From Orientation to Graduation: The Formation and Counselor Identity Development of Mental Health Counseling Students

Formation as Counselor Identity Development

Upon setting foot on the Seminary of the Southwest (SSW) campus, it is clear that one has entered a special and sacred space. One of the intangible things that makes SSW so special is that it is the holding space where formation and therefore change and growth actively occurs. Students encounter many things and persons that develop their burgeoning identity as a Counselor in Training (CIT). Some of the influential components that aide in counselor identity development include class content and assignments, discussions with peers and professors, clinical experiences with clients and supervisors, and the personal and spiritual work that occurs throughout the lifespan of the graduate program. This blog will explore in more depth some of the components that contribute to SSW students’ counselor identity development, or more aptly called the formation process.

Formed by Time (Identity Development through Matriculation)

Students in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program begin their program with New Student Orientation and are often filled with hope, expectation, and excitement about embarking on a career as a helping professional. They soon get into the thick of the program as they take multiple classes that span an array of topics which allow for the understanding of human behavior (spanning from wellness to pathology) such as: family systems, psychopathology, ethics, human development, and social/cultural/diversity just to name a few.

Through engagement in class discussion and delving into the research of current literature, students begin to understand the field of mental health counseling and begin to understand themselves in that context as a CIT. They then have the opportunity to put their knowledge into practice as they develop their skills in clinical practicum and internship experiences at the end of their graduate journey. These clinical experiences allow for a summative accumulation of learning that solidifies into a firm foundation as students reach graduation and begin their journey as a new professional.

Gibson, Dollarhide, and Moss (2011) identified three transformational tasks of professional identity development that CITs go through in their graduate programs. “Tasks include [1] finding a personal definition of counseling, [2] internalizing responsibility for professional growth, and [3] developing a systemic identity — all simultaneously manifesting as students progress from focus on experts to self-validation” (Gibson et al., 2011, p.21). Throughout the course of time, CITs work on achieving the three identified transformational tasks and as they do so they shift from being dependent on expert opinion (i.e. professors, supervisors) to finding their own internal expertise and opinion (i.e. being more autonomous and developing a peer based support system of colleagues).

Formed by Interpersonal Interactions with Others

One of the great components of formation for CITs is the development of comradery with others. Students enter into a safe space to share, agree, disagree, listen, and learn from each other. Each person brings their own personal wisdom to every interaction. That wisdom is respected and valued, but also encouraged to grow from engaging with the wisdom of others. CITs engage with other peers, advisors, professors, community leaders, professionals in the field, supervisors, clients, and people within their own personal circle of community (i.e. family & friends).

The learning that occurs in this interpersonal context is so crucial because a bulk of the work done in counseling is based on the therapeutic relationship. We learn about ourselves through our interactions and relationships with others. Students are formed as they become aware of how others interact, but most importantly they are formed as they discover the precious realization of how they themselves interact with others. This realization often sparks the unique work required of the counseling field: to be aware of the intrapersonal (the things that occur within oneself).

Formed by Intrapersonal Growth

Students at SSW are equipped to provide holistic support to future clients which includes attending to the mind (cognition), body (somatic), heart (affect), and soul (multicultural intersectionality). Part of attending to multicultural intersectionality includes an ability to navigate spirituality with the client to the extent of the client’s comfort and the clinician’s competency. In order to help others do this difficult work, CITs must be both open and self-aware to understand their own holistic self. Personal and spiritual growth is an essential part of the counselor identity development of CITs especially at SSW.

Students who embark on the journey of becoming a mental health counselor require the courage to truly see themselves (the light and the shadow), to engage in their own therapy, and to be able to articulate what is meaningful and sacred to them. SSW students learn to identify their own biases and to work on their blind spots in order to understand what it is they are asking of their future clients. Understanding oneself allows CITs to develop a clearer understanding of their clients. Personal and spiritual growth also brings to the forefront the importance of wellness and well-being to the work of mental health counseling; requiring CITs to intentionally engage in self-care.

At SSW, we take the formation of spiritual wellness seriously and help students to discern how they can incorporate more ways in which they can include what brings meaning into their lives on a consistent basis. We understand that graduate school is time consuming, especially while working and navigating the diverse experiences that life brings. We also recognize that it is the best time to practice nourishing personal and spiritual wellness as a practice that will prevent burnout and promote resilience throughout one’s professional lifespan.

Here at SSW, CITs are formed by time, by others interpersonally, and by themselves intrapersonally through the work of personal and spiritual growth. Our graduates are exceptional and it is a privilege and honor to witness the journey where the transformation of formation and counselor identity development occurs.

References:

Gibson, D.M., Dollarhide, C.T., & Moss, J.M. (2010). Professional identity development: A grounded theory of transformational tasks of new counselors. Counselor Education & Supervision, 50, 21–38. Retrieved from: http://www.acesonline.net/ces-journal

Reflective Questions:

In what areas do you see yourself growing if you were to pursue a counseling degree?

How have you seen yourself contribute to the formation of others interpersonally?

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