What if, when driving down a poorly built road to get home, you had to constantly realign your vehicle’s tires when you reached your house?
Each time, the potholes and bumps along the way ruin your repairs, and each time you have to go back and fix the same issues. Wouldn’t it be easier to instead fix the road?
Community counselors analyze problems on an individual level and then determine what it takes to solve those problems on a larger, community level. Similar to repairing a bumpy road before it causes more problems for people, community counselors work to prevent problems before they occur.
Using expert planning, communication, and counseling skills, community counselors are leaders capable of uniting a community toward a common cause, alleviating mental health concerns and increasing access to community resources.
Foundations of Community Counseling
Community counseling is typically referred to as counseling outside of a hospital setting. This means community counselors are grounded in the local community, interact with community leaders, and have open communication with multiple support services in the environment.
In some ways, a community counselor is both a counselor and a social worker. Community counselors are well versed in therapeutic interventions designed to relieve the concerns of troubled clients. But community counselors are also advocates on behalf of their clients, helping to implement and change policies to aid the whole community.
The dual nature of the community counseling profession means counselors must have great communication skills, leadership qualities, and expert knowledge of social programs and interventions. Using these skills, counselors interact directly with those most in need.
Counselors for Individuals
According to “Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions,” by Gerald Corey and others, community counselors must work directly with clients to determine the greater needs of the community as a whole.
Corey explains that counselors work with clients facing crises such as substance abuse problems, depression and anxiety concerns, marital troubles, and other issues. First, when meeting with these clients, counselors establish therapy goals and explore the roots of clients’ problems.
To help these clients, community counselors employ various therapy techniques depending on each scenario. For example, a counselor working with an anxious client might use cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to change the client’s anxious thoughts For more information see Anxiety Treatments.
Each client requires expert analysis to get to the root of mental health concerns. But to completely address these concerns more comprehensively, the counselor must also get involved at the community level.
Counselors for Communities
Client advocacy and consultation at the community level involves forming partnerships between community leaders and service organizations. By improving services and increasing the availability of community help organizations, counselors help solve problems before they occur. As advocates and consultants, community counselors help solve mental health delivery problems, assist in the creation of alternative mental health programs, and increase coordination between community members and services.
“Engaging Clients, Families, and Communities as Partners in Mental Health,” published in The Journal of Counseling and Development, establishes that counselors must actively reach out to those with special needs, and work to develop and improve effective programs.
In the article, author Julia Bryan says that when counselors and members of the community unite, their combined influence has the power to change systems for the better. Bryan says a citizen health care model that allows counselors to develop programs with community organizations empowers that community to seek the help it needs.
Key components of the Citizen Health Care Model
- Counselors gather support from community leaders
- Counselors identify the health concerns of the community
- Counselors identify individuals in the community with leadership abilities
- Counselors create a planning team that includes three or four community members
- Counselors include more members of the community as planning escalates
- The full team designs and begins to implement the community program
Source: Citizen Health Care: A Model for Engaging patients, families, and communities as co-producers of health by William J. Doherty
By going directly to the community to discover its specific needs, counselors help advocate for and develop programs that work.
For example, Bryan describes a “Healthy Workers Program” that offered free mental and medical health care to employees in dining services. Health care workers in the program often saw community members with chronic untreated illnesses that were further complicated by cultural and economic barriers.
To help address the specific needs of those working in dining services, the Healthy Workers Program created a task force to break through these barriers. The task force included community counselors and community members who served as “cultural brokers.”
These “cultural brokers” would act as liaisons between the health care professionals and the dining workers, communicating their ideas, and helping to implement program changes to meet their cultural needs.
Bryan notes that involving the community in the development of programs not only improves these services, but also increases awareness and use of the services.
Community Counseling in Action
By engaging the individual and expanding that engagement to the community, counselors are able to prompt widespread change.
According to “Social Justice Advocacy: Community Collaboration and Systems Advocacy,” published in The Journal of Counseling and Development, while traditional counseling has typically helped people at an individual level, solving a problem at the community level would prevent more individuals from developing the problem.
Skills Necessary to Effectively Advocate at a Community Level
- Identify environmental factors that impinge on client development
- Alert community groups about the common concerns related to the issue
- Develop alliances between groups working for change
- Use effective listening skills to gain understanding of the group’s goals
- Identify the strengths and resources of the group to bring about the process of systemic change
- Communicate recognition of and respect for these strengths and resources
- Identify and offer the skills that the counselor can bring to the collaboration
- Assess the effect of the counselor’s interaction with the community and decide if the interaction was successful
Source: Social Justice Advocacy: Community Collaboration and Systems Advocacy
In the article, author Sandra Lopez-Baez describes a case where a 13-year-old African-American boy experienced attendance issues at his day-treatment school. In the past two months, the boy had missed 20 days of school.
Instead of communicating its concerns to the boy’s parents, the school went directly to the legal court system to report that the boy had missed too many days of school. This incensed the boy’s mother, who became unwilling to work with the school.
Meeting with a counselor, the boy describes how each day a van would pick him up at his house and take him to the school. During the van trip to school, the boy reported that the other students would pick on him for his race and socioeconomic status. To make matters worse, the van driver didn’t do anything to stop the bullying, but in fact sometimes made comments himself, spurring the other children to continue.
This climate of intolerance made the boy fearful of the bus trip, and contributed to his attendance problems.
During therapy, the counselor helps the boy understand his own strengths, and helps the boy feel less fearful of the trip. But to completely solve the issue, and to prevent the rise of more problems for the boy or other community members, the counselor works with the family and the school to stop the bullying.
Because the school holds a contract with the transportation agency that provides the van, the school could require stricter rules for van drivers. Meeting with the school, the counselor would explain the situation and push for changes.
The community counselor is the perfect individual to instigate these changes. With knowledge of the pernicious effects of bullying and racism, a community counselor meeting with the school could work to develop a plan to stop the negative behaviors.
The proven results of the community counselor is shown through increased funding for anti-bullying campaigns, as well as different contract terms for the transportation agency. By targeting the problem of racism, the community counselor not only helped the boy with his attendance issues, but also stopped a system-wide problem from continuing.