Derick Williams was a biology undergraduate on his way to med school when he had an unnerving realization. “I didn’t really have a passion there,” he says. Luckily, around the same time he took a psychology course and fell in love with it. “I had no clue what counseling was,” he says. “I just fell in love with the idea of understanding and relating to and working with people.”
He went on to gain seven years of experience as a counselor, working in a high school, a liberal arts college and, eventually, a mental health hospital where he concentrated on children and adolescents. He now teaches a class in the Curry School that introduces students to the field.
“We’re a pretty young profession,” says Williams. “We give an overview and history of the important events.” Counseling began, he explains, in the early 1900s, when people attempted to match individuals with certain jobs, address the welfare of children, and reform mental health care. During and after World War II there was a trend, influenced by famed psychologist Carl Rogers, toward addressing mental health issues by empowering clients and focusing on the client-counselor relationship as the impetus for creating change. Major counseling organizations were formed in the 1950s, which was followed by the humanistic movement of the 1960s. All of this led to counseling as we know it. “Virginia became the first state to license professional counselors in 1976,” says Williams.
Along with learning the history of the profession, students explore their identities as soon-to-be-counselors. According to Williams, looking at your own history might give you an idea of where, as a counselor, your strengths and weaknesses might lie. “We help students understand what shaped them and what pulls their heartstrings, who they are as far as their personal values go.”
Another big part of the class focuses on a central mission of the profession. “We help people to create change,” says Williams. “We draw on the mental, emotional and behavioral aspects of working with individuals or families to help people make good choices.” With the help of counselors, individuals are able to gain insight into the way they function, which can allow them to be more thoughtful and proactive and less reactive. Williams also stresses the preventive nature of the profession—how counselors help individuals sidestep unnecessary confrontation or troubling behavior. “We want to work with people before, during, and/or after an incident, but we like to focus on before.”
When it comes to being a professional listener, there can be complications. One aspect of counseling that seems to cause students some anxiety is the issue of confidentiality. “Some things are pretty straightforward,” says Williams. “If a client says he’s going to kill himself, the counselor knows to take action by possibly involving someone else.” But there are gray areas, times when clients are in emotional distress but might not be explicit about their intentions. It’s up to the counselor to determine if the person intends to harm himself or herself and whether it’s appropriate to break confidentiality.
“I’m a coach at heart,” says Williams. “I’ve played athletics my whole life, and I like that training aspect of helping someone be a better counselor. Putting someone out there, in the field, in an internship, and working with them to perfect their craft, that excites me.”
How to Create Change
- Counselors help people identify areas in their life that they want to change. We help them become more conscious of how their behavior affects them and others. We use role-playing, storytelling, group activities or even portrayals in the media to create this consciousness.
- Once we have identified something a client wants to change, we help people through a process of self-evaluation that helps clarify their values and other aspects of their lives.
- We then help people prepare for the change, which will generally have an effect on other people as well. We help provide perspective and help them determine if they are willing to commit to their change. We also help them identify the strengths that they have to draw upon to carry out the process. We try to create a realistic belief in the change.
- Once action is taken toward change, we support them throughout the process. We help them identify different resources of support, such as family members and friends. We help reinforce proactive steps toward change and modify ineffective strategies.
- We then help them maintain the change that they have implemented by identifying triggers to unhealthy behavior and creating an accountability system that helps them sustain the healthy behaviors.