20 professional development ideas for counselors, social workers, and other mental health clinicians
By Cassie Jewell, LPC, LSATP
Professional development encompasses all activities that provide or strengthen professional knowledge/skills. Ongoing professional development is a requirement for mental health practitioners in order to maintain competency and for keeping up-to-date on the latest research and evidence-based practices in an ever-changing field.
Listed below are several ideas for counselor professional development.
1 Find a mentor (and meet with them at least once a month).
4 Keep up-to-date on the latest research. If you are a member of a professional organization, take advantage of your member benefits; you likely have access to a professional journal. You can also browse sites like ScienceDaily or use an app like Researcher.
5 Facilitate professional trainings or manage a booth at a conference.
6 Read counseling and psychology books (such as On Being a Therapist by Kottler or Mindsight by Siegel).
7 Practice awareness. Know your values, limitations, and personal biases.
8 Become familiar with local resources in your community.
10 Join a professional counseling forum and participate in discussions. The ACA has several. You could also go the reddit route (i.e. r/psychotherapy).
11 Review your professional code of ethics on a regular basis. (Link to the ACA Code.)
12 Attend webinars, trainings, and conferences. Stay informed by subscribing to email lists, participating in professional forums, and searching Eventbrite for local events; search “mental health.” PESI is another source, but the seminars can be costly.
14 Subscribe to psychology magazines like Psychology Today or Psychotherapy Networker.
15 Further your education by taking classes or earning a certificate.
16 Pick a different counseling skill to strengthen each week. (You can even use flashcards to pick a new skill or simply review!)
20 Practice self-care on a regular basis to prevent burnout. Why is self-care included in a post on professional development? Because self-care is crucial for counselor wellness; a counselor experiencing burnout puts his/her clients at risk.
An ACEs community for connecting with others who practice trauma-informed care. You can also access the latest news and research related to ACEs; this site also has a huge resource section with guides, surveys, webinars, and more.
A variety of free worksheets,
handouts, book chapters, articles, and more. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
(ACT) is a unique and creative model for both therapy and coaching; a type of
cognitive behavioural therapy based on the innovative use of mindfulness and
The Centre for Applied Research in
Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA) is an internationally recognized research
centre based at the Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University,
Vancouver. CARMHA conducts innovative and interdisciplinary scientific research
related to mental health and substance use, primarily in the areas of clinical
or other intervention practice, health systems and population health and
epidemiology. Access free downloadable workbooks for stress in the workplace,
depression, coping with chronic pain, and other topics.
This website provides CBT self-help
and therapy resources, including a large collection of worksheets and
information sheets and self-help mp3s; a useful tools for therapists or
individuals seeking to manage a mental health condition.
Kim Peterson, LPC-S, specializes in
child and teen issues, parenthood, play therapy and relationships. She provides
links to online worksheets or PDF versions that she has collected over time as
a therapist. Topics include abuse, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and more.
A nonprofit organization that
discovers and reviews mental health apps, which are rated as unacceptable,
questionable, or acceptable. You can also search target conditions and
treatments. Use this site to make recommendations to your clients.
A division of the American
Psychological Association, this site provides an up-to-date list of
evidence-based treatments, and includes links to free assessments, manuals,
handouts, etc. for many of the treatments
Icebreaker activity – good for newly formed groups. Each group member writes down other clients’ names. The facilitator then reads each “impression” and group members have the opportunity to share their answers. Group facilitator can link this activity to how addiction and mental illness are “invisible” (optional).
Give group members 15-20 minutes to find signatures. The first person to collect 20 signatures sits down. (I usually give prizes.) The group facilitator then reviews the questions. (If short on time, use the short version.)
“It was the bad supervisors who taught me what NOT to do.”
Are you an effective clinical supervisor? What is helpful… and unhelpful in supervision? Read about Reddit users’ experiences with clinical supervision, including the traits of “bad” supervisors.
By Cassie Jewell, LPC, LSATP
Shortly after being trained and approved as a clinical supervisor, I took on my first supervisee (whom I’ll call “DM”). I was confident in my abilities and knowledge as a counselor, but quickly learned it takes more than skill or expertise to provide effective supervision.
