20 professional development ideas for counselors, social workers, and other mental health clinicians
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.
Professional Development for Counselors
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.
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.
21. Psych Central Network Blogs | A list of mental health blogs by experts, professionals, and ordinary people who share their insights on a variety of mental health topics
22. Psychology Today Blogs | A large collection of blogs on psychology-related topics, including creativity, intelligence, memory, parenting, and more
23. SAMHSA Blog | “A place where up-to-date information including articles from SAMHSA staff, announcements of new programs, links to reports, grant opportunities, and ways to connect to other resources are located”
24. A Splintered Mind | A blog by Douglas Scootey about “overcoming ADHD and depression with lots of humor and attitude”
Janaburson’s Blog | A blog created to help people better understand the medication-assisted treatment of opioid addiction using either buprenorphine (Suboxone) or methadone from a physician, board-certified in Internal Medicine and Addiction Medicine
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.
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 of things counseling taught me 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).
What happens to your mind and body when you’re sleep-deprived? Poor-quality sleep is linked to a variety of health conditions, including obesity and heart disease. Poor sleep leads to cognitive impairment and poor judgment. A lack of sleep can even lead to schizophrenia-like symptoms! Learn why sleep is essential for health and well-being.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, about 10% of Americans struggle with chronic insomnia and up to 35% of Americans experience insomnia at least occasionally. I’m part of the 10%. I’ve spent countless nights tossing and turning, dreading the obnoxious sound of “quantum bells” (my cell phone alarm) as daylight slowly creeps in. Due to this, I’ve done quite a bit of research on the subject. (And as a clinician, it’s important for me to know the relationship between restful sleep and mental health so I can educate my clients.)
Sleep recharges us; it makes it possible for us to remember what we learned throughout the day.
We all know that basic sleep hygiene is essential (i.e. having a regular sleep schedule, refraining from watching TV or reading in bed, avoiding alcohol before bedtime, etc.) And if you struggle with insomnia, you’ve probably heard of sleep medications and supplements like Ambien, trazodone, or melatonin. We also know how vital sleep is to health and wellness. Sleep significantly impacts mood, energy levels, and overall well-being. Sleep recharges us; it makes it possible for us to remember what we learned throughout the day.
Knowing how crucial sleep is for both physical and mental fitness, I set out to explore what happens when we don’t get enough. What exactly does a lack of sleep do to a person? I sifted through the research to learn more about the impact of sleep deprivation. This post explores how sleep deprivation affects physical health, perceptions, memory, and critical thinking.
SLEEP AND YOUR PHYSICAL HEALTH
Sleep deprivation is associated with signs of aging
Sleep deprivation has been linked to aging skin. One study found that poor-quality sleepers had more fine lines, uneven pigmentation, and reduced elasticity.
It makes sense that chronic sleep deprivation is associated with signs of aging; sleep is needed for overall rejuvenation (mind and body), which includes skin cell renewal. For smooth and supple skin, high-quality sleep is essential.
A 2016 study looked at the relationship between sleep characteristics and body size/weight. Snoring was associated with having a higher BMI, a larger waist, and more body fat. (It should be noted that snoring doesn’t cause obesity; the two are simply related.)
Poor sleep quality and shorter durations of sleep were linked to larger body size and more body fat. The relationship between sleep and obesity is further explored in the next few paragraphs.
Sleep deprivation is related to weight loss and appetite
If you’re dieting, you’re more likely to lose body fat when you’re getting adequate sleep. Researchers studied participants who slept for either an average of seven and a half hours or five and a quarter hours per night over a 14-day period. Calorie consumption was the same; participants lost similar amounts of weight. However, when participants slept more, they lost more body fat; in fact, about half of the weight they lost was fat. Sleep-deprived participants lost only a pound of fat; the other five pounds were fat-free body mass. Furthermore, it was found that sleep helps with appetite control; this is due to ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite and promotes fat storage. Sleep-deprived participants had higher levels of ghrelin.
If you’re watching what you eat, incorporate healthy sleep habits to maximize your efforts; adequate sleep is needed for optimal weight loss.
