Professionalism's Challenges to Professional Counselors' Collective Identity. (Practice & Theory)

Article excerpt

Counseling has attained many criteria identified as essential to a profession: a professional organization, an ethical code and standards of practice, an accrediting body to prescribe curriculum and to sanction preparation programs, credentials, and licensing governing practice (Feit & Lloyd, 1990; Ritchie, 1990). Paradoxically, achieving professional status has done little to promote professional counselors' sense of collective identity or to distinguish counselors from other mental health professionals. In fact, the criteria for professionalism have been attained through multiple avenues, some of which conflict with one another. Achieving professional status has led to the creation of greater diversity and less unity among persons who identify as professional counselors. As a result, the occupational title professional counselor lacks sufficient specificity to secure its role in the eyes of other mental health professionals and the general public.

The lack of a specific identity for professional counselors has many causes. Persons who identify themselves as professional counselors may have received their training in programs accredited by different accrediting bodies. They may belong to multiple professional organizations that hold opposing positions. They may hold various credentials and licenses and, owing to these professional memberships and to their licensing, may be required to adhere to different and sometimes conflicting codes of ethics. It is our opinion that differences in training, specialization, professional affiliations, and credentialing have challenged professional counselors' sense of collective identity. Advanced students in counseling programs, counselor educators, and practicing counselors often find themselves in the dilemma identified by O'Bryant (1994) of being unable to explain exactly how professional counselors differ from helping professionals such as psychologists and clinical social workers. If counseling were considered analogous to a client, a professional counselor might characterize it as suffering from an identity crisis.

Striving for a collective identity is not new to counselors. The American Counseling Association (ACA) originally was formed from four groups representing different specialties (Myers, 1995). Given this origin, it is not surprising that ACA's flagship publication, the Journal of Counseling & Development (JCD), is a rich source for tracing the quest for the profession's identity. Rodney K. Goodyear, in the 1984 inaugural issue of his JCD editorship, emphasized promoting professionalism that included a shared identity and an appreciation for counseling's history and for counselors' unique skills. Goodyear (1984) noted,

   It is important, then, that we do not forsake aspects of our
   profession that are uniquely ours as we struggle to become
   recognized as legitimate providers of mental health services. For
   example, our knowledge of testing distinguishes us from social
   workers; our foundations in vocational counseling and in working
   with essentially normal people distinguishes us from all other
   mental health professions. (p. 5)

At the beginning of the 1990s, JCD contributors (Heck, 1990; Ivey & Van Hesteren, 1990; Robinson, 1990; Steenbarger, 1990, 1991; Van Hesteren & Ivey, 1990) created a dialogue addressing counseling's professional identity. Van Hesteren and Ivy saw counseling professionals working somewhere between psychology and social work, based on their history of educational and environmental interventions. Weinrach (1987) found counseling's lack of identity understandable: "Its identity has always been confusing, even to those who have worked in the field for several decades. Counseling falls somewhere between education and psychology. Its literature, theories, and role models come from these two disciplines" (p. 397). (See Hanna & Bemak, 1997, who have provided a summary of discussions on counseling's identity. …