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Human rights 101, Part 2: Implications for graduate students and counselor education programs

Part one of our two-part series provided a foundation of the importance of human rights, the relevance to professional counseling, and practical strategies to use when working with clients who have experienced human rights violations. Part two focuses on human rights, social justice and advocacy related to counseling graduate students and counselor education programs.

Many people enter the counseling profession because they have a desire to help people. They have a knack for listening and possess a genuine curiosity for the human condition. Many students have a passion for mending, repairing and supporting others towards self-actualization. In many introductory graduate classes, students explore the foundations of the counseling profession, learning about psychotherapy pioneers such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Frank Parsons, and Carl Rogers, and learn necessary basic skills in order to best help clients.

However, graduate students are not often given clear direction on how to execute one essential ethical mandate dictated in the ACA Code of Ethics: to “advocate at individual, group, institutional, and societal levels to address barriers and obstacles that inhibit access and/or the growth and development of clients” (A.7.a). Advocacy can seem confusing and challenging to graduate students – some might even think: I didn’t become a counselor to engage in advocacy. Many graduate students are unclear as to the multifaceted roles that counselors have, including the component of advocacy as it relates to human rights issues. This lack of clarity is not unfounded  –  professional counselors often lack consensus on how best to advocate for and on behalf of their clients’ human rights.

Multiculturalism, social justice and human rights

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Counseling is a young profession and has seen many developments throughout the years. Starting in the late 1980s, professional counselors saw a need for attention to diversity in clinical and educational settings. Increasingly, counselors were diagnosing and treating individuals who differed culturally from themselves. Therefore, the needs of the profession shifted, however slowly, to meet the needs of consumers. At that time, scholarship focused on racial and ethnic identities in counseling, and mainly examined the relationship between a professional counselor’s ethnocultural identity and that of the client. In the 1990s, Garry Walz and colleagues identified significant trends that should inform future counseling, including developing skills in counseling older adults, counseling family systems, a commitment to multiculturalism, and most salient to this article, the development of advocacy skills.

In 1992, ACA’s first Multicultural Counseling Competencies (MCC) were developed for professional counseling. Becoming competent in multicultural counseling would require counselors to not only understand and honor the diverse customs of different cultures but to recognize the additional barriers many client groups faced. Meeting the needs of disadvantaged clients would require not just knowledge, but action. In 1998, the American Counseling Association (ACA) formed a new division — Counselors for Social Justice (CSJ)— to implement social action strategies aimed at the empowerment of clients and oppressed individuals and groups. With the increasing awareness that social justice concerns must take a prominent role in the profession, the need for individual counselors to gain competency became clear. Because social justice and multicultural issues are inherently linked, the competencies were incorporated into an adapted version of the MCC in 2015, creating the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC). At the same time awareness of the importance of advocacy—both for the profession itself and for counselors’ work with clients—was growing and became a focus for ACA leaders. A task force was created to develop advocacy competencies. The ACA Advocacy Competencies were completed in 2003 to provide guidance for counselor advocacy at the micro (e.g., clients, students), meso (e.g., communities, organizations), and macro (e.g. to reflect the profession’s growing understanding of the use of advocacy with clients and their communities and were updated in 2018.

Still, with all of this information, graduate students may be left wondering, “what exactly does this mean for me?”

As mentioned in part one of our series, human rights are civil, political and/or cultural rights that are afforded to humans regardless of our intersecting identities. When these rights of our clients are violated, there are tremendous mental health repercussions. Counselors-in-training need to understand the complexities of human rights issues, when and how these rights are violated, and the ways they can engage in advocacy around these issues.

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There is a clear connection between social justice, advocacy and human rights. At times, social justice can be combined with advocacy, creating social justice advocacy, which can be described as organized efforts aimed at influencing sociopolitical outcomes, often with or on behalf of vulnerable, marginalized populations. Whether direct system intervention or collaborative advocacy with clients or client groups, counselors-in-training and practicing counselors need to be able to conceptualize and execute advocacy and social justice strategies to mitigate health disparities caused by human rights violations.

The impact of human rights on graduate students

Beginning counseling students are asked to reflect upon their own worldviews and to begin to form a framework from which they will work with clients – a theoretical orientation. It is likely that human rights issues have, in some way, affected students’ lives prior to entering graduate school.

Tracy, for example, is a graduate student who has encountered societal barriers due to their non-binary gender identity (non-binary denotes a gender identity that is not defined in terms of the traditional binary of male or female). Tracy has faced discrimination in schools, was forced to use a bathroom that was not congruent with their identity and has encountered challenges with changing their gender marker on legal documents. This pattern of harassment and obstruction has not only impeded Tracy’s pursuit of their right to a quality education—it has threatened their personal safety. As a counselor in training, Tracy’s worldview and the way they approach counseling will be directly affected by these violations of their human rights.

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In contrast, Anthony is a counseling graduate student with numerous identities. As a White, heterosexual, cisgender male, Anthony has experienced very few human rights violations. Yet human rights issues have already had an effect on Anthony’s worldview and theoretical orientation. Because Anthony has not experienced discrimination due to gender identity or sexual orientation, has not experienced poverty, harsh criminal sentencing and does not face obstacles related to legal documents or using public restrooms, his understanding of the relationship between human rights and counseling will be markedly different than Tracy’s.

These two examples demonstrate that when students begin their counselor training, their views on human rights issues have already been shaped by their experiences. A student who has not experienced violations has potentially started to develop a worldview that may not include an understanding of human rights issues. In contrast, a student who has experienced violations not only has an understanding of human rights issues but has been shaped by the difficulties they faced. These divergent experiences will affect the students’ training and may have a significant influence on their work as professional counselors. Thus, it is essential to intentionally address these issues in graduate school.

Learning the effectiveness of clinical interventions in counseling sessions is an established and vital part of graduate students’ training. However, it is equally imperative that counselors-in-training learn how effective—and necessary—it is to work with clients in varying groups and levels, such as families, groups, and at the community or other systemic level. Using a social justice and advocacy approach allows counselors to empower marginalized clients while also working to change the existing external environments for the clients.

For example, as a counselor-in-training, Anthony may work with a 14-year old bisexual, transgender person of color who has experienced time in the criminal justice system. To provide effective counseling, Anthony not only needs to know information about the current justice system, youth under the law, gender, sexuality and racial and ethnic identities and how this impacts his clients health, but also ways to systemically advocate with and on behalf of this client, as an essential part of ethical treatment and attention to social justice.

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Anthony can get this critical information by using resources such as Human Rights Watch, an international organization which investigates and reports on human rights-related violations around the world lists several current human rights concerns on their website: Harsh criminal sentencing, racial disparities, drug policy and policing, children in the criminal justice systems, hate crimes, rights of non-citizens, sexual orientation and gender identity, women’ and girls’ rights, and national security, among others.

Human rights and counselor education programs

In many counselor education programs, human rights issues are often introduced in multicultural and diversity courses, as well as in courses that teach about ethical and legal issues within counseling. However, this is not enough. Additional training is needed but is unlikely to be available to students because most education programs do not offer elective courses in human rights issues. It is often the responsibility of course instructors to take the lead by incorporating human rights issues throughout coursework.

Sufficiently educating students on human rights issues will require curricula and systemic change and will also require counselor educators to self-reflect and understand how human rights issues shaped their own worldview, which will, in turn, affect their work with students. If instructors model silence surrounding these issues, students may graduate from counselor education programs lacking the human rights knowledge that is critical to their work as professional counselors. Counselor educators need to teach students that any reflection on the factors that have shaped their worldview is incomplete without examining human rights issues. The extent of the effect of human rights issues on individuals is evident by examining the significant difference in the lived experiences of Anthony and Tracy.

