Each April, the American Counseling Association designates the month as a Counseling Awareness Month. (Ironically, it kind of got overlooked in April 2020 at the chaotic and frenzied onset of the coronavirus pandemic.) The event calls attention to the valuable contributions of counselors who work in various settings- workplaces, practice offices, schools and colleges, hospitals, social service agencies and many other settings across the country.
Especially in the last tumultuous year – a year like no other – Counseling Awareness Month calls to mind how counselors have worked tirelessly helping and supporting others, encouraging them on toward their potential through these remarkably stressful times. We’ve lived through an unprecedented atmosphere of tension, anxiety and sudden societal transformations – a global pandemic and all of its cascading issues: death, grief, school closings and in-home schooling, working from home, job losses, and loss of peoples’ cherished businesses and livelihoods; social turmoil over racism and social justice; a bitterly disputed election. It was more than enough to test anyone’s resiliency, let alone the millions of Americans already managing diagnosable mental health conditions.
Let’s celebrate how counselors rose to this unwanted occasion in 2020 and 2021 to help so many people with deeply personal and sensitive issues. When celebrating them, let’s point out that several professions engage in “counseling.” All are widely recognized, all adhere to their own codes of professional ethics and conduct, all have Masters or Doctoral degrees, and all are licensed for practice by their respective states. They include professional counselors, clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, and psychologists.
First in our celebration, let’s mention how counselors made the rapid transition to the use of telemedicine- the provision of professional services from a distance using technologies like secure videoconferencing. Once thought to be as far off in the future as unlimited clean energy from fusion power or travel to the stars via warp drive, the coronavirus pandemic made telemedicine and telemental health happen rapidly last year. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most counselors did not offer services via telemental health. Today a majority do. It’s proven to be both effective for clients and convenient for both counselors and clients who don’t have to waste time commuting to an office.
A second point to celebrate about counseling is the increased recognition of the value of mental health in society and related to that, the importance of access to counseling resources. Brought home by the enforced social isolation and aforementioned stressors, this recognition is another unanticipated effect of the pandemic. An evolving process, our society seems to increasingly be aware that mental health is vital, and accessing support from a counselor can be helpful and even life changing. We are increasingly aware that none of us are immune to disruptions to our sense of wellbeing and happiness. (See my blog, Maybe It Should be National Happiness Month). Aware that our mental health is an underpinning of productive families, businesses, schools, and societies, and an asset of productive people striving to reach their human potential. This positive development, this recognition has spurred employers to look for better solutions and for behavioral health providers like Espyr to create new solutions that resonate with the themes of access, convenience and enhancing wellbeing.
One innovation Espyr’s counselors developed was a service called TalkNow®, a type of technology- assisted counseling related service. As the name implies, our counselors wanted to offer a service that would enable consumers to speak with a counselor almost immediately – without scheduling appointments or traveling to an office. (This is a service that can be especially helpful to people engaged in on-the-go occupations like professional drivers, law enforcement, college students, or farmers- people for which traditional services and access channels don’t always meet their needs.) Not therapy, not diagnostic, and not a crisis intervention program, this service helps people who have an immediate life issue or challenge that they need to talk through with an objective, trained professional. It can help people understand their issue better and determine if a diagnostic screening with a professional for counseling or therapy would be helpful.
I recently spoke with two our Espyr counselors Amy Lakhani, a Licensed Professional Counselor and Allison Thurschwell, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker about TalkNow. They explained how gratifying this program can be from a counseling perspective. Gratifying because it gives counselors the opportunity to quickly assist a client at a moment when the client is in need and motivated to learn and act. And to be educated about how to access their personal resiliency and other resources they may not be aware of. Amy and Allision also explained that sometimes these interactions result in a helpful referral for the client to a counselor for a diagnostic screening and professional services that can help the client’s wellbeing or wellbeing of their family.
Another innovation Espyr counselors have recently brought to consumers is Tess, an artificial intelligence-based chatbot. People access Tess by simply texting “her” and then engaging in texting synchronous conversations that provide immediate feedback. Tess is not a counselor. “She’s” not even a person. She’s a chatbot. The short, feminine name of Tess was simply found to be a name that is accessible and inviting to consumers.
Amy and Allison explained that there should be many options and channels for people to get support or to supplement their work with a counselor. Tess is one innovative approach that creates such a new channel. Designed by psychologists, the chatbot is based on a mainstream, evidence-based therapy approach called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. CBT is a modern counseling approach that helps people to be their own counselors and change unwanted or unhelpful behaviors by understanding the connection between faulty ways of thinking and our subsequent emotions and actions. Securely, confidentially, and anonymously interacting with Tess helps people understand their emotions and behaviors, to problem-solve real life dilemmas, and to address feelings of isolation and loneliness. Amy and Allison explained how Tess can help clients by supplementing their professional counseling, or help those who are in need of professional counseling to actually feel comfortable enough to engage with a counselor.
So, let’s honor and celebrate counselors of all professions. Let’s recognize their innovations and dedication. And more importantly, let’s celebrate the value of their work- the positive impact they make on the lives of adults, families, and children every day. Pandemic or not.
About the Author
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.
For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions – solutions like our AI powered chatbot, TESS – to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.
American Counseling Association
Telebehavioral Health Information and Counselors in Healthcare