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Psychology: Counseling - Solution or Problem?

The idea of providing counseling is held by many societies as a means to provide advice to people who are experiencing difficulties. The advice is often framed as a means to develop a plan of action to help overcome problems. In a CNN article called School Counselors Stetched Thin we read yet another article that insipidly describes a looming crisis on the horizon. This crisis is the lack of counselors to support the increasing number of student issues and problems in the school system. Safe to say that the role of the counselor in school, and society in general, is an important one that we have enbraced for centuries, yet articles like these are so narrow in focus as to render the message ineffective...

My own experience as an educator, but more importantly my own daughter's experiences as a victim of bullying have lead me to the conclusion that counseling, as it is applied in the school system, is ineffective and in some cases a contributory factor to the problems themselves. None of this is to say, of course, that counselors are intentionally acting as the cause of problems (although much of the so-called "self-help" industry seems little more than an shameful attempt to profit from people's problems) or that they are not dedicated people who are working hard to help people. I believe they are. At the same time, the role of the counselor is marginalized to a place where they make attempts to resolve symptoms without having the ability to deal with the cause. It is a similar problem in kind to that found in medicine in which doctors are sometimes viewed as a source of prescriptions but not necessarily a respected source for healthy living.

In School Counselors Stetched Thin we read that in the United States school counselors have a caseload average of 477. It is only too obvious to say that this constitutes an overload for this average alone is a clear indication that quality is not not possible. I sometimes wonder if our society in general has an obsessive preoccupation with quantity at the expense of quality. It is far too simplistic and somewhat naive to say that reducing the average caseload of counselors by the way of throwing more money at the problem will have any meaningful impact on the quality of counseling received by students. Yet this is precisely how this article evolves as it denigrates into discussions of budgetary restrictions along with the all too common justification, "It's about the education of our children... and that has to come first." This line of rhetoric that promotes a problem and then justifies a solution to a problem through the acquisition of funds is vacuous.

If we were to look for what is missing in the article, what is not there, then we are in a better place to put the article in context:

  1. Ownership of the Problems: The problems themselves are seen as something distinctly owned and operated by the students, or in more general terms, the individual receiving the counseling. There is no indication in the article that either the counselors themselves or the school system (and by extension parents and society) in general have any responsibility in being the cause of the problems. They simply and incorrectly present themselves as having a solution.
  2. Journalistic Roboticism: The article itself follows an all-to-common and ineffective structure that is typical in the new reporting. This pattern goes along the lines of: a) identify a crisis; b) provide evidence that the crisis extists; c) describe a path along which solutions can be developed; and d) finish with a "feel-good" statement. It's a limited and shallow process for writing that is, in itself, part of the problem.
  3. Confinement to Niche Expertise: The article never makes an attempt to explore the issue beyond the narrow confines of a particular expert domain, in this case, counseling. As a result, the broad nature of the problem facing students, and all of us for that matter, is not only ill-defined but also absent. I don't believe we can excuse this by saying that the journalist has specific limitations to work in and procedures to follow. The journalist has a clear responsbility to talk about the issue intelligently as well, and in this case, the article lacks insight.
  4. Vicitimization: There is an illusive but present taint of victimization in this article that echos much of what Tana Dineen described in her book Manufacturing Vicitims. I don't believe it is too much of a stretch to go from this one article all the way over to ideas about victimization.
  5. Lack of Integration: The problems faced by students are treated as if they are a separate and distinct from everything else that occurs in the school system such as curriculum directives, instructional methodologies and systems of evaluation. It is too much to say that these formal elements of the school system are "the" cause, but it is a mistake to say that they are not a part of the problem. School systems driven by imposed curricula, one-to-may instructional methodologies, and inept orientations to standardized testing are exclusionary, not invitational, by default. In other words, school is largely not seen as an invitation to learning but a subservience to education.

    The article fails to make any references to the immense issues and challenges faced by today's parents. Just as students are driven by an obsessive regime of imposed time and information structures, so are parents. Many notions of time management and quality time are indications that we have in fact lost our ability to control time in our lives so we seek strategies for recaliming at least part of it through these special designations. It's too easy to blame parents for the problems of their children, and it is also too easy to download these problems on the school system.

Last January I started tracking the Government of Ontario's plan to deal with the immense problems faced by students here in an article called A Crisis in Education: The Double Cohort. Problems that the government created and is responsible for regardless of the political flavour of the day. Since January 2004, nothing that I have been able to find deals with the problem of the students that have already been marginalized. I suggested that the Ministry of Education at least make personal contact with each school "dropout" (this is a term that is completely inadequate to describe the problem and is incorrectly biased against the former student). This has not happened and it seems that if the government is authentically concerned about the future of youth in Ontario that this would at least be a minimum. It is clear, so far, that the government is not concerned about those people they have already marginalized by their own hand.

Instead what we read in releases from the government are plans for committees and reviews, then sub-committees and sub-reviews, then "new" programs designed to "fix" the problems. Yet another cycle of self-defeating methods. And all of this on the backs of tax-payers. There is a complete failure to revisit and critically challenge the underlying structure of education. The idea of counseling in this structure will remain a means to relieve symptoms but not solve problems regardless of the tireless dedication of counselors.

In working with counselors to help resolve my daughter's challenges with bullying I was frankly appalled not only at the lack of ability for professional and school counselors to address the core of the problem, but at their consistent default to the systems they serve. The school counselors had one frame of reference in mind, and that was how to get my daughter back in school. The issues that she raised were largely ignored - and she knew it. And many of the issues that she raised are both accurate and insightful. None of these counselors have ever made an attempt to contact my daughter since her justified departure from the school system.

Professional counselors behaved much in the same way. Their underlying goal was to get my daughter back in school, while "hearing" but not "listening" to what her conerns were. In addition, it seems that counselors have a standardized repertoire of "coping" mechanisms. "Coping" is not what students need - they need fundamental change and even though they may not be able to articulate this need in detail they know it's there. None of the professional counselors have ever made an attempt to contact my daughter since paid sessions were brought to a close.

It may be that many of the problems that we have assigned to students are in fact problems that adults have as well but we fail to notice. Not only do we marginalize students who would otherwise make school a better place to be, we also overly-protect those students who are frankly malevolent. But youth seems to have some mis-guided cherished status of innocence that we must uphold regardless of the circumstances and situations surrounding it. Further, the education system seems to have some cherished status of protectionism that forces it to deal exclusively with the surface of troubled waters while removing itself as a potential source of the waves. Inside all of this are leagues of teachers and students that know different.

If school counselors are stetched thin then why is this the case? There is a complete faliure in the article to tackle this complex issue. Is it merely an issue of numbers and if we throw more and more counselors into schools we will somehow make them better? Perhaps as a stop-gap mechanism to provide the best assistance we can to troubled students this has some immediate value. But as a durable and sustainable solution, it is completely inadequate.

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