In one of my first sessions with DM, I inadvertently offended her (and thereby damaged our newly forming rapport). We were discussing personal and professional growth, which led to a “bucket list” discussion. I shared how I’d always wanted to do a police ride-along; DM immediately stated that as an African American woman, this was distasteful to her. Unfortunately, I missed my cue and continued to talk about how exciting it would be. Meanwhile, she felt disrespected. In this instance, I got carried away with talking about myself and my interests, ignoring her feelings on the subject. I came across as ignorant, in the least, and at worst, culturally insensitive or uncaring.
Another time, I suggested that DM (who held a doctorate degree in counseling) stop referring to herself as “Dr. ____,” as it caused confusion when coordinating with outside agencies. Once again, she felt upset and misunderstood. She later explained that I failed to take into account all she had overcome to earn that degree. It was more than a title to her; it represented triumph in the face of adversity. Furthermore, it was a piece of her identity as a helper and as a role model to African American women. Although well-intended, my suggestion was offensive on several levels. In hindsight, I could have explored how she viewed herself as a professional or simply asked why she called herself “Dr. ____” before commenting.
Self-awareness is crucial for effective supervision and self-care is essential for coping with stress.
More recently, a different supervisee (whom I supervise both clinically and administratively) told me that I had been acting out of character by “harping” on her about completing various assignments. I checked myself and was able to recognize my high level of stress was indeed impacting our interactions. Self-awareness is crucial for effective supervision and self-care is essential for coping with stress.
Reversing roles, looking back on supervisors I had in grad school and as a new counselor, I can recall what was beneficial and what wasn’t (or was annoying/upsetting/disturbing… even unethical). What helped the most was direct feedback, along with specific suggestions for improvement. Constructive criticism, while unpleasant, made me a better clinician (and probably a better person). Feeling supported and having my doubts or fears normalized was also helpful.
The bad supervisors taught me what not to do.
On the flip side, unhelpful, “bad,” supervisors were the ones who rambled on about their clients, micromanaged, were punitive, or who never met for supervision. There was even one who called me a hurtful name; the comment came from a misunderstanding, but I took it to heart. It was inappropriate and unprofessional; I carried it for a long time. The bad supervisors taught me what not to do.
This post was inspired by my desire to learn more about what makes supervision effective. I looked to Reddit for others’ experiences and opinions and asked what’s most (and least) helpful in clinical supervision.
Gr8minds is a master’s student and MFT trainee who wrote, “For myself, what I find most helpful is when my supervisor shares questions I may have not thought of about the client’s case. This really helps give a second pair of eyes and I can take those into the next session.”
Questions are as fundamental to supervision as they are to the counseling process. A question inspires contemplation and may lead to a new understanding. An effective supervisor asks thoughtful questions about the client, their upbringing, their beliefs, etc., providing the supervisee with valuable tools to use with their clients.
RomeRawr, a doctoral student, shared about a self-centered supervisor who used sessions to talk about their clients instead of promoting the supervisee’s growth. “What I’ve found least helpful is my supervisor complaining to me about clients. Not conferencing, or asking my opinion, but just complaining to unload.”
A supervisor who complains/vents about clients should not be in a supervisory role. It’s one thing to consult, but to complain shows a lack of empathy and professionalism. It makes me question why that person is even in the field.
To an extent, I can relate; I previously mentioned a “bad” supervisor who, while he didn’t complain, regularly discussed his difficult cases in group supervision. This is how it would go: Dr. BS (Bad Supervisor) would present a case and then seek our (the students’) opinions. He had the audacity to take notes. When we were provided with (rare) opportunities to talk about our clients, he’d make comparisons to his private practice… and seek advice (un-cleverly disguised in the form of, “Well, what do you think you [I] should do?”)
While it can be helpful for a supervisor to share client stories, it should only be as a teaching tool (or to convey empathy). Similarly, a counselor should self-disclose for the client’s benefit, never their own.
grace_avalon, clinical counselor, holds a master’s degree and has been licensed in Minnesota for over a year. “I’ve had so many supervisors. The best ones worked me hard, required consultation with every DA (a word-for-word transcript of a counseling session)… [were] highly involved and observed me closely, tirelessly… and responded neutrally and understood my tears. We met privately, which was pivotal to growth.”
A supervisor can’t be a gatekeeper if they don’t know to close the gate.