Sleep affects our food choices
Other studies have examined specific the ways sleep deprivation affects food choices and calorie intake. Sleep deprivation is associated with especially poor food choices the day following poor-quality or no sleep. One study found that sleep deprivation led to strong cravings for junk food. The researchers measured increased activity in the part of the brain that responds to rewards, but decreased activity in the “decision-making” part of the brain. Study participants choose unhealthy items (i.e. pizza, donuts) over fruits and vegetables.
Another study looked at total calorie intake; sleep-deprived participants consumed an extra 385 calories per day. They also ate higher-fat foods. Additionally, researchers found that a sleep-deprived person purchased items that were higher in calories when grocery shopping.
A 2016 study looked at the relationship between sleep deprivation and the consumption of high-calorie, sugar-sweetened caffeinated beverages in a sample of 18,000 adults. It was found that adults who averaged less than five hours of sleep per night were more likely to consume sugary drinks like soda or energy drinks than their well-rested counterparts. The researchers weren’t able to determine whether drinking caffeinated beverages caused people to sleep less or whether being sleep-deprived caused people to crave more sugar and caffeine; it’s likely that both are true.
Without high-quality sleep, it’s difficult to lose body fat.
Regarding obesity, sleep deprivation plays a significant role. A lack of sleep causes us to feel hungry. We crave junk foods and consume more calories. At the same time, sleep deprivation promotes fat storage while decreasing our energy levels. Without high-quality sleep, it’s difficult to lose body fat.
If you struggle with chronic insomnia, make an active decision to make healthy eating a habit; you’ll be less likely to submit to your cravings. Visit the grocery store only when you’re well-rested. Know that you may not feel like exercising; practice determination. Be mindful to counter some of the health risks associated with sleep deprivation.
Sleep deprivation is related to heart disease, hypertension, and stroke (especially if you’re a woman)
In addition to obesity, sleep deprivation is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. A lack of sleep takes a toll on the heart. In a recent study, researchers looked at 24-hour shift workers. It was found that sleep deprivation led to a significant increase in cardiac contractility, blood pressure, and heart rate. Furthermore, study participants experienced thyroid changes and an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone).
Research also indicates that chronic sleep deprivation and disrupted sleep are linked to an increased risk of developing or dying from coronary heart disease or stroke. Diabetes and hypertension are associated with sleep deprivation as well.
A lack of sleep may impact women more than men. Researchers found that women who got less than eight hours of sleep per night were at a higher risk of heart disease and other heart-related problems when compared to men who got the same amount of sleep.
Chronic sleep deprivation is related to reduced immune function
Have you ever noticed that you heal slowly or get sick more often when you’re sleep deprived? According to research, chronic sleep deprivation is associated with reduced immune function. If you’re not regularly getting at least six to seven hours of sleep, you’re more susceptible to illness. Your immune system won’t be as effective at eliminating viruses and bacterial infections.
Sleep even affects your bones. One study found that chronic sleep deprivation was associated with a loss of bone mass (in rats, at least). The rats underwent sleep restriction measures for three months. A lack of sleep led to significant decreases in bone density, volume, and thickness.
SLEEP AND YOUR BRAIN
Sleep deprivation is associated with increased pain sensitivity
The first part of this post examined sleep’s impact on physical health; the next half will explore how sleep affects the mind, including the way we sense and perceive the world around us. Research indicates that sleep deprivation and/or disruption increase sensitivity to pain. Interestingly, in one study, stimulants like caffeine had the ability to “normalize” the pain sensation (meaning it would feel the way it would with adequate sleep).
In addition to the sensation of touch, sleep deprivation affects the perception of sound. A lack of sleep impairs central auditory processing (CAP). CAP is crucial for aspects of hearing such as language comprehension, identifying sounds, and recognizing patterns.
In one study, participants took a longer time identifying sounds after being deprived of sleep for 24 hours. It appeared there was a “transfer delay” (from hearing to identifying and then interpreting). To be effective, CAP requires alertness and concentration.
Sleep deprivation affects the formation of memories
We know that sleep deprivation causes cognitive impairment; the brain can only store so much information before it must recalibrate. During sleep, memories are encoded; the brain “consolidates” memories by strengthening them and transforming them from short-term into long-term memories. Without sleep, long-term memories can’t form. Short-term memories are lost and/or altered. Even procedural memories are impacted by sleep deprivation. A lack of sleep leads to forgetfulness and an inability to retain new information.
