The Trayvon Martin Tragedy And Psychology, Part One: My Personal Thoughts And Experiences With Racial Profiling

trayvon_martin_dad1The Trayvon Martin trial began this week with jury selections that are proving to be difficult for multiple reasons.

The Trayvon Martin case hits home for me for many reasons, not just because I too am an African American, but because the small city this happened in, Sanford, Florida is a suburb of Orlando, the city I live in. As a matter of fact, one of the schools I was offered to transfer to is located in Sanford.

Another reason it hits home for me is because as an African American male I have faced racial profiling many times in my life, especially when I was a teenager.

When I was a young teen it was very common for me to be followed around in stores and I can remember at least twice when I was actually stopped and confronted by a store worker for “stealing” although I wasn’t. My friends and I used to have a joke that once we entered a store they would have a special code they would say over the intercom to alert them that black people were in the store.

When I was young I thought it was a necessary hassle, sometimes I even thought it was funny because the store clerks would try not to be obvious, but they were always obvious to me. I was, even at a young age always aware however that I was seen a a criminal and “guilty” even though I had committed no crimes.

As an older teen things got worse, but still, being a teenager I didn’t take it personal and even thought it was funny at times.

Driving my mother’s car, on a weekly basis I would get pulled over, sometimes searched, but always inconvenienced for absolutely no reason.

I remember my friends and I would go to Dennys and sometimes be there for an hour or longer before we were ever even asked what we wanted to order. At the time I didn’t think anything of it other than bad service, but when I got older, I learned about the discriminatory practices Dennys used in some locations to deter African American customers and have no doubt that is what was going on then, we just didn’t know it.

Being harassed by the police was so common that I started to feel like a criminal whenever I saw one, expecting them to stop and search me for no reason which sometimes they did.

In particularly I remember an incident in which I went to visit with some friends in a gated community and decided to take a walk around the block. Well I didn’t even get half way around the block before I was approached by security and asked what was I doing there. He stated that someone had called about a suspicious person in the neighborhood. I couldn’t help, but to think that the only thing that truly made me suspicious was my skin color, because unlike Trayvon Martin I wasn’t wearing a hoodie and it was daylight out.

The Trayvon Martin case hits so close to home because I, like millions of other black and brown men around our country can identify with his situation. I don’t want to go into detail here because I don’t know all the details, but what I do know is what we know from Mr. Zimmerman himself.

He saw Trayvon Martin and for whatever reason thought that he was up to no good. We know that Trayvon was doing nothing wrong, yet he was viewed as a criminal and guilty automatically, much like I have been multiple times in my life.

For this reason, I will write a bigger, more in-depth article behind some of the psychological reasons I believe this tragic incident happened.

As a young African American male, I took the harassment by store clerks and law enforcement as a necessary price I had to pay for being young and black. I didn’t take it personal, but as I got older and became a college educated adult with a professional job, on the rare occasions I felt harassed because of my skin color, I no longer found it funny or necessary, but extremely irritating and degrading.

About two years ago on my way to work, dressed in a shirt and tie I got pulled over by a police officer. I actually knew he was going to pull me over before he did it because it was just him and me on the road. I didn’t mind the stop because I knew I didn’t do anything wrong and after checking my license and verifying I had no warrants, instead of letting me go he asked me if I had any guns and drugs in the car and if I minded if he searched it.

I was shocked, largely because I had assumed that this type of harassment would stop when I got older and certainly once I went to college and became a professional, but it didn’t, it just became less frequent.

About four months ago I was pulled over by an undercover truck with four police officers, asking me again if I had drugs and guns. It was only when one of the officers recognized me that they eased up and immediately let me go. It was dark and if I had mistakenly took this undercover stop as a carjacking (which I initially was afraid it was) it could have ended tragically for me.

Just yesterday on Facebook, a friend of mine and a successful store manager wrote jokingly, “The first time not getting pulled over for being black I get 2 tickets. I think I prefer them holding me at gunpoint and searching for guns and drugs, it’s cheaper.”

The Trayvon Martin case resonates with me because it could have easily been me or one day, my son.

I think this unfortunate situation has a lot to teach us not just about race relations, but about the way we receive and perceive information through our minds based on preconceived notions which we will explore in my next post.

