Academic journal article Counseling and Values

Death Education and Attitudes of Counselors-in-Training toward Death: An Exploratory Study

Academic journal article Counseling and Values

Death Education and Attitudes of Counselors-in-Training toward Death: An Exploratory Study

Article excerpt

This study reviewed how attitudes of counselors-in-training toward death develop after completing a course on death education. Participants included 11 graduate counseling students enrolled in a 2-credit-hour course addressing death and dying, and grief and loss. Qualitative results from a content analysis of free-response narratives suggest the emergence of 3 themes: openness to examining death and death constructs; increased understanding of death; and reduced negative emotional state, namely, fear of death. Implications of the findings for counselor education and limitations of the study are discussed,

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Mental health counselors regularly address issues of death and dying with their clients. Despite this, beginning counselors reported that discussing issues related to death and dying made them more uncomfortable than discussing other presenting problems (Kirchberg & Neimeyer, 1991), and counselors' overall level of empathy toward clients with death-related concerns was found to be low (Kirchberg, Neimeyer, & James, 1998). A possible explanation for counselor difficulty in addressing death and dying with clients may have to do with the counselors' attitude toward death and their personal fear of death (Kirchberg et al., 1998). One way to address counselors' fear of death is to incorporate death education training into counselor training programs, thereby reducing counselor anxiety regarding death and making them better able to assist clients with death-related concerns. However, Rosenthal (1981) argued--and Wass (2004) reiterated--that despite the need for death education in the curriculum to better train counseling students to address client issues of death and dying, few graduate programs in counseling incorporate courses on death and dying into their curriculum. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to examine the influence of death education on the attitudes of counselors-in-training toward death.

Efficacy of Death Education

In a review of the literature, no studies were identified that addressed the usefulness of death education in assessing death attitudes of counselors-in-training. In studies involving other vocations (e.g., college students, nursing, physicians, and emergency medical technicians [EMTs]), death education on changing death attitudes and behavior and reducing death anxiety has produced positive and negative outcomes as well as mixed results (e.g., Bugen, 1980; Hurtig & Stewin, 1990; Johansson & Lally, 1990; Knight & Elfenbein, 1993; Maglio & Robinson, 1994; Servaty & Hayslip, 1997; Smith-Cumberland, 2006; Wong, 2009). Positive effects of death education include participants reporting more comfort and increased coping while addressing death and dying with others. For example, Bugen (1980) noted that completing a seminar on death education had a positive effect on graduate and undergraduate students' coping abilities toward self and others. This positive effect was evidenced by gains in coping capacity on 23 out of 30 items; however, a control group of students who participated in only two class sessions showed gains in only one item that addressed increased coping. Examples of items that depicted positive effects include "I have a good perspective on death and dying," "I am aware of the full array of services from funeral homes," and "I know how to speak to children about death" (Bugen, 1980, pp. 179-180). Servaty and Hayslip (1997) demonstrated that death education can reduce both death fear and apprehension in individuals communicating with those who are dying. Smith-Cumberland (2006) found that after exposure to death education, EMTs reported an increased desire to change their behavior at the scene of death, and many reported at a 3-month follow-up that they had changed their behavior to include using words such as died instead of euphemisms such as passed away, which diverts individuals away from the reality of the death. …

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