May 31, 2011

Visiting Your University Counseling Center: A Guide for Atheist Students



counseling center roomI first addressed the subject of selecting a psychologist or counselor back in 2009, and I'd like to revisit it now in a specific context: the university counseling center. Imagine that you are an atheist student and you'd like to get some professional help. However, you want to make sure that the person you talk to is not a peddler of woo. Maybe you have mental health issues, and maybe you'd just like some objective support to help with career decision-making or another common concern. In any case, you deserve a practitioner of evidence-based services.

Bad News First

The counseling profession (i.e., counseling psychology, marriage and family therapy, counselor education, social work, etc.) is the area of the mental health field where you are probably most likely to encounter woo. Attend a state or even national counseling association conference, and you'll quickly get your fill of New Age bullshit (e.g., crystals, auras, mindless worship of anything Native American). As if all that wasn't bad enough, the university counseling center is widely recognized as the context most likely to attract purveyors of woo. There are many reasons for this, but the point is that it is embarrassingly common here.

On to the Good News

Fortunately, what I described above has started to change. Many of the former hippies who found themselves working in counseling centers have retired, and there is an evidence-based practice movement within mainstream psychology that is rapidly gaining ground. It is becoming increasingly common for counselors in these settings to be required to collect and utilize outcome data (i.e., evidence that what they are doing is actually helping people).

What to Expect When You Visit Your Counseling Center

There will be great variability from center to center, but you are fairly likely to encounter the following:
  • Your first appointment will likely involve completing some paperwork and talking with someone who may or may not end up being the counselor to whom you are eventually assigned. The agency has to make some initial decisions about whether they can help you, which member of their staff has room for a new client, etc.
  • During this initial appointment, you will almost certainly be asked about your religious/spiritual views. Do not take offense; this is common practice.
  • It is fairly common for counseling centers to refer clients to providers outside the university if they think that a student needs more than what they can provide there. This is a good thing because it shows that they recognize the limitations of their competence.
  • Once you are assigned a counselor, you need to ask yourself whether they are someone you are going to be able to work with effectively. I'll expand on this and give you some specific suggestions below.
  • If you feel that the particular counselor to whom you have been assigned is not someone you are going to be able to work with, you can request reassignment to a different counselor. I'd suggest giving your counselor a couple of sessions before doing this, but realize that it is an option.
Evaluating Your Counselor

I cannot emphasize this first point enough: a counselor who happens to be a Christian is NOT the same thing as someone who provides Christian counseling. Unless you are at a private religious college, you are unlikely to run into someone who does Christian counseling on campus. If you do, run like hell. But do not reject a counselor simply because that person is religious. Even if you are seeking counseling because of your atheism (e.g., you want help during the coming out process), it is unlikely that only an atheist counselor can help you. If straight counselors can work effectively with LGBT clients (and they often do), many religious counselors will be able to work with atheist clients.

If you have a particular concern bringing you to counseling that you have already identified (e.g., depression, social anxiety, etc.), consider asking the counselor something like, "Can you give me a sense of how you typically work with depressed students?" If your concerns are not well identified or deal more with normal life transitions and the like (e.g., homesickness, relationship problems, grief, career indecision, etc.), I would be far less concerned about this. Why? Virtually all counselors will have some training in these areas, and specialized methods are rarely needed.

I'd also recommend that you not go overboard in trying to identify practitioners of woo before you've even met the person. Don't waste time searching for them on Google to see if you can find woo attached to their name. Just because someone has been "trained" in some of that stuff does not mean that they will be determined to inflict it on everyone they see.

Finally, trust your gut. It is normal to feel somewhat uncomfortable or hesitant initially. However, if you still feel this way after a few sessions, it is probably wise to request a different counselor.

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