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One Teens Attempted Suicide

Today I got one of those out of the blue phone calls that I dread. I was out of the office preparing files for an upcoming audit when I got an email from one of the teachers at the school I work at asking me to call her as soon as possible.

There’s always a lot going on at the school, but I assumed she wanted to ask me for advice with dealing with one of her students or to refer a student to me for counseling. I called her and she informed me that one of my students was in the hospital in critical condition after attempting suicide the night before.

I almost cried. I know that’s not the professional way I was supposed to feel, but I am human and have passion for my clients. Sometimes too much, but that feeling felt appropriate. I have never (fingers crossed) had a client actually commit suicide, but I know it’s always a possiblity. I’ve done crisis counseling at enough schools after a teen has committed suicide to know that it happens all too often. As a matter of fact, 3 weeks ago a student at a high school not too far from the one I work at killed herself.

It’s not that this is the first client of mine to attempt suicide, but this is probably the first client of mine to make a serious suicide attempt. I don’t want to underplay any suicide attempt, but I have had many clients who have made superficial lacerations to their wrists or took three ibuprofens in a “suicide attempt”. Most never needed to go to a medical hospital for medical attention.

Sure, I had to have them sent to the psychiatric hospital because they were having suicidal thoughts and any attempt has to be taken seriously, but it never shocked me because I knew that while they were hurting emotionally and psychologically, they didn’t want to die. They wanted help, they wanted people to see and know that they were hurting, but they didn’t really want to die. The fear in that though is that they could accidentally kill themselves.

This situation was different for a number of reasons.

1) I was very close to this client. I had been working with this particular client for almost two years helping him get through depression, grief and anxiety. I actually tried to become more of his mentor than his counselor because that’s what I felt like he needed most as a young man approaching adult hood.
2) A few months ago this particular client came to me and told me that they were seriously thinking about ending their life. I had him admitted to the psychiatric hospital where he was prescribed medication for anxiety and depression. I was surprised and scared that he didn’t come to me this time before he tried to take his life.
3) He had a lot to look forward to. He was graduating after almost not qualifying to graduate. I had just giving him a graduation card saying that I was excited for him about his future.
4) And lastly, I had just saw this client the day before and he was his normal, apathetic self. I saw no warning signs that less than 24 hours later he would take 3 months worth of medication all at once.
5) While all suicidal talk, gestures and attempts have to be taken seriously, from personal experience, the teens that actually kill themselves do so with little real warning. Some may tell all their friends that they love them, or apologize for past wrongs, but from the crisis counseling I’ve done at different schools after a student has committed suicide, there is rarely any apparent warning signs yet in hindsight, grieving students, faculty and parents usually see subtle signs that they missed.

His mother found him in his room, unresponsive and called 911. He was rushed to the hospital where a host of procedures were done to save his life. When I went to the hospital to see him he was still unresponsive, a result of all the medication he had taken, but the doctor was pretty sure he would make a full recovery… physically.

The fear is, when he finally comes to, is he going to be happy that he’s still alive, or disappointed that he failed to end his life?

That’s why I want to be there for him. I stayed with him in the hospital today for as long as I could, but the hospital staff that was in charge of sitting with him around the clock because he is on suicide watch, told me that it would be at least another day or two before they expected him to start coming around.

I don’t feel like I failed as a counselor. That’s one of the first questions I asked myself. I think that the reason it bothers me so much is because he is my client and I feel a sense of responsibility for him, although I know I can’t be responsible for the decisions he makes.

Looking at him laying in the hospital today was depressing. At times he looked dead except for the frequent rapid eye movement visible through his closed lids. I just hope that when he comes to that he realizes that he is alive for a purpose and rejoices in attempting to discover what that purpose is. I’ll definitely be here to help him anyway I can.

My Journey To Becoming A Therapist

couch_wide-eb7410d70ac8d556c8331f723e49c918ec26f2dd-s6-c10“What made you want to become a therapist?” That’s one of the most frequent questions I get asked by adults, many who marvel at me as if the ability to sit with, empathize, listen to and accept someone just as they are is some mystical superpower bestowed upon a select few.

Many follow that question by saying that they wouldn’t be able to deal with talking with “crazy people” or emotionally disturbed children all day without going crazy themselves, even saying that they can’t  deal with their own children, friends or family members when they are angry, sad or being irrational.

