling and prevention professionals know what they are doing on their individual campuses. They all know the prevention programs, therapy groups, policy reforms, and environmental changes they have been able to affect. We still confer virtually and in person regarding the field, including the "bad news" nationally, but we do so knowing that we make a difference. Just as people do not change by dwelling on mistakes and missed opportunities or by obsessing on the final goal, student affairs professionals realize that change is a process rather than an event; they know that on their best days they can help others, but we cannot save them.

2. Many in the student affairs field have come to realize many think and believe as they do. This realization results in most of these professionals seeking out these "others" and conversing with them. The best antidote for the "six o'clock news syndrome" is to speak with others about what is really going on. Just like we all know that not “all 16 to 25-year-old members of a particular racial group" are doing what the six o'clock news constantly suggests is the norm, so are student affairs professionals aware of the myriad opportunities to receive various points of view. To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, "Let them that have eyes see and them that have ears hear!" With online news services like, newsletters like NASPA’s AOD Knowledge Community and numerous other online and print resources; workshops, seminars, and conventions like Ohio State University’s Higher Education Center’s National Meeting or NASPA’s annual AOD conference each January, the field has access to "what's what." This is a powerful antidote to the media's constant barrage of, "We’ve got trouble, right here in River City, and that starts with "T" and that rhymes with "B" and that stands for BOOZE."

3. We are also becoming more sophisticated as a field. Many have become familiar with Prochaska's Transtheoretical model of counseling with its view of readiness to change occurring on a continuum. The appropriateness of meeting someone on this change continuum where he or she is and working to motivate movement to the next stage of readiness rather than instantly trying to move that person to the last stage is very empowering and a powerful inoculation against burnout.

Student affairs professionals are a resilient bunch. We know how important our work is. We know that academic success cannot occur until and unless we address the issues of students outside the classroom. This does not mean that every student that enrolls in college or university will receive a degree after completing the requisite number of courses. Likewise, anticipating and addressing every high-risk student behavior before it results in a tragedy is unrealistic. That said, it does mean that behavioral health professionals need to be cognizant of where they seek information lest they inadvertently place themselves on an informational junk food diet. Just as too much fast food can result in hardening of the arteries, too much fast information can result in hardening of the attitudes, a condition just as prone to shortening careers.