An effective supervisor expresses empathy; they’re not reactive. An effective supervisor is also dedicated; they strive to help the supervisee by observing his/her interactions with clients and/or reviewing lengthy transcripts. A lazier supervisor might give advice/feedback based solely on the supervisee’s report, which is subjective. There’s a place for this in supervision, but it can’t be the only method of assessing a supervisee’s skill. Reviewing recorded sessions or transcripts is time-consuming (and, not gonna lie, boring), but imperative for a counselor’s growth. (It should also be noted that a supervisor can’t be a gatekeeper if they don’t know to close the gate.)
_PINK-FREUD_ is a clinical psychology doctorate student (with an MA in clinical psychology) who provides therapy to children, adolescents, and families. “My most helpful supervisor taught me to examine how my history comes into the room with clients. For example, my very first client told me something painful about a learning disorder and I responded with humor. Basically achieved the polar opposite of attunement. The footage was cringeworthy af. She didn’t shame me about it (of course, I was shaming myself anyway), but just inquired as to why I did that I realized I’ve dealt with my own LD with humor and by “laughing it off,” which led me to automatically and inappropriately apply that same response to my client… That supervisor showed me to move past the shame of making mistakes and towards understanding why I made that mistake. She led me through that process of self-examination countless times, and it taught me to do it independently.”
Being aware, both self and of what the client/supervisee is experiencing, is a vital component of counseling and supervision. In fact, many of my early (and more recent) mistakes could have been avoided had I been more attuned.
_PINK-FREUD_ also shared, “Another good supervisor trait IMO is someone who does not guess why a mis-step was made. I’m currently working on interrupting my clients more instead of letting them ramble –something I think mainly stems from the very common newbie clinician fear of invalidating or injuring the client. That supervisor pointed out my mis-step, then spoke about my need to “be friends with clients,” which felt off to me. When I tried to express that, I was perceived as defensive about having poor boundaries. It really broke my trust with that supervisor. I felt that he had made blind judgments about my underlying motivations for responses without listening to my explanation. It made it difficult for me to go to him for help with tough cases as I was afraid of the conclusions he would jump to. ASK, don’t tell your students for their motivations. It builds trust that you seek to understand them and also teaches them how to do this independently.”
Similarly, it broke trust when one of my “bad” supervisors called me a name. She made an assumption based on a blind judgment. Assumptions, sometimes true, but more than often not, have no place in supervision (or counseling). Going back to awareness, it’s important for a supervisor to recognize when they’re making assumptions.
alfredo094, an undergraduate student, shared that as a supervisee, “having [a supervisor] that knows me very well and listens to everything that happened to the session in detail is important.”
As counselors, we listen to what our clients say. By listening, we learn and are able to provide support and guidance. The same is true for supervisors. Listening and being fully present with the supervisee will help him/her to become a better counselor.
What are some of your experiences in supervision? Share in a comment!
A resource list for mental health professionals and consumers. Free PDF manuals/workbooks for group and individual therapy or self-help purposes.
Compiled by Cassie Jewell, LPC, LSATP
Updated July 19, 2019
The following list is comprised of links to over 100 PDF workbooks, manuals, and guidebooks that are published online and free to use with clients and/or for self-help purposes. Some of the manuals, including Individual Resiliency Training and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Psychotic Symptoms, are evidence-based.
Learn to be more effective in your personal and professional life! This is the second installment of how counseling has led to a better understanding of people. Working with addiction and mental illness has gifted me with the capacity to better recognize why people do what they do, which in turn enhances how I relate to others.
By Cassie Jewell, LPC, LSATP
This is the second installment of how counseling has led me to a better understanding of people. (In Part One, I discussed calmness, silence, active listening, partial truths, and hidden agendas.)
Working with addiction and mental illness has gifted me with the capacity to better recognize why people do what they do, which in turn enhances how I relate to others. As a result, I’m more effective in my personal and professional life. I have a sense of peace and “okayness” in the world.
One thing I hadn’t previously considered was brought up by Quora user and mental health professional, G. Bernard (MA Counseling); he shared that counseling revealed the truth about change. “It has really reinforced that idea that people who want change will work harder to achieve it; those who are forced (legally, by parents, spouse etc.) probably won’t.” I agree with this 100%. People can’t be forced into change; and when they are, their efforts lack fortitude and it doesn’t last. Those who are internally motivated will fight for change, making it worthwhile and enduring.