There was a time when I thought that counseling was something any and everyone could do, but now I know that not everyone can or should be a therapist. I’ve met some very bad therapists, people who may have had the education and credentials to counsel people, but definitely didn’t have the heart, patience or personality that is just as important if not more so.

Thankfully, most of these counselors learned pretty quickly that sitting down and helping someone unravel the complexities of their lives weren’t for them and ended up either getting out of the helping profession all together or moved to a part of the field that was less people oriented, such as working for insurance companies or becoming program directors.

I’ve witnessed teachers, administrators and other professional adults with good intentions do some very bad counseling. Some even made me cringe at either their bad advice, judgmental attitudes or total lack of empathy and I honestly was very thankful and relieved that these individuals weren’t officially counselors.

Being a therapist pretty much comes natural to me. Growing up I was always a very intuitive, carrying and empathetic person. I was always in touch with my feelings and would spend ours alone just trying to figure out why I felt a certain way. That curiosity soon lead to wandering why other people felt certain ways and why they did or didn’t do certain things. People watching became one of my favorite past-times.

In high school I was the person that girls would call and talk to about their problems with their parents, friends or boyfriends. I enjoyed helping them figure out and solve their problems  just as I enjoyed sitting in deep reflection about my own. I was probably one of the only boys in my high school that keep a journal and read self-help books.

Still, at that time I wasn’t even thinking about becoming a counselor. At that time I was interested in becoming a writer, an artist, a dentist or a meteorologist.

In college I decided I wanted to lean towards becoming a writer or an English teacher. I enjoyed writing just as I do today and it was writing that lead me to psychology. I was always interested in making my characters real and multi-dimensional which lead me to reading books on character development and eventually personalities and personality disorders.

There I found my love for psychology.

Soon I started taking every psychology course I could because I found it interested, but even more so because it helped with my writing. This is where I came in contact with Dr. Skinner who was not only my favorite psychology professor, but also became one of my first and most important mentor. He was always encouraging me to further my education in psychology which is one of the main reasons I decided to go on to graduate school.

In graduate school I initially was going to become a guidance counselor because I wanted to work with teenagers, but after taking all the courses required for guidance counseling, I still felt a hunger to learn more about psychology and counseling in general and so I transferred to the counseling and psychology track which was a lot of hard work when it came to reading, writing papers and giving presentations almost constantly.

It was learning the stuff I loved which is why I maintained a 4.0 throughout graduate school while working as a substitute teacher.

It was in graduate school that I started doing official counseling, and I was terrified!  To graduate from the program you had to do a 1,000 hour internship, not with friends or people I already knew, but complete strangers. To make it worst, I knew that I never wanted to be a substance abuse counselor and yet, my internship was at an inpatient substance abuse facility. I was determined to hate it.

I grew up in an inner-city neighborhood. I grew up around drug addicts. I already had my prejudices about people who used drugs and didn’t want to have to deal with them more than I already had growing up.

My dad also had struggled with substance addiction pretty much my whole life. He had been in and out of numerous treatment facilities and I had decided that substance abuse counseling just didn’t work. I tried my hardest to get my internship site changed, but couldn’t.

By the end of my 1,000 hour internship filled with individual, group and family counseling, I had a new respect for those who struggle with addictions and their families. I met people who had been trying to get sober since the 1970s! I met a popular high school football coach who gave up everything, his wife, kids and his prized job for alcohol.

I met women, mothers and daughters, so addicted to drugs and alcohol that their families had them committed to treatment and they were some of the sweetest women you could ever meet, who struggled everyday to control their cravings and stay clean.

Sure it was hard work, sometimes frustrating, disappointing and hard breaking (relapse is a b*tch), but it helped me deal with one of my own demons… it helped me understand my father and his battle with addiction so much better. It allowed me to forgive him.

After graduating I moved on from addiction counseling, perhaps it was still too close to home, and went to work in a psychiatric hospital. I always wanted to work with the severely mentally ill. dsmiv-c317a8bc457aaab1c0fb6b1a1de2b813d655dd09-s6-c10

In the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) taught to us in school, I had learned so much about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other conditions that are rarely seen, yet I wanted to experience them face to face.

I spent three years working overnight in the psychiatric hospital giving psychological evaluations and crisis counseling to some of the most fascinating people ever.