Sleep affects the way we interpret emotions
Sleep deprivation impairs your ability to interpret facial expressions. A recent study found that a lack of sleep made it difficult for participants to recognize the facial expressions of happiness or sadness. Interestingly, the ability to detect anger, fear, surprise and disgust was not affected. This suggests we’re biologically wired to recognize the emotions related to survival. The researchers hypothesized that the brain preserves functions that perceive life-threatening stimuli while sacrificing functions associated with empathy, bonding, and friendship.
“Real life” implications: If you’re majorly sleep-deprived, you could misinterpret the intentions of others, negatively impacting relationships with co-workers, family, friends, and others. Furthermore, you could read people wrong or miss important social cues; you might not respond appropriately or you could seem lacking in empathy.
When someone is sleep deprived, they’re slower to adopt another’s perspective
In addition to perception and memory formation, sleep deprivation impacts decision-making skills and thoughts, including the ability to accurately assess a situation.
If you have chronic insomnia, you might experience interpersonal problems.
Sleep deprivation affects moral judgment. In one study, participants were sleep deprived (awake for 53 continuous hours) and then faced with moral dilemmas. They had difficulty solving the dilemmas and making appropriate judgments. Other studies support this as well; a lack of sleep is related to decreased moral awareness. When you’re faced with a tough decision, especially one that involves ethics or morals, be sure to get adequate sleep. You can’t always trust your moral compass.
Sleep deprivation is linked to impaired decision making
Moral decisions are taxing if you’re sleep deprived… the opposite is true with risky ones. Sleep deprivation alters areas in the brain that assess positive and negative outcomes; sensitivity to rewards is enhanced while attention to negative consequences is diminished.
If you’re not getting enough sleep, you could lose your ability to remain positive-minded. Research indicates that individuals with insomnia have lower rates of self-esteem and optimism. In 2017, researchers found that sleep-deprived study participants were less likely to focus on positive stimuli. An inability to think positively is also a symptom of depression.
A lack of sleep can lead to schizophrenia-like symptoms
Sleep deprivation can lead to perceptual distortions, cognitive disorganization, and anhedonia (an inability to feel pleasure).In a 2014 study, participants experienced psychosis after staying awake for 24 hours. The sleep-deprived individuals reported attention deficits and being more sensitive to light, color, and brightness. They exhibited disorganized speech, which is a common symptom of schizophrenia. Participants also reported an altered sense of time and smell. Some of them actually believed they were able to read thoughts; others noticed an altered body perception. Implications? If you miss a night (or two) of sleep, don’t be surprised when you hear voices or when your reality is somewhat altered.
In conclusion, sleep deprivation, especially when it’s chronic, is detrimental to your health. Based on my review of the research, poor-quality sleep can adversely impact your skin, your weight, your cardiovascular system, your immune system, and your bones. (It should be noted that I barely skimmed the surface of an immense body of scientific data on sleep.)
Sleep is also related to brain health. Sleep deprivation impairs sensory perceptions, memory formation, the ability to assess your environment, moral awareness, critical thinking skills, and mood. Sleep deprivation can even induce psychosis.
If you’re like me (the one out of 10 Americans with chronic insomnia), in addition to practicing good sleep hygiene, go ahead and Google “CBT for sleep.” Research suggests that for some, CBT is more effective and longer-lasting than sleep medication. Do a little bit of research. CBT is not a quick fix for insomnia, but it’s worth a try; and your health and wellness are definitely worth it!
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Open-ended questions are important in therapy. They allow a client to explore his/her values, ideas, and beliefs. This is a list of 161 questions for group therapy, journal prompts, conversation starters, and/or icebreakers.
The questions to explore ask about recovery, spirituality, personal growth, and other relevant topics. As a counselor, I’ve used the questions with adults who struggle with mental illness and addiction, mostly in a group setting.
Asking open-ended questions is a basic counseling skill. Open questions invite the client to explore his or her thoughts, beliefs, and ideas. In contrast, closed questions can be answered with a yes or no.
The first section, “Conversation Starters,” is comprised of questions to explore that can be used as icebreakers, at a party, or even on a date. In a clinical setting, use a “Conversation Starter” as a group check-in. It provides an opportunity for group members to engage and to learn about their peers.
Click below for a free printable handout that includes questions to explore from each category: