Often as a counselor, it’s not always easy to know when I am truly being effective in helping clients live better lives. This can be difficult because clients often lie, not only about their feelings, but also about their behavior, about following through with treatment recommendations and even about getting better.
Clients often put up lots of psychological defenses and resistance that make it difficult to know how effective treatment is being. Many of them learn how to better mask their symptoms, while all the while their depression, anxiety, compulsions, etc. are still raging inside of them, causing marked distress.
Of course there are many ways a counselor can try to verify the effectiveness of treatment such as assessment tools and reaching goals set forth in treatment plans, but most clients know how to fake those as well.
One of the most powerful ways to verify if treatment is being effective is through my own observations of the client during sessions. Clients who are depressed or anxious for example, tend to display those affects during therapy and as they progress, those symptoms tend to decrease and the clients whole persona will seem to improve.
Of course there are the times when a client will tell me how much they have changed, how much I have helped them or how much better they feel from counseling. And times when teachers or parents will tell me about the improvements they have seen in a student I’ve been working with, but sadly, in the school based program I do most of my counseling at, that type of feedback isn’t as common as I would like it to be. Still, when it happens, it feels great.
For a little over a year now I’ve been working with a client we’ll call Suriyan. Suriyan came to me after she lost one of her parents suddenly. She was obviously grieving so I started working with her through her grief and put her in my grief counseling group. It was obvious almost immediately that Suriyan was grieving harder than anyone else in the group which consisted of other students her age, all whom had lost a parent within the last year.
Through individual counseling I realized that one of the reasons Suriyan was grieving so hard was because she had a pre-existing issue dealing with depression and self-injury, and on top of that, unlike the rest of the grief counseling group, her grieving is what we call complicated grief. Her parent had not only died suddenly, but she blamed her parent for dying and blamed herself for allowing her parent to die, although her parent died of a disease neither one of them had any control over. They had lots of unfinished business she was internalizing.
She felt that her parent was her best friend and had chosen to abandon her.
Suriyan initially was very resistant to counseling. She rarely participated in group and in individual sessions she would cycle between talking about her feelings, to being extremely angry, to totally shutting down. On top of that, she was cutting herself to deal with the pain and anger, and had become suicidal. She wanted to be with her parent. Her thought was, if my parent didn’t want to be here with me, why should I be here.
I was extremely worried about Suriyan, especially as the weeks went by and her depression wasn’t lifting. I was throwing everything at her, counseling wise, to try to get her to understand that she needed to let go of the anger and guilt she felt for and towards her parent. I felt like I was failing her and wanted to refer her to another counselor, but she didn’t want to see anyone else. As little as I seemed to be helping her, we had built a pretty good therapeutic relationship.
I started reading academic journals on grief, referring to other counselors for clinical advice and reading books as fast as I could to try to find new techniques, but ultimately patience on my part and time appeared to be the most effective technique.
In time her depression seemed to lift and she was able to talk about her parent’s death without placing blame on herself or her parent. She started participating in group, following my recommendations and keeping a journal to write in, which also seemed to help. By the end of last school year she had stopped cutting herself, was happier and was definitely in a better place.
Then summer came.
I tried to make sure over the summer she had access to counseling and even to me if needed, but when school started back this year she was almost even more depressed and upset about her parent’s death than when I first met her.
Now she was even more resistant to therapy, often missing appointments, yelling at me in session and walking out of sessions when I tried to get her to talk about things she was trying to avoid, like her suicidal thoughts, self-injury and how she was dealing with her parent’s death.
She would always come back, always wondering if I was mad at her or upset, which I never was. I knew her outbursts and “resistance” were also ways she was testing my claim of unconditional positive regard for her. She was suicidal again however. She had once been a highly motivated student, a senior with a dream to go to one of the top university’s in Florida, but now she claimed to not care about that or even graduating high school. She saw no point in anything.
She was also cutting herself again and one day in my office, after recently cutting herself in school and saying she wanted to kill herself, I had to have her involuntarily hospitalized. She was furious with me, but I knew at the time I had no choice and it broke my heart seeing her taken away, but I was positive I had did what was best for her.
She yelled that she would never come see me again or forgive me, but a week later she was released from the hospital and we settled back into a regular counseling routine. She was angry with me, but was actually thankful and told me that had I not had her hospitalized that day, she was positive she would have went home and killed herself.
Over the next few months we had our moments of resistance, but I wanted to continue to push her and to keep her goals in mind because I knew that once she got through this fog, she could be lost without guidance. I kept reminding her of her dreams and encouraging her to focus on the bigger picture. She is a brilliant young lady with huge aspirations that tended to get lost in the darkness of her depression.
There were some sessions when she didn’t want to talk so we worked on her college application or essay. Other times we just talked about random things, but through random conversation, we would end up talking about whatever was bothering her. In time she stopped cutting herself and her depression started lifting again. She started to focus on school although she had giving up somewhat on her dream of going to her first choice of college. I think she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to take getting rejected, but I kept encouraging her to have faith while also preparing her just in case she got rejected. Still, the Universe seemed to be smiling upon her. She was winning award after award and was even “Senior of the week” recently.
She still had her bad days like over the Christmas break, which was only her second Christmas without her parent, and she will have other bad days, but she is moving forward and smiling a lot more. On top of that, she told me this past Friday that she had just gotten an acceptance letter from her first choice university. Not only did she get accepted, her first semester and perhaps even more, are already paid for including room and board. She was so excited and I was one of the first people outside of her family that she called to tell.
I was so happy because I know how much she wanted this and what this would do for her self-esteem and the doors it will open for her future. She would not only be the first person in her family to go to college, but she is going to probably the top university in the state of Florida.
She was so thankful for, “All you have done for me. For not giving up on me and for to encouraging me to follow my dreams.” I was nearly in tears because I was so happy for her, but I was quick to remind her that everything she has done to get to this point is all her and not me. She did all of this and I was just there to help guide her, but she did all the hard work. It was important to me that she took credit for her achievement so that she would know she could achieve anything she set out to, by herself if she had to.
When I got through talking with Suriyan, I was able to sit back and see how far we had come together and say that counseling had been effective. Sure it’s not done, she still has some tough days ahead, but I’ll work with her through those days until she goes off to college and even then, I will make sure she is in contact with a good counselor and make sure she is aware of the great support groups they have on campus.
I don’t do this type of work for me, I do it to help people live their best lives so this is not about me being a good counselor. There are times when I am unsure of if I am a good or effective counselor, but there are days and clients like this, when I can look back and reflect and say, yes, I am a good counselor.