I’ll never forget talking to a rather lucid schizophrenic woman who was having visual hallucinations. She gave me the best explanation of visual hallucinations ever, better than any professor or textbook I had ever read.

I remember trying to calm down a paranoid schizophrenic woman who was shaking like a leaf because she believed a killer was locked in the hospital with us and was specifically trying to kill her.

And I remember giving an evaluation to a tomato red faced woman (all the blood vessels in her face had broken) who had just been released from the hospital after trying to hang herself after finding out her husband was cheating on her.

So many experiences came from my time there, but I knew I was missing out on truly developing my counseling skills. One of my goals was to become a licensed mental health counselor, which is a whole lot of extra work after graduate school and I believed to be a great therapist, I had to know how to not only assess, diagnose and do crisis counseling, but also how to do more traditional counseling with clients who had more everyday type problem.

I still longed to work with children as well so I left the hospital and started working at an inner city high school, focusing mainly on anger management and substance abuse, but soon my job description expanded to include pretty much any and everything that stood in a child’s way of being able to concentrate and focus on their school work.

This is where I learned to work with defiant teens, broken families, damaged teens and teens who just needed someone to guide, care for and encourage them. This is where I saw our future, both promising and disheartening.

While here I also attained my goal of becoming a licensed mental health counselor and continue to learn every single day.

One of the most important things I learned is self-care and to take breaks for myself. Carrying the weight of so many other peoples problems can sneak up on you and break you down before you know it. Sometimes when people know you are a counselor, they will purposely or inadvertently dump their problems on you and that includes family and friends. It becomes important to take the counseling hat off sometimes and if that means going and sitting some place alone, then that’s what I will do.

Being a counselor/therapist is a very rewarding career, but it is probably one of the most mentally and emotionally draining careers I can think of. I enjoy the skills I have developed to analyze people, to read body languages and to be able to already have some ideal what’s going on with a person before he or she even says a word, but sometimes it’s hard to turn that off which sometimes impact my personal life.

One minute a friend will be asking me for advice or wanting to talk to me about a problem, but they don’t want me to “counsel” them. Then the next minute when I make a statement, they will stay “get out of my head” or “stop analyzing me”.

Sometimes I am more comfortable when I am in the counseling role and I will find myself retreating to that mode whenever I am uncomfortable or meeting someone new… not always a good thing. I realize it’s a defense mechanism I use where I limit the amount of information a person knows about me while I gain tons of information about them. That isn’t really fair, but I do it all the time and most people are so happy to talk about themselves that they never call me out on or even notice it.

Lastly, another thing I’ve learned is that being authentic with someone… being present with them and actively listening does miracles. There’s been times when I listened to someone and was present with them, but had no real ideal what to do or say, and after our session they were so grateful to me for listening to and helping them. It’s amazing. Sometimes I didn’t even say a word and yet they would be so grateful. That’s why I stress so much on listening, rather than talking in this blog. I believe that listening sometimes solves more problems than talking, lecturing or berating someone.

My Fears About What The Sequester Means For Those In Need

Sequester-resultsI am not a politician and generally pay attention to politics just enough to know what I need to in order to be informed about the world around me, but this sequester has me concerned for a few reasons.

The number one reason is that whenever there are cuts, it seems like the people and places that need the most funding, are the first to lose funding and to feel it the most: the poor, the young, the disabled and the elderly.

About two years ago the state I live in had some major budget cuts that hit the mental health and substance abuse field hard.

In the company I work for, whole programs were shut down including precious juvenile justice and treatment programs. In the program I work in, we lost a handful of good counselors causing several schools to either be without a dedicated mental health/substance abuse counselor or for one counselor to have to split days between two schools when in actuality, most high schools could benefit from two full time mental health/substance abuse counselors on campus.

Nobody was happy about this. Not the counselors, the students or the schools, but due to budget cuts, we all had to find away to survive, as messy as it was. And now here we go again.

I am a mental health counselor, so of course I am always concerned about not only how budget cuts will effect me, but how they will effect society at large.

We were just having a big discussion about gun control and mental health reform a few weeks ago, yet according the the White House, an estimated 373,000 “seriously mentally ill” people may be without care. Where does that lead these people, many who need counseling, housing and medication to keep them from harming themselves or others.

