Sunday, November 17, 2013

Effective Campus Consultations

In the college counseling world, consultation refers to delivering mental health expertise to concerned third parties, such as faculty, staff, parents, and other community members.  On most campuses, the community sees the counseling service as a valuable resource which offers all some assistance in helping students effectively.

This aspect of services is rife with both potential conflict and opportunity (it's amazing how these two things often go together, eh?).  On the one hand, the student is always the focus of services and often also the client; on the other hand the institution is always the client, the corporate client in fact.  There are a few times when the needs of both are in conflict.  I submit, however, that such occasions are rare.  Mostly, there is enormous overlap among the needs of the two.  Indeed, each actually wants the same thing: to retain and graduate young adults.  My direct experience has been that when there is conflict it's often because one or both are nurturing needs which are unreasonable, though that is of course open to plenty of debate.

So, there are some tips on delivering effective consultations on campus.  In no particular order, here are a few.

  • Establish the identification of the primary client, and do it early and often.  If the student about whom someone is concerned is a client of the center, they are the primary client, and the obligations to them are paramount.  In this scenario the institution becomes a secondary client, though in this context this does not mean its needs are inferior.  It's just that they must be addressed by someone who does not have a dual role with the student unless the student has authorized such activity.
  • Respond promptly, every time.  The fortunes of college mental health rest on our showing up.  Always.  It is often expensive to do so, considering the labor involved.  But there is a huge return on investment.
  • Don't just say no; find a way to help and tell them you will do so.  Successful businesses put the consumer first.  There is no reason why we should not do this as well.  Even when needs conflict or dual roles exist, there is always a way to be helpful.  It may take some time and creativity to pull this off, so one could always say "I'm not sure how to help you, but keep talking to me and I will find a way."
  • Establish and maintain clear boundaries and expectations when needed.  At the same time, some requests are clearly inappropriate.  Such as when someone asks for privileged information and there is no authorization for same, nor is there any risk for harm to self or others.  You could be the FBI or a parent or an administrator.  It does not matter.  Abrogating the therapy relationship in this way can be fatal to therapy, now and perhaps well into the future for a student.  That's a really bad thing.  At the same time, there may be a need driving the request which can in fact be satisfied.  Figure out what that is.
  • Keep your word and be consistent.  Whatever happens, do what you say you will do and do it each time.  Since we're all human here, we make mistakes and no one can rightly tell you that you can't.  But if you do, own up to it and set it right whenever possible.
Consultations are wonderful opportunities to get things back on a good path, for the student as well as the community.  Often the circumstances behind the consultation represent the logical though negative conclusion of unhealthy relating and expectations.  It is a kind of bubble which needs to burst, but all involved sometimes prevent or avoid that from happening.  An effective consultation facilitates the bursting in a controlled manner, so that maximum learning and change can occur.  Which is exactly what everyone needs, whether they want it or not.