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Counselor Impairment: Prevention and Implications

Counselor Impairment

At the beginning of the XXI century, the problem of counselor impairment was revealed. The issue gives a cause for concern on account of affecting counselors’ professional functioning. Moreover, it may have a negative impact on client care and the very clients. For these reasons, counselor impairment has been discussed actively in several arenas. The problem’s solution requires elaborating on a new approach, including assessment impairment and its effects made by a professional. It has become a special duty of a counselor, as, on the contrary case, a counselor may potentially harm clients. This way, the necessity to address the needs of impaired counselors has become a pressing concern.

Definition of Impairment

First of all, it is essential to formulate a definition for this term. According to Lawson and Venart (2005), impairment includes “a significant negative impact on a counselor’s professional functioning, which compromises client care or poses the potential for harm to the client” (p. 1). Possible reasons for it may be “substance abuse or chemical dependency; mental illness; personal crisis (traumatic events or vicarious trauma, burnout, life crisis); and physical illness or debilitation” (Lawson & Venart, 2005, p. 1). Impairment does not obligingly involve unethical behavior, as this pattern may characterize both impaired and unimpaired counselors. It is also worth mentioning that impaired and stressed should be distinguished, as the latter’s condition is subjected to affect their work less significantly. Moreover, it has been proved that an impaired counselor may have passed clinical hours, but this competence has become diminished.

During years of exploration, characteristic signs and symptoms of impairment have been highlighted. They imply stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, compassion fatigue, alcohol or drug abuse. In the context of behavior in the workplace, impaired counselor is bent to overwork and exploiting clients. Burnout appears to be the most common occurrence in the counseling field and involves emotional exhaustion, fear of client loss, negative self-conception, and job attitude. Compassion fatigue implies “burnout plus the accumulation of stress resulting from empathizing with clients over time” (Hunter, 2016, p. 2). Occasionally, personal disturbances, traumas, and shocks lead to temporary emotional disbalance, which can be relieved by taking some days off. Obsession with a client, preference one client to another, and unprofessional actions reveal over-involvement. The most discernible sign of impairment is drug and alcohol abuse, which is a frequent occurrence among people with memory, concentration, and physical health problems. The client’s exploitation takes various forms from entering sexual relationships to hoping that a client presents a counselor’s reassurance. All the aforementioned symptoms and signs may reveal impairment and need to be addressed immediately.

Impairment has a negative impact on the counseling practice and functioning. For instance, burnout is followed by eroding counselors’ confidence and their credit to others. Therefore, in order to feel valuable and competent, counselors start overworking, sacrificing their self-care. However, counselors do not achieve fulfillment, and the situation seems not to have an end. Compassion fatigue results in singling exceedingly demanding standards, inability to say “no” and loneliness (Hunter, 2016, 3). All the symptoms and signs of impairment lead to serious psychological problems and make a counselor approach the breaking point.

Implications of Impairment

Nowadays, the legal and ethical landscape is developing, that is why the challenges awaiting professionals in the counseling field are worth exploring. There is a wide range of pitfalls, and they frequently concern ethical issues. They may be bartering, disclosing personal information, losing temper, and vengeful acts. Ahia and Boccone (2017) state the necessity of approaching ethical issues, as it may “improve a counselor’s ability to be a professional custodian” (p. 2). From their point of view, these difficulties could be overcome collectively by all the counselors. Moreover, awareness of ethical and legal pitfalls would be followed by a careful and prudent attitude to the profession in general and, in the long term, benefit recovering impairment.

According to Ahia and Boccone (2017), a significant number of violations exist in the counseling field, and the types of violations are diverse. The most frequent violation appears to be a failure to meet continuing education requirements, and the second one is dual relationships. The last place in the top 3 is occupied by unprofessional conduct. Analyzing 30 types of violations present in the study by Ahia and Boccone (2017), it may be concluded that dual relationships, unprofessional conduct, professional misrepresentation, and non-counseling crimes are the most common ones. The four mentioned violations occurred in the majority of 28 states, which were surveyed. As for Florida, these statistics stay actual concerning almost every aspect.

Impairment Prevention

There are particular measures that a counselor should take to escape or minimize impairment and its implications. First of all, each counselor’s most important skill is self-monitoring and self-care. Self-assessment instruments, which were intentionally invented to explore counselors’ vulnerability to impairment, may be helpful for such a practice. For instance, the Professional Quality of Life assessment identifies compassion fatigue, compassion satisfaction, and bents to burnouts (Lawson & Venart, 2005). Another instrument, which is the Self-Care Assessment, regards wellness activities. The domains of activities are physical, psychological, spiritual, and professional, and the Self-Care Assessment analyzes all of them. The Professional Quality of Life, indicating compassing fatigue, and the Self-Care Assessment, checking counselors’ caring for themselves, complement each other very well. This way, self-monitoring appears to be helpful for impairment prevention, but only in the case of a counselor’s personal interest.

Lawson and Venart (2005) mention another self-care program that contributes to preserving and maintaining wellness across domains. The program implies ten activities, which are used by trauma therapists in order to promote wellness. They are “discussing cases with colleagues; attending workshops; spending time with family or friends; travel, vacations, hobbies, and movies; talking with colleagues between sessions; socializing; exercise; limiting caseload; developing spiritual life; and receiving supervision” (Lawson & Venart, 2005, p. 5). These pastimes match the issues that appear vulnerable to a counselor. That is why this program is useful for impairment prevention.

The support of surroundings and peers is frequently underestimated, though it has a positive influence on maintaining wellness. Supportive relationships with colleagues and superiors are a significant component of a counselor’s self-care. During troubled periods, a professional’s performance at work is declining. This way, an ability to self-monitoring becomes less sensitive, and a counselor appears vulnerable to impairment. In this case, trust conversations and a supportive attitude of peers play an important role, in helping a person relieve stress and find the energy to overcome hardships. Moreover, supervisors’ attitudes can make a difference in preventing impairment. It is a frequent occurrence that supervisors support only apprentices, while more experienced professionals lack it. If supervision could be supplied to experienced counselors too, their working process and spiritual welfare would be relieved significantly. Supervisors could identify counselor impairment at early stages, diminish the effect of various traumas, provide support and promote resiliency.

Conclusion

Impairment presents a matter of importance, which needs to be paid attention to in order to prevent a negative impact on counselors and their clients. The reasons for impairment are diverse and often connected to traumas, personal crises, and other deep-seated feelings. Moreover, impairment can initiate violations during the working process, especially related to ethical issues. That is why this problem is worth being addressed. Fortunately, nowadays, some helpful instruments are invented, and new suggestions are being advanced. Using all the mentioned pieces of advice, counselor impairment answers to a treatment.

References

Ahia, C.E. & Boccone, P.J. (2017). Licensure board actions against professional counselors: Implications for counselor training. VISTAS. Web.

Hunter, S.T. (2016). Beyond the breaking point: Examining the pieces of counselor burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondhand depression. VISTAS. Web.

Lawson, G. & Venart, B. (2005). Preventing counselor impairment: Vulnerability, wellness, and resilience. VISTAS.

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ApeGrade. 2022. "Counselor Impairment: Prevention and Implications." June 8, 2022. https://apegrade.com/counselor-impairment-prevention-and-implications/.

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