Here are some additional truths and realizations that I gained through my counseling career.
What counseling has taught me (the second installment):
1. A new perspective
The DSM – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the “Bible” for mental health professionals) – uncovered a whole new world for me. Sure, I was familiar with mental illnesses like depression, PTSD, and anxiety before grad school. I took Abnormal Psych in college and even before that, I’d read books on schizophrenia, eating disorders, and other mental disorders. (Guess who did their middle school science project on schizophrenia? Me!) But my fleeting knowledge was laughable compared to what I found in the DSM; it provided me with information on every single diagnosable mental disorder. When I started working with clients, I was able to see how mental illness manifests in real life.
The more I learned (and saw), the more I was able to make sense of behaviors. Consequently, this led to me looking back on people I’ve encountered throughout the years. I realized how many of them had been struggling with a mental illness. (At the time, I probably just thought they were just a jerk, or acting inconsiderately.)
I also became more aware of the prevalence of severe mental illness and the way it presents in society. This led to increased tolerance and patience regarding behaviors I’d previous found annoying; I learned to recognize them for what they were.
Mental illness can easily be interpreted as something it’s not. By having an awareness, I’m more compassionate. Instead of judging, I observe. Someone who seems snobby may have social anxiety. That coworker who calls out sick every Monday may be struggling with addiction. A friend who never wants to go out anymore could be depressed.
Mental illness is everywhere if you know what to look for. I strive to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, which is better for my mental health.
2. Don’t give money to the homeless
I knew a client at a residential program with a talent for making clever signs. He’d use markers to write his message (“Will dance for food!”) on a piece of cardboard before grabbing his pail to hit the streets. He didn’t need the money; he received government benefits (funded by taxpayers). The money he earned panhandling funded his K2 habit or the occasional beer.
Many of the “homeless” people you meet are not homeless; they’re con men (or women) who make a profit on your sympathy. Most are either addicted to drugs/alcohol and/or severely mentally ill; they need treatment, not the crinkled dollar bill in your pocket. Giving your spare change isn’t helping that person. Instead, offer to buy a meal, give them a pair of socks, or hand them a bottle of water.
3. Telling someone what to do is not helpful
Giving advice rarely leads to lasting change.
There are a few different reasons why advice, no matter how well-meaning, isn’t helpful. Firstly, it doesn’t account for the person’s full experience or struggle; it could seem ignorant or insensitive. (For example, “Why don’t you just get a divorce?” is not helpful to a woman struggling with her husband’s infidelity; the problem is more complex than just getting a divorce. Children could be involved. Maybe she’s financially dependent on her husband. Maybe she’s still in love with him. Or maybe it’s against her religious beliefs.)
Advice also robs a person of the ability to solve their own problem. We need to learn to find solutions in life in order to grow and to be effective. If someone is always told what to do, they’re not going to learn to function independently.
Lastly, if advice is taken, and it works, the credit goes to the advice giver, not the taker. The results are less meaningful. Alternatively, if advice is taken and it doesn’t work, it becomes the advice giver’s fault. Advice deprives a person of being able to take full ownership of their actions.
If you own your decision and fail, the blame falls on you (helping you to grow as a person) or if you succeed, the triumph is yours alone. Either way, you’re better off finding your own solutions; this allows you to feel capable and you’ll become better at solving problems in the future.
4. The value of transparency and honesty
People like to know what’s happening and what to expect. I get better reactions from clients when I explain why I’m doing or saying what I am. I’m honest, and when I can’t be (or believe it would be inappropriate to do so), I tell clients exactly that. For example, if a client asks about my religion, I’d let them know I don’t feel comfortable sharing personal aspects of my life.
Personally, I prefer the company of others who are straightforward. I don’t like having to guess if someone is upset with me. I don’t like it when someone is nice to my face, but gossips when I’m not around. Those types of games are played by people who are insecure or who are attempting to manipulate you. Life is complicated enough. With me, you’ll know if your fly is down, and if you ask for my opinion, you’ll get it. (There’s much to be said for tact though!)Gentle truths are worth more than flattery.
