Community Counseling

community social work

Throughout history, humans have relied on each other for support, forming cities and towns to interact with each other and socialize.

But cities and towns are made up of smaller communities – communities that can be broken down into individuals – individuals who, at some point in their lives, require help. And for many of these individuals, lack of access to quality health care and barriers to social services prevent them from seeking the help they need.

Fortunately, community counselors, experts at providing and developing services for mental health care are available to help, drawing on leadership skills and resources to institute community-wide changes.

The field of Community Counseling is broad and diverse, applying principles of both counseling and social work in a community setting. Effective community counseling involves helping clients work through their mental health concerns, while also helping to prevent those concerns from proliferating in the community.

Why is diversity important for communities?

According to “Community Counseling: A Multicultural-Social Justice Perspective,” by Judith A. Lewis and others, the model of community counseling is grounded in recognizing diversity. Lewis notes that community counselors must pay special attention to diversity because communities are, in their nature, diverse systems.

In the article, Lewis cites the RESPECTFUL model of counseling as an important framework for community counselors. The RESPECTFUL approach takes into account multiple factors that affect a person’s mental and physical well-being.

What is the RESPECTFUL model of counseling?

  • R- Religious
  • E- Economic Class Background
  • S- Sexual Identity
  • P- level of Psychological Maturity
  • E- Ethnic/Racial identity
  • C-Chronological/Developmental Challenge
  • T- Trauma
  • F- Family Background
  • U- Unique physical characteristics
  • L- Location of residence/Language differences

Lewis notes that the RESPECTFUL framework is important for community counseling because it encourages counselors to view human development from multiple perspectives – an important task when treating a large community.

Factors like religion, economic background, and ethnicity impact how clients view their mental health, and impact the way they react to and accept treatment. Lewis says that the RESPECTFUL approach causes counselors to seek out multiple helping approaches.

For example, a Native-American client is likely to have different reasons behind anxiety than clients from other ethnic groups. A counselor must take into account religion and tradition when treating diverse groups, and must work with that group’s specific community to develop effective treatment plans.

In identifying high-risk populations for treatment, community counselors focus on a client’s environment to understand the cultural factors that contribute to a client’s health while also addressing more high-level systemic problems.

Problems Resulting from a Negative Environment

Community counseling focuses on increasing access to mental health and social services, while also providing individual and group counseling to those in the community.

What are some components of community counseling?

  • Provide advice and consultation to a community’s caregivers to increase access to mental health care.
  • Identify high-risk populations.
  • Reduce the incidence of mental disorders at an individual level.
  • Develop preventive services to reduce relapses.
  • Recognize the value of the community and its ability to bolster positive mental health and develop effective programs.

Source: “Community-based Interventions: A Return to Community Mental Health Center’s Origins,” The Journal of Counseling and Development

For example, consider a woman who comes to a counselor because she is experiencing symptoms of depression. While talking with the counselor, it’s revealed that the woman feels a low self-worth because she feels her employer dismisses many of her contributions for no reason. The woman feels this dismissal has also contributed to the denial of a pay raise she felt she deserved.

In addition, the woman’s husband is employed in a nearly identical position and has similar credentials, but he has not experienced these problems. The community counselor, recognizing that the woman’s depression might stem from systemwide sexism, would enlist the assistance of a local women’s rights center to contact her employer to discuss their concerns.

Together, the counselor, women’s rights chapter, woman, and the employer discuss the reasons for her raise denial, and take the appropriate legal actions to ensure the sexism isn’t continued in the future.

By recognizing the woman’s depression results from sexism at work, the counselor works to not only address the woman’s individual concerns, but hopes to prevent the same thing happening to someone else in the future. Often, instituting a major change in a community starts with helping to solve an individual’s concern.

And by identifying the sexism apparent in the woman’s workplace, the community counselor takes steps to work with the woman’s rights center, increasing awareness of the center’s services. The counselor then contacts other similar services, working to increase coordination between all the services that address all types of discrimination.

Community Leadership and Advocacy

Community counselors not only help individual clients with mental health and social concerns, but also identify groups in need of help, advocating on their behalf. The counselor takes a distinctive leadership role in the community, meaning that those studying to become a community counselor must learn good leadership and communication skills.

These communication and leadership skills are put to good use as a community counselor gains a more holistic understanding of a community’s needs. Community counselors use this knowledge to improve coordination between services and to create new services.

According to “Community-Based Interventions: A Return to Community Mental Health Center’s Origins,” published in The Journal of Counseling and Development, community counselors reach a larger portion of the population by directly meeting with churches, family service agencies, welfare services, and schools.

In the article, authors John L. Werner and J. Michael Tyler note that many agencies and community organizations have services that overlap with each other, and attempts to increase communication between them.

For example, when communicating with a school, a counselor discovers that a large portion of the students are from a lower socioeconomic status. In meeting with the school, the counselor might discover many of the students don’t have money for lunch, or don’t bring substantial lunches from home.

The community counselor might create a partnership between the school and a local family service. Partnering with the agency, the school and the counselor work out a plan to provide these students with school lunches.

A Career as a Community Counselor

A degree in community counseling opens multiple doors and pathways for counselors looking to work directly with clients. Instead of working on a purely individual level, community counselors look at mental health through a wider lens, examining how they can make systemic changes.

If you’re interested in helping to increase access to support services, while also helping others at an individual level, request information from schools offering degree programs in community counseling.

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