Wednesday, December 18, 2013

College Mental Health as a Specialty

I chose to focus my career on college mental health (CMH), or college counseling, in approximately 1987.  That was my first year in my doctoral program in counseling psychology.  Perhaps it was the time, perhaps the context, but I definitely perceived CMH to be a "field" of study and work.  I recall others being interested in pursuing this same career path then and especially during the early years of my professional life.

If I have learned anything from more than two decades of work in this field it is that CMH is in fact a specialty.  Explaining the nuances in this work could fill more than one volume, much more space than what is offered here.  Starting with an example of definition, the American Psychological Association (APA, 2011) defines a specialty as follows:

"A specialty is a defined area of professional psychology practice characterized by a 
distinctive configuration of competent services for specified problems and populations. 
Practice in a specialty requires advanced knowledge and skills acquired through an 
organized sequence of education and training in addition to the broad and general 
education and core scientific and professional foundations acquired through an APA or 
CPA accredited doctoral program. Specialty training may be acquired either at the doctoral or postdoctoral level as defined by the specialty."

There are professional organizations devoted to this specialty, about some of which I have posted previously.  A short list of American organizations is provided here:
  • Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors
  • International Association of Counseling Services, Inc.
  • American College Counseling Association
  • Section on College and University Counseling Centers, Division 17, American Psychological Association
  • Commission for Counseling and Psychological Services, American College Personnel Association
But these are just formalities, and not included are the many college counseling centers which provide formal training opportunities including practica and internships.  The essence of the specialty lies in the nature of the work itself.  Some hallmarks of a competent approach to this field include:
  • A thorough understanding of the holistic development of late adolescents and young adults as it relates to academic success and personal growth
  • A broad range of skills in the area of psychotherapeutic approaches to common issues faced by college students
  • An appreciation for the importance of outreach and prevention education programming on a college campus, including the skills of planning, delivery and evaluation of these activities
  • A thorough and competent approach to delivering consultation services to members of a college campus community, including faculty, staff, parents, and others
  • Where possible, a comprehensive mission of training graduate students in mental health professions in the CMH specialty
Much harder to articulate is what lies at the heart of this type of work.  The nuances mentioned above relate to the skills involved in managing very complex dynamics in multiple and sometimes conflicting work relationships, the urgency involved in responding to the needs of both the individual and the community, and the promotion of the full and genuine identities and life trajectories of students in this context.  If I was forced to explain one view in as few words as possible, which in fact I am in this space, I would offer the following statement:

"CMH is the training for, application, and on-going study of a range of psychologically-oriented human services focused on the academic success and personal growth of college students, with a full understanding of the complete context in which they function, including responsiveness to the needs of all who relate to, work with and serve them, and the successful management of professional boundaries with all involved such that the goals of the individual and community are promoted."