5. You can’t demand respect
It’s something that’s earned through words and actions, not freely given. Forced respect is not true respect; it’s fear or deception. And while I believe in treating everyone with respect, I don’t truly respect someone until I know what kind of person they are.
Furthermore, I’ve learned that if someone chooses to disrespect me, it’s not a threat. Respect is powerful, but disrespect? Feeble and pathetic. If someone is disrespectful, it won’t harm you or make you less of a person (unless you give it that control).
Throughout my career, I’ve been disrespected on many, many occasions by clients who don’t want to be in treatment (and even by colleagues with differing opinions). But my sense of self-worth is not dependent on how others treat me. As a result, disrespect from angry clients (or rude salespersons or drivers who cut me off, etc.) doesn’t faze me.
In sum, being a counselor is life-changing. I imagine many professions are to a degree, but I can’t picture any other job leading to such a deep understanding of humanity. Entering the mental health field is like having horrible vision and then finally getting glasses (except it happens over the course of years). I have an enhanced awareness of who I am along with an unforeseen sense of serenity.
Every single client who’s shared a piece of their story has contributed to my awareness (and to my own personal growth), and I owe them each a gratitude. I’m more cautious in life, yes, but I’m also more compassionate. Instead of having high expectations, I have high hopes. I don’t attempt to control things I have no control over; and I don’t get angry over the decisions, views, or actions of others. Instead, I channel my energy into something more productive; I’m passionate and I’m an advocate. My beauty pageant answer to the stereotypical question is not “world peace”; it’s for everyone to have a deeper understanding of each other.
What insights have you gained from your chosen career? Please share in a comment!
Counseling is generous in that it’s supplied me with the tools needed for not only professional growth, but personal success, emotional well-being, personal development, and effective communication. It’s also taught me about various aspects of human nature, from the brightest to the murkiest.
By Cassie Jewell, LPC, LSATP
In grad school, I learned theories and techniques of counseling. I learned basic and advanced counseling skills; I practiced various interventions and methods. My professors taught developmental theories and multicultural competence. I took classes in career counseling, family counseling, and couples counseling; I studied research and ethics.
And when I accepted a substance abuse counselor position at a drug and alcohol treatment center… I had no clue what I was doing… or how to be a counselor.I went into my first year as a clinician with self-doubt and uncertainty.
Negative thoughts consumed me. I questioned myself and wondered if I was in the right field.
“Do I have what it takes to be an effective counselor?”
“Should I have pursued a career in research instead?”
“Should I have pursued anything instead?”
“Am I capable of helping others?”
Furthermore, social anxiety crippled my ability to relate to clients; being genuine was difficult. I couldn’t stop comparing myself to other “seasoned” clinicians, which only made things worse.
Gradually, my doubts and fears subsided; I felt more comfortable in my role. I accepted and settled into my new identity as a professional counselor; it was a good fit. I stopped trying to “fix” or control clients.
Anxiety no longer dictated my actions; I found a way to take ownership of my mistakes and accomplishments. Moreover, I learned to be okay with making mistakes. I accepted that I would never have all the answers. I let go of irrational beliefs that had previously plagued me. I thrived.
Today, I can reflect on my journey and on the positive changes I’ve made throughout the years. My chosen career is generous in that it’s supplied me with the tools needed for not only professional growth, but personal growth — success, emotional well-being, personal development, and effective communication.
I’ve learned a lot the past ten years. This post explores the discoveries I’ve made and how I apply that knowledge to my life. But before delving into what I’ve learned, here’s what a few other clinicians have said on the topic:
Nancy Lee, MA, LPCC, Psychotherapist in Aurora, CO
“Being a counselor has shown me that it’s possible to live on the edge of what I know and don’t know. In a single moment, I can feel strong and confident, yet small and humble. Counseling isn’t about fixing problems. It’s about believing in my client’s capacity to connect with their own solutions, insight, and growth.”