Other programs that are subject to cuts that personally bother me include cuts to aid for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), because I know many of my clients and students are on these programs and I know many of them need these programs to be able to keep the lights on in their apartments and food on the table. Most people don’t want to be on these programs, contrary to popular belief, but are on these programs because they need assistance.

On top of that, public housing may be cut by$1.94 billion. Working in an inner-city high school, I know that many of my students benefit from public housing, what does that mean for them and their families? Does that mean they may have to move back in to an overcrowded house with the child molesting uncle, or does it mean they will be homeless.

Speaking of homeless, other programs such as rental assistance and homeless programs are on the chopping blocks. Many of these people have fallen on hard times and are unemployed, did I mention unemployment checks will probably get smaller also?

A program called Head Start that many lower income and inner-city kids need to be able to make up for lack of early exposure to proper education, something that can change the course of a child’s life forever, may get cut by $406 million, which could mean 70,000 kids won’t have access to the program. That’s 70,000 kids that will be robbed of priceless early education experiences.

Special education may be cut by $840 million. I spent some time working in special education, especially with kids with autism and know the hard work and extra funding those kids need, not less.

There are a host of other programs that will be facing budget cuts, but these are the programs that are most near and dear to my heart because of the type of work I do and the population I deal with.

I wish that the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the“Supercommittee”) and Congress would sincerely realize that behind the numbers,  figures and politics, are real people with real needs,  just trying to survive.

I’ve Been Nominated For The Very Inspiring Blogger Award!

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Wow, thank you so much Rachna for nominating me for this awesome award! Make sure you check out her blog, she is an awesome writer and a dynamic, inspiring person.

It definitely feels good to be recognized by fellow bloggers in the blogosphere.

I’ve always enjoyed writing and have been trying unsuccessfully for several years to blog consistently, but last year after speaking with friend and successful blogger and author,  J.R. Ramoutar, he gave me the motivation and advice needed to truly enjoy blogging and to be consistent.

Guidelines for Accepting this Award:

  1. Create a post and reveal 7 things about yourself.
  2. Post the blog award on your site, indicate who nominated you.
  3. Present the award to up to 15 bloggers that inspire you and include links to their blogs in your post.

Things About Me

  1. I am a lousy dancer. I can’t dance. That always seems to amaze people and I am always amazed that they thought I could dance in the first place! After all, I don’t think I even look coordinated or graceful enough to dance.
  2. I love animals of all kind. I have a dog and a cat, but have had ducks, chickens, turtles, hamsters, parakeets and iguanas as a child. I’ve been bitten by many different animals, including a snake (I had socks on my hands for protection lol) and even a mole!
  3. I have a hard time letting go of things, including items, relationships and even jobs, which often keeps me holding on to things far too long.
  4. I’ve been known to cry during emotional movies, speeches and music although I typically hide it because I am usually the only one tearing up, but I get that from my mother.
  5. I am very unorganized in everything I do, including thinking! It’s the artist in me, I know it. I live in chaos which is usually okay and helps sparks creativity,  except when people around me expect me to be organized.
  6. I fell in love with books during the 8th grade when I was harassing a girl I liked and took her book. I meant to give it back, but never did. I got bored one day and started reading it and that was it! I became an avid reader from that day forward even when reading books that weren’t assigned to you wasn’t considered cool for boys.
  7. I got into psychology through my writing. I love to write, especially fiction and I used to go to the bookstore and read psychology books to try to create better, more dynamic characters, and I took my first psychology courses in college for the same reason. I was planning on being an English major, but I ended up falling in love with psychology.

My Nominations

J.R. Ramoutar
Planted Oak
97 Social Worker
Kimberly Hennessy
Terry1954
NhanFiction
Healing From My Husbands Affair
The Truth Warrior

**I’m sure there are some wonderful bloggers out there that I missed**

STDs and Pregnancy Scares: My Week In Review

immigration.istock-e1335353696609Last week was a super busy and crazy week. It seemed like I couldn’t get a handle on anything. On top of the many clients I already see, the referrals were pouring in and I only got a chance to meet with a couple of those, the most serious ones, two girls who had attempted suicide recently and had been hospitalized.

I met with both of them once and just kind of introduced myself, explained what counseling was and wasn’t since neither one of them had ever been in counseling before, and then started trying to build rapport with them. Both are very damaged young ladies, but I think we all are to some extent. They both, just from their presence, scream some type of past history of abuse to me, and one is living with a parent with a severe mental illness and drug addiction, so you can imagine the affects that will have on a teenager.