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Although scholarly research plays a part in any graduate program, the expectations for master’s level counseling students are different than those in doctoral programs. Some master’s programs may not assign regular research projects to students. In contrast, doctoral students undertake rigorous research into clinical counseling practices and improvement in counselor education and training. Because human rights issues play an important role in these topics, students are likely to encounter clear examples of violations. For example, research examining the counseling experiences of single mothers of color in poverty might explore systemic barriers and oppression these people face, which are direct violations of human rights.

By not giving students significant exposure to research, counselor education programs are missing an opportunity for counselor trainees to be exposed to human rights issues. The old adage “meet clients where they are at” provides a helpful framework for understanding the need to integrate human rights issues into counseling programs. As part of their training, counseling students provide services to a client base that includes members of society who regularly experience human rights violations. Without an understanding of the myriad forms human rights violations can take (see part one of this series for examples) and an awareness of which populations regularly experience issues—and the physical and mental health damage caused—counselors-in-training will be ill-equipped to meet the needs of their clients.

When counselor education programs minimize or outright ignore human rights concepts in students’ training, they could potentially be causing potential harm to future clients. Nonmaleficence — avoiding actions that cause harm — is one of the fundamental ethical principles of counseling set out in the ACA Code of Ethics preamble. Intentionally infusing social justice advocacy and human rights components into the array of coursework will benefit graduate students’ self-efficacy, their clients, and, ultimately, society at large.

In the following section, we provide several strategies for graduate students, counselor educators, and counselor education programs to attend to human rights issues and incorporate advocacy and social justice strategies into the classroom:

For graduate students:

  • Mitigate imposter syndrome related to advocacy by managing self-talk, reflecting on accomplishments, normalizing with other graduate students, and practicing self-grace and compassion.
  • Call, text, email, or write to local, state and national legislative representatives on issues that directly impact human rights issues.
  • Engage in continuous self-assessment related to your own advocacy and social justice competency, by using advocacy competency self-assessment tools and surveys.
  • Conduct research that relates to human rights issues and propose/present it at local, regional, and national counseling conferences.
  • Develop and update a list of local, regional, state, and national resources for clients who experience human rights violations.

For counselor education programs and educators:

  • Foster intentional discussions about current human rights issues throughout all areas of counselor training, in addition to diversity, lifespan, and legal/ethical courses.
  • Integrate human rights issues into case studies and clinical examples so graduate students can experience “real world” examples of clients in training programs, prior to practicum and internship experiences.
  • Co-construct specific advocacy and social justice plans as part of coursework that allows graduate students an opportunity to actively participate in these strategies outside of their practicum or internship counseling sessions.
  • Structure clinical experiences that allow students to work with diverse clients and settings. One way to do this might be to work with the program’s clinical coordinator to ensure practicum and internship sites are varied and, if possible, host a variety of clients with a variety of presenting issues.
  • Teach human rights violation assessment as part of a comprehensive biopsychosocial diagnostic evaluation.
  • Allow guest speakers who have experienced human rights violations in the classroom. The personal stories of people who have lived through human rights violations provide a more vivid and compelling understanding than a lecture containing abstract examples. Mentor and model students in research that relates to human rights issues and empower them to propose/present it at local, regional and national counseling conferences.

Counselor education programs can also expand outside awareness of human rights issues in a variety of ways:

  • Create statements (with university permission) of support or resolutions that can increase the visibility of and address barriers to human rights issues.
  • Host “days of awareness,” with various human rights topics addressed on different days through flyers, posters or with guest speakers via workshops or panels.
  • Partner with other departments, when possible, in order to cast a wider net of influence and awareness of human rights issues.

clark.ausloos@utoledo.edu.

Ausloos was a member of the American Counseling Association’s Human Rights Committee, as were the authors of the first article in this series.

Taylor M. Nelson is a second-year doctoral student at the University of Toledo. She is a licensed professional counselor in Ohio, working in an inpatient psychiatric hospital setting. Contact her at Taylor.Nelson2@rockets.utoledo.edu.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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