Robert Martin, M.Ed Early Childhood Education & Counseling, Francis Marion University
“There is no learning … if there is not a relationship… The foundation of counseling and teaching is [the] relationship. There must be a connection. The student must know that you care about them personally and it is ok to make a mistake … Consequences and corrections can be given, but always directed at the behavior [and] never the person … That you are only talking about their behavior when you correct them … and not them. They must feel that you respect them … and if you make a mistake say, “I’m so sorry. I made a mistake.” … [Always respect] their differences, their hopes and weakness, their failures, their dreams, their divinity. There is nothing more important than this…”
“To accept people as they are, to be non-judgmental, to be directed by compassion, and to know how to be impartial so that I am fair-minded with all people and do not project any of myself into my client’s history and am non-attached to the outcome.”
In comparison, while I’ve learned much about compassion, connecting, and being okay with being wrong, I’ve also learned how to use counseling to be effective, both personally and professionally… and I’ve learned to be more guarded due to the darker aspects of human nature.
Here’s my list of small wisdoms, or, what counseling has taught me (the first installment):
1. How to remain calm
Emotion regulation was difficult for me as an adolescent and young adult. My emotions ruled me – lorded over me, even! Then, as a counselor, I observed emotion disregulation in clients. I realized how truly counterproductive (and ridiculous-looking) it can be.
I made a choice to stop engaging in negativity, with both self and with others. Feeding into an argument solves nothing, but the effort leaves you emotionally and physically drained. Luckily, my personal transition from chaos to calm was painless. By the time I learned how to remain calm, I was in my mid-20s; the intensity of my emotions had already naturally subsided. Today, calmness is my natural state.
2. Comfortable silence
In grad school, I learned to use silence as a counseling technique. Instead of filling up every minute of a session with reflections, open-ended questions, and paraphrases, we were encouraged to use “comfortable silence.”
Silence allows the client time to process and/or collect their thoughts. To me, it always felt horribly awkward (remember, social anxiety!) and wrong. I wanted to rush on to the next topic or to ask a question or… anything.
I’m not sure when it finally stopped feeling awkward. I just knew that one day I was sitting in silence with a client and it felt natural. Today, I use silence in my professional and personal life all the time. It feels nice to sit quietly and not feel pressured to talk.
3. Active listening
Counseling taught me to really listen. I learned to quiet my internal dialogue to hear and comprehend what’s being said. Instead of thinking about how I’m going to respond, I give my full attention to the speaker. I’m aware of body language and other nonverbals. Counseling has strengthened my communication skills.
4. Partial truths
Counseling taught me that people don’t always say what they mean. They often tell partial truths. There are many reasons for this: Fear of being judged, not fully trusting the therapist, feeling embarrassed, etc.
For example, a client who isn’t ready to change their drinking probably wouldn’t tell me they drink three bottles of wine every night. Instead, they’d offer a partial truth. “I usually drink a glass of wine with dinner, but that’s it.”
Partial truths are not lies; they allow for a certain measure of comfort. (A lot of people feel uncomfortable with lying because they were taught it was wrong, or possibly because they view themselves as honest – and honest people don’t lie.) Partial truths, on the other hand, don’t feel wrong (or less wrong, at least). Plus, they’re safe. A person can be partially truthful and still protect their secrets.
When I realized how common partial truths are, I changed the way I listened to clients… and to everyone. Instead of taking things at face value, I listen to what is being said while recognizing that much more is not being said.
5. Hidden agendas
I also discovered that there are plenty of people out there who seek counseling with hidden agendas. For example, a man sees a therapist, stating he wants to learn anger management techniques. What he doesn’t reveal is that he’s abusive to his wife. He recently lost control in an argument and pushed her down the stairs. She gave him an ultimatum: Therapy or divorce. He doesn’t believe he needs counseling, but he’ll do it to save his marriage. And he doesn’t tell his therapist this (of course). Why would he? It’s none of her business.
Both partial truths and hidden agendas happen outside of therapy (and for similar reasons). Words paint a very limited piece of the entire picture. People often show only what they want others to see while keeping their true motives hidden.
Because of counseling, I have a better awareness and understanding of why hidden agendas (and partial truths) exist. It’s not cynicism, but a form of acceptance. I recognize that half truths and hidden agendas serve a purpose. While I may never understand their purpose, I’m okay with it.
This awareness fosters caution; I’ll never be caught off guard.
There’s more to tell, but for the sake of keeping this post to a reasonable length, I’ll save my remaining insights for the second installment of this post (in which I’ll discuss giving money to the homeless and demanding respect, among other “lessons” from counseling).