Besides that I had two clients that thought they might be pregnant. One is 17 and one is 16 and the sad thing is, as much as they say they don’t want to be pregnant, I think they really do want to be pregnant because neither one of them are doing anything to prevent becoming pregnant. If they aren’t pregnant, then it’s probably only a short matter of time before they will be.

Neither of them are mentally mature enough to be mothers, despite their biological maturation. One is really naive and I am sure she thinks that being pregnant will make the boy she’s sleeping with (who is not her boyfriend) commit to her. The other has severe low-self esteem and is very emotionally unstable, she says she is ready to be a mother, but mentally she acts about two years below her chronological age.

Talking to these young ladies, it’s clear that neither one of them have any idea of the dedication and sacrifice that goes into being a parent, but they don’t see a baby as a responsibility, but as a solution to one problem or another.

Still on the topic of teenage sex, another female client came to me crying because she thinks she may have a sexually transmitted disease. I referred her to the school nurse and then to a community clinic since she doesn’t want her mother to know.

This girl is very sexually active and at 16, claims she has had about 20 sexual partners. She doesn’t open up much, but I am working on helping her build her self-esteem and I am almost 100% sure that there is a history of sexual abuse, but she hasn’t disclosed that as of yet. She talks a lot about her mother, whom I haven’t met yet, but from what the she says, her mother seems to be just as promiscuous and I am sure that affects this client’s behavior and relationships with males.

We did talk about her father whom she felt abandoned her when she was young and I think that explains at least in part why she is always trying to be with one guy or several. That on top of her mother’s influences on her and her low self-esteem (she once told me that the only thing she likes about herself was her hair), all contribute to her risky sexual behavior.

She’s supposed to go to the clinic this week so hopefully she’ll find out that everything is okay or at least is treatable.

And then on Friday, while I was facilitating a group, I looked up and saw two female sheriff detectives standing at my door. I was immediately dismayed because I had no idea what they wanted to talk to me about. Ends up, one of my clients reported being sexually abused and the detectives were there to ask me what I knew about it.

It initially felt a little intimidating, like an interrogation because none of the answers I gave them seemed to be concise enough, and they kept pushing, but I was treading on giving them information I knew I legally and ethically should give them while also respecting my clients confidentiality by not giving them information unrelated/unnecessary to  their investigation.

In the end I think I did both well, but it was definitely an experience. It was my first time ever having to deal with detectives in that manner although I make suspected abuse and neglect calls to child services all the time.

That was a rather stressful way to end the week on top of everything else, but I left work on Friday and ran four miles with one a friend which was a great way to distress while venting. Taking care of yourself physically, mentally and spiritually is a must in the helping professions or you’ll succumb to burnout and compassion fatigue, places I know all too well and try to prevent with every fiber of my being through self-care, which is sometimes easier said then done.

Am I An Effective Counselor? A Case Example On Counselor Effectiveness And Struggles When Working With A Client

college-student1Often 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.

Case Example

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.

New Years Resolutions

IStock-New-YearsIf you are like me, every New Year you make a list of resolutions, a list of behaviors, attitudes and other changes you would like to see in your life, and each year you fail to keep any of them.

I don’t even remember what my New Year’s resolutions were last year, but the top three New Years resolutions are:

  • starting to exercise
  • eating better
  • reducing the use of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, etc.

I’m pretty sure part of my New Years resolution last year included all of those three things including the reduction of caffeine/diet sodas and I can tell you I didn’t succeed in any of them.

Most people who make New Years resolutions, 75% fail on their first attempt to make changes and most people make more than one goal.

Why do people make New Years resolutions and how successful are they likely to be?

Researchers Mukhopadhyay and Johar (2005) did some research on the psychology of resolutions.

They found that people who believe that self-control is dynamic, unlimited and changing, are more likely to set more than one resolution (i.e., “I can lose weight, stop drinking and go back to school, it just takes willpower.”).

They found out that people who believe that we all have a limited amount of self-control that can’t be changed (i.e., “I’m fat because my mother was fat, I can’t change that” or “I smoke because my father smoked, it’s in our blood”) and those who have little confidence in their ability to carry out their goals (low self-efficacy) do a lot worse on achieving their resolutions.

