Silencing Professionals (Guest Post)
Recently, it has been brought to my attention that there is a new trend being taught in some of our college Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (AODA) programs for students studying to become Substance Abuse Counselors. Apparently this trend is based on the theory that personal AODA self- disclosure by a counselor is not the right thing to do when counseling an AODA client. The belief is that a counselor should keep the fact that he or she has had an AODA issue confidential.
After speaking to several AODA students about this, it is my understanding that the reasoning behind this is that self disclosure by a counselor creates an unfair and uneven playing field for other counselors who have not gone through an AODA issue themselves. A client may ask a counselor a question like, “How would you know what it is like for me. Have you ever had this problem?” The thought has been that this would automatically put the AODA counselor with no personal past AODA experience at a disadvantage compared to counselors that have lived through the experience.
Is this true? After sixteen years of working in the AODA field and as a person who once suffered with the horrible effects of chemical abuse and dependency, there is no doubt in my mind, that by being able to say to a client, ” Yes, I also have had this problem”, automatically changes the dynamics and usually gives me an open door for more conversation. In fact the Manual for Drug and Alcohol Credentialing Examinations (6th edition) also points to this being the case. It sates in several areas, the effectiveness of using self disclosure. Under “The Recovering Addict as a Counselor” (p.547), the manual states that: “As counselors, such individuals offer the advantage of serving as role models for their clients. These counselors can offer hope to their clients that a life free from substance use is not only possible but can be rich and fulfilling as well”. Page 247 states that self-disclosure can enable the counseling relationship to move to a deeper level and can build trust. It goes on to say that self-disclosure invites openness without shifting the focus away from the client (p.191), and that when leading groups a counseling leadership style may be effective by sharing a little or a lot of self-disclosure as long as he or she stays within the leadership role (p.300).
In all fairness to counselors who have not had an AODA issue, being unprepared when confronted by a question such as, “How would you know what it’s like to be me”, could be a crushing blow, especially when one who has given so much time and effort to becoming a professional AODA counselor. So what do we do? Is the answer to tell counselors with personal AODA experience to keep it confidential taