Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Gathering of Colleagues

This week I have been attending the annual conference of the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors, or AUCCCD, in Newport, RI.  I have previously written about the importance of this organization to our field (see post of January 3, 2012).  It is not an overstatement to say this conference is among the professional highlights of my year.  It is a time for colleagues to understand and support each other in sometimes very difficult work, for us to learn best and innovative practices undertaken in other centers, and for us to advocate for this profession and the communities and students we serve.  It is absolutely essential for college mental health administrators to participate in this association and its main communication vehicle, its listserv.

I joined AUCCCD as a brand new and wet-behind-the-ears director in 1998, and my earliest interactions with my peers occurred on the listserv.  Though there are a few texts relating to college mental health, there are certainly no manuals, no compendium of wisdom regarding establishing, maintaining and growing a fully functional college mental health service.  Thankfully this wisdom is accessible from the board and membership of this organization.  In a relatively short time I was able to develop benchmarks for our Center, to learn about standards and accreditation processes for the field, and to understand the distance we had to travel to bring our work closer to that which we aspired.  This simply could not be found elsewhere.  Without its support many centers would not be where the are today: vibrant and essential partners in the campus community.

I can site examples of various meetings and keynotes which were helpful this year.  Learning about the developments and future of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (also discussed previously), understanding generational differences among counseling center staff members, listening to directors of institutions the same size as my own, and hearing Patrick Kennedy address the civil rights issue of equal access to mental health care are all memorable.  But hallway and lunchtime conversations with colleagues were just as important, for one very simple reason.  These interactions help us address the hazard of professional isolation which can be endemic in the mental health professions.  Because so much of our work is private and cannot be shared with others we simply must have mechanisms which facilitate dialog in a safe and trusting environment, devoid of pettiness, posturing and politics, where everyone has the obligation of maintaining the same level of confidentiality. This ingredient or attitude, set in place by its sage founders many years ago, promotes the development of administrators and the centers they manage.  It is a priceless benefit of membership in AUCCCD.

If you are thinking of pursuing a career in college mental health, and perhaps rising through the ranks to leadership roles, you must remember and join AUCCCD when the time comes.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Perception and Automatic Thoughts

Understanding the limits of human perception is an essential ingredient to good mental health and good communication skills.  Take any decent Psych 101 course and you will see just how limited our perceptual skills can be.  Long ago, during a lecture, I held up a plain sheet of yellow paper.  The yellow color could be described, in objective fashion, by its emitted wavelength and that would probably be well beyond dispute.  But that did not interest me.  I asked the audience to write down what they saw and any thoughts or feelings which arose from the "stimulus", the yellow paper.  There were, quite literally, as many perceptions as there were people in the room, though of course everyone "saw" the exact same thing.

How much more complex, then, are the other things we all experience in the course of our lives?  Yet all of us, often beyond our awareness, form impressions and interpretations of very complex information, and this in turn often leads to choices and actions which impact our lives and the lives of others.  Some of these make us happy, and some definitely do not.  By the time we reach early adolescence this dynamic has become like a reflex; it is lightning quick and automatic.  It is also dangerous.  You know what "they" say about assumptions.  "They" are correct.

The scale of this pattern of human behavior is enormous.  In a recent article, psychologist Jonathan Haidt discussed the science behind political and religious polarization in America, which has led to and may well lead to a great many more social conflicts and problems.  This polarization is partly borne of reflexive assumptions and automatic thoughts.  We would all do well to slow down, understand that we may be making attribution errors, and actively seek disconfirming evidence for our interpretations.  This is admittedly a difficult thing to do, given our well-researched human nature in this area.

But try we must, if we hope to have sound emotional health and positive relationships.  The recipe is actually quite simple.  Question what you think you see and understand.  Take your time, as very few things in life require instantaneous responding.  If you experience strong emotion, wait until the immediate feelings subside a little before you do the cognitive work of analyzing information.  This gives our higher cortex a chance to do its magic instead of our being controlled by the more primitive, reptilian portions of the brain.  Check out your understanding by getting feedback from others.  The payoff is tremendous: often we learn that what we thought we understood was WAY off.  Have you ever fired off an email or text and immediately wished you could suck it back through the electronic ether?  Then you know what I am talking about.

So really, it comes down to humility.  Knowing that we have a limited range of perception means knowing that we are often capable of being wrong.  It helps us exercise caution in forming conclusions about ourselves and others and the world around us.  Benefits of this practice are improved mood and self-esteem, and improved relating with individuals, groups, and cultures.  That makes it very worthwhile.