High self-efficacy correlated to a higher likely hood of a person achieving their New Years resolutions and goals in general.

People with high self-efficacy tend to attribute their failure to achieve something as a lack of effort on their part, while people with low self-efficacy tend to attribute failure to lack of ability.

People who are made to believe that self-control is a fixed or limited resource that they can’t change, made fewer resolutions and gave up on them faster, regardless of their level of self-efficacy.

What does this mean? That if you believe that self-control is an unlimited resource that we all have access to and it can help you with your goals/resolutions, you will do better at achieving them. The more you believe in your own abilities (self-efficacy), the better you will do also.

Setting MORE goals/resolutions also seems to help because you will be more likely to succeed at them, while people who set a small number of goals usually go into it expecting to fail either consciously or unconsciously, and thus create a self-fulfilling prophesy to fail.

Researchers also say having the actual skills to make the changes you want to see in your life is helpful.

If you want to lose weight, do you actually know how? Have you done the research? If you want to save money for example, do the research ahead of time, it will make it easier for you to actually achieve that goal.

Being ready to change also helps of course.calvin-hobbes-new-years-resolutions-572x433

Some people say that they are ready to change, when they really aren’t and then are surprised when they fail at making the change they said they wanted to make.

There’s a whole psychology orientation called Motivational Interviewing that is about preparing people to make changes in their life.

Miller and Marlatt (1998) also suggest to:

  • Have a strong initial commitment to make a change.
  • Have coping strategies to deal with problems that will come up.
  • Keep track of your progress. The more monitoring you do and feedback you get, the better you will do.

Ingredients for setting yourself up for failure:

  • Not thinking about making resolutions until the last minute.
  • Reacting on New Year’s Eve and making your resolutions based on what’s bothering you or is on your mind at the time.
  • Framing your resolutions in absolutes (i.e., “I will never do ‘x’ or ‘y’ again.”).

Good luck with all your New Year’s resolutions. Mine include exercising more, eating better and losing weight. How original, I know, but I am going to use everything I talked about in this post to help me achieve those goals and hopefully you will too.

The End Of A Long Week

GETTY_H_030811_SadDepressedYouthTeenI recently just heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and I feel so stuck in a box right now because I am still at the high school I work at and can’t get access to television.

 

Yes I can read it and see pictures on the internet, but it is not the same.

I’ve been busy myself this week with a number of suicidal kids, one suicide attempt and now I am watching a suicidal teenager (yes while writing this) as we wait for a sheriff deputy to come so I can brief them on what’s going on and have them take him to the local psychiatric hospital.

It’s been one of those weeks.

This particular client is hearing voices, has been so for about a year, the same amount of time he has been getting headaches, so I think it’s possible his hearing voices could be medically based.

He’s also states he’s been depressed since he was 8 years old so it’s possible his depression is causing his auditory hallucinations as well.

I don’t know, all I know is that I would like for him to get a full medical evaluation and kept safe from harming himself for the moment, which aren’t things that can be done here so I have to refer him and his family to places where that can be done.

Talking this his family on the phone, they knew that he has been complaining of hearing voices, but never thought enough of it to try to get him help.

Once again, there goes the whole denial of mental illness again.

It’s torturous, almost abusive to deny help to a kid hearing voices that are irritating him, causing him not to be able to concentrate or focus, and causing him to yell out things like “shut up” in the middle of church (talking to the voices).

So on the phone when the family said, “Oh, he’s been hearing voices for awhile”, I stressed to them the immediate importance that he get evaluated if they didn’t want to find him dead over the weekend due to killing himself.

A little shock therapy? Maybe, but I can’t take the chance on this young man killing himself because he is so depressed and can’t take hearing the voices in his head any more. Sure, many people hear voices and aren’t suicidal, but this kid is.

Many times in the school I work at, parents seem to be mis-educated or plain ignorant about mental illness and suicide. They don’t want to talk about it and definitely don’t want to get help about it most of the time, unless it’s going to get them a disability check.

Even then, they will go to the therapist/psychiatrist as needed, get on the medication if needed to fulfill the disability check status, and then either don’t get the prescriptions filled or stop giving it to their kids after the first refill or two.

So many kids I work with have been prescribed medication for depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia, but haven’t taken medication in almost a year.

Now, I am not a big proponent of psychotropic medication, only referring families for medication evaluations when I think it is absolutely necessary, but these teenagers I am talking about, when not on their medication, are out of control.

These are the kids that are attempting suicide, so depressed that they can’t function, so anxious that they can’t go a whole week without being taking off campus in an ambulance for having a severe panic attack and driving their fellow classmates and teachers crazy with their erratic behavior.

These are the kids that need medication, because no amount of counseling can correct something that is largely chemically based. Yes I can work with them and help them learn to cope better, but if they are so out of it that they can’t take in or practice what I teach them, then counseling won’t work alone.

I guess I should have been prepared for this week and next week. Unfortunately, along with all the blessings of the season, this is also the time of year when we see an increase in student suicidal ideation (thoughts) and child abuse.

My clients, your kids, your students need us to be vigilant and responsive to their signs of distress.

This is not the post I attended on writing today, but maybe I just needed to vent a little. After multiple suicidal kids and just a frantic week of tense, emotionally and mentally unstable clients, I’m looking forward to the weekend.

It’s my time to recharge myself, refill my emotional energy so that I can stay healthy myself, be there for those around me and give it all up again next week.

Abuse Reports And Pregnancy Scares: My Week In Review

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This week went by really fast, although it was tiresome and very busy, picking up where last week left off.

Last Friday I had to have a suicidal student Baker Acted (Florida’s statute for involuntary examination/hospitalization), with five minutes of school left, which meant I had to deal with law enforcement and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) for two hours afterwards.

Not the best way to start my weekend.

This week wasn’t as dramatic, but I still had to call DCF on three cases for suspected physical abuse, suspected medical neglect and suspected sexual abuse.

I don’t know why, but I am still at times amazed at the amount of damage done to our kids at the hands of those who are supposed to love, support and watch over them.

Making DCF reports or Baker Acting a client is never the easiest thing to do. Often times clients are initially angry, or scared, but many times they are relieved to finally be getting help, and more often than not, after it’s all over with, they are grateful someone cared enough to get them help.

I even had a mother come in to try to assure me that her daughter is not being abused by her husband, but I tend to believe what her daughter is telling me and will support the daughter psychologically while DCF does their own investigation.

I also had three of my female clients this week tell me that they thought they were pregnant.

I always hate hearing this because I know the affect having a child can have on these inner-city young girls who have enough to overcome already.

Most of the times these young girls think that they can get pregnant and nothing in their lives will change. I remind them that every girl that was in my program last year that got pregnant have dropped out of school.

I was saddened also that these three young girls, all good and intelligent students, weren’t using protection and are potentially pregnant by guys that aren’t even their boyfriends.

It’s one thing to be pregnant by a boy who is supposed to be committed to them, but it’s another thing for a young girl to be pregnant by a boy who has no commitment to them at all.

“Hooking up” seems to be the thing with this generation, in which teens are more likely to have no-strings-attached, physical relationships that could include anything from kissing to intercourse.

Friends with benefits definitely seems to be more popular than actual dating, at least on the campus I work at.

These girls I am referring to, of course really like these boys and want to be with them in a monogamous relationship, but are willing to accept the friends with benefit role, which gives these boys no real reason to commit and give the girl what she truly wants, a relationship with a guy that cares for only her.

These young girls, as much as they would hate to admit it, aren’t emotionally prepared for no-strings attached sex as well as they think, which is one reason many of them are so angry, depressed, emotional and unhappy.

They are clueless about the connection between the body, the heart and the mind.

Luckily, so far one out of the three girls I mentioned has found out she is not pregnant, while the other two are too afraid to take pregnancy tests or go to their family doctor, so they are practicing the wait, see, and pray method.

Two of the girls asked me if I was mad at them (I’ve counseled them numerous times about self-esteem, self-respect, abstinence and using protection if they are going to be sexually active).

I told  them that I wasn’t mad and that I never get mad at them, because it’s true. I did admit to them that I was a bit disappointed in them, because that too is true.

I still care for them and support them unconditionally, even when I don’t like the decisions they’ve made..

Hopefully in the next few days, the other two girls will find out if they are pregnant or not so I can either help them learn to prevent this from happening again anytime soon, or help them prepare to be the best teenage mothers they can be.