Context in Culture and Community: Understanding the Concepts of Counseling

Understanding the context of counseling from Awakin by Counseling In Schools

Context in Culture and Community: Understanding the Concepts of Counseling

Context in Culture and Community: Understanding the Concepts of Counseling

Katherine Potts  

Today, we will be talking about what is sometimes a stigma behind counseling and some of the fears that some parents, teachers, or kids can have around it. “What if I’m labeled,” for instance, and how can that stop people in a school environment from getting the help they need?

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

This is one of those topics that brings into focus the cultural context in which we’re working. And you need to understand the community you’re working in, the people you’re working with, the issues you’re speaking to, and how issues may be understood. Because the Western, quasi-European approach to counseling and maybe therapy lands very differently and can sometimes feel like an insult to some families. It can feel to some students like they’re going to be labeled as something, or be defined in a certain way. As though there’s a character flaw or something that they’re doing wrong. Those are heavy things that people carry with them when first approached about emotional well-being or mental health that we want to strengthen and support. We’ve learned that one way to approach counseling in a cultural context is first to understand where people are starting from, how the mind develops, and how emotion develops.

Katherine Potts  

A key thing you just said was the verbiage around strengthening versus having a negative connotation around a problem or thinking you are a problem. It’s essential to approach a family or a student simply with, “We’re noticing this,” and help them not carry extra weight.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

When this type of work is considered, you’re already starting down that road of resistance for some folks. No one wants to hear they have a problem, particularly where wellness or mental health is involved. What we want people to understand about mental health is it’s defined as how we think about things or what goes on in internal talk. If someone says you have a problem with that, that will bring up a lot for anybody. The antidote is not to make it a problem to talk about mental health. If someone goes to a doctor for a checkup, you don’t necessarily think there’s a problem. You’re maintaining health, making sure everything is okay. If you go to a mental health professional, it seems it’s only because you have a problem. One of the shifts we’re trying to implement in communities is to say – you have Phys. Ed, and that’s not because there’s something wrong with you. It’s because we want to strengthen your physical education. Let’s think the same way about mental wellness.

When I was in school, it was like, “Oh, he has to go see the counselor.” The voice kind of drops off, becoming a hush. People think maybe his parents are fighting or she’s having an abortion or someone died, or all of these things start to become heavier and heavier and heavier. You don’t want to be that person others are talking about in hushed voices.

Katherine Potts  

Once, somebody told me they were going to see a therapist, whispering it. I told her it was okay, that I’ve three. Her whole demeanor changed. There needs to be a shift in trying to normalize that for people and getting into a direction where it’s proactive to implement therapy in schools.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

If there’s a bleak and dark outlook, like there’s never light at the end of the tunnel when you’re that age group, it will stay that way.

Katherine Potts  

I imagine how that would change how people show up in the math and science classes. How things would be different if they just felt like whatever drama may have happened, they have skills to work through those things versus just withering in those emotions that feel really big to kids that are young and not yet emotionally mature.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Isolation helps fears grow and feel bigger, like I’m the only one going through this, or I can’t talk about it, or if I talk about it, maybe I’m being disloyal to my family, or revealing something about myself that people are going to make fun of me. If instead talking through things is just normalized within the context of school, then we’re able to remove that element.

If you’re no longer feeling isolated, if you’re feeling accepted or able to be clear about what you’re experiencing, it goes a long way. The challenge one might face, having coping skills doesn’t mean that it’s been eliminated or that things aren’t going to be hard to adjust to. But it allows you to leave some things in one place and be more present to your peers and the learning environment.

Katherine Potts  

I think that’s another huge point, being able to be present. Because if you’re sitting there so deep in your emotions, how will you be able to block out all those confusing emotions and sit there and take a test or sit there and do your homework? I think it’s a lot asking children to compartmentalize because you have to take this test.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

If I’m going through something and feel someone understands me, that’s huge. It’s that sense of human connection, where you can have the presence of another person who accepts and understands you, even if it’s a difficult road ahead.

Katherine Potts  

It breaks down barriers, I think, and helps you open up to people. Most individuals, at any age, will have a hard time opening up to someone they feel doesn’t see them or hear them.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

It’s this vicious cycle. I don’t feel seen. So I’m not going to show myself, and if I don’t, I will not be seen. Where does that cycle get broken? If you have an institution, like a school, where the topics are just being put on the table as, hey, this is part of how we all grow, there’s a vulnerability that can be shared. 

Katherine Potts  

I think it’s getting better at work and in the workforce where they’re trying to help facilitate environments that support mental health. I think starting at school is even more important because then they see it at that point, and then all through their lives.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

If we create an expectation in young people on how environments shouldn’t impose those expectations, they’ll develop environments with healthier expectations as they grow older. But if we leave it as it is, and the shame and the isolation are tacitly accepted, they’ll tacitly find their way into our institutions again. And they’ll perpetuate. The beginning of the undoing is when you can get a generation of young people to experience something they expect to be part of their norm.

Katherine Potts  

I imagine there are three entities. There’s the student, there’s the family, and then the teacher. And then, of course, the counselors, but what is the relationship between those three?

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Counseling In Schools is a community-based organization working with New York City schools. We are not the Department of Education, we’re outside of that. There are some opportunities in that space, and one of them is that for any student we are going to work with, we need to have explicit parental consent. So we start a conversation with the family right away. We’ll approach our outreach to the family with language and a context that is appropriate to them and respects the sort of boundaries they feel are important while also sharing the perspective that we think is going to be part of their experience with the school or with us. 

Then as we start to work with a child within the context of their classroom, we develop that rapport with their teacher. When there are issues in those three’s nexus, we will bring everybody together. If you wait until there’s a “problem” to introduce rapport, you have a much more difficult road. So if a parent comes in, and our counselor is negotiating something, I think there’s almost a modeling that happens with how our counselors will share and talk to a teacher with a child and parent or guardian present. The opportunity that we have that teachers often don’t is that teachers might, out of good intentions, end up offending somebody because the cultural groundwork hasn’t been laid, or their counsel or their advice doesn’t move things forward. This can sometimes actually create a wider divide. Our role helps mitigate that.

Katherine Potts

I think what helps lessen the impact for parents or fear of this perceived huge thing is you’re taking the time to understand all the nuances and explain what’s going on to them. A teacher might say, “We’re having this issue, and we’re going to send your kid to the counselor.” With no context or understanding, the parent thinks, Oh no, I have one of those kids. Now, this ball is rolling. And then the kid goes home, and they’re possibly dealing with a parent perpetuating that shame, maybe not on purpose, but as a reaction to not knowing what’s happening.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Not knowing what’s going on and not knowing if you trust the people involved is hard for anybody. That’s where relationship building is crucial. If I get a phone call as a parent and it’s the teacher sharing about connecting my child to people I know and am comfortable with, I know that all these people are caring for me, and they’re interested in my child, and they think there’s something that can be helpful. But if all I have is teacher, counselor, principal, and labels of the hierarchy of people contacting me, I’m already feeling defensive. The issues might be the same in either situation, but if I know who you are because you’ve taken the time to get to know me, we can have a conversation about these things.

Katherine Potts  

Right, the human connection element, which I know you’ve brought up several times, not just in this conversation. We can’t discount how the human connection plays a role in being able to help families and help children because there’s a trust aspect. Most people don’t invest in anything if they’re not trusting it.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

It’s like getting a cold call from someone who’s trying to solicit something. Some of those folks started a technique where they knew your name. So people would call me up and say, “Hey, Kevin, this is John.” For a second, I’m trying to figure out who John is and then they’re trying to sell me something. They pretended we had a relationship, so I would listen to them. But in pretending, now I don’t trust you. 

You need to be more than a name. You need to be more than a label. You need to be e a real person in the life of children. And I don’t think it’s an easy task for teachers because they have so many students on their rosters, and all kinds of different things are expected of them. We try to talk to the administration to give them the time and the opportunity to develop those relationships and create experiences that can bring families and teachers together, where they can get to know each other a little bit. 

Katherine Potts  

The pandemic showed how important human connection is, and all the things highlighted when you are isolated. But it can’t just be huge events that get people to think differently. Integrating some mental health classes is a great place to start. That integration partnered with counseling in schools can help us get to that point of connection. And then it will maybe be a little less daunting for teachers because now there’s a process, there’s a system in place.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Absolutely. One of the beauties of this approach is that students are asking for it. Students have gone on marches and things saying they want regular Mental Health Awareness classes in our schools. It’s coming from both directions. It’s coming from folks like myself, who have been doing this work for a long time, but it’s also coming from the students themselves when they’re at the age of awareness across the spectrum of New York City schools.

Katherine Potts  

It’s a needed thing. Now, how can we put it all together and move forward? It’s not going to happen overnight. But at this point, there’s an opportunity to advance rather than regress. I think that must be prioritized right now. 

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

Absolutely. The pendulum swings in both directions. So we’re trying to make sure we swing as far as we can in the direction that we’re in right now. Folks are interested. They’re speaking to city council folks, school board folks keeping this on top of the list right now, but we’ve got to keep talking about it. This is not a subtle shift. This asks an institution to shift some of the ways it understands how to work, and institutions don’t change easily or quickly. But hopefully, we’ll get that expectation into young people who will then be the teachers and the counselors, and they’ll just know how to do it.

Katherine Potts  

It’ll just be something that that is there. Like a gym class, like an art class, these things will just be integrated already. And it won’t be as difficult. There’s power in conversation, the power of keeping things relevant. We’ve got to ensure that don’t become complacent.

Kevin Dahill-Fuchel  

I think if we and other organizations in our space are doing this in what is arguably the largest school district in the country, the school district where there are two elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools can do it. Imagine the kind of impact that you would have. If this kind of approach shows benefits in a large school system like in New York City, it can certainly be scaled down. Proof of concept is there. That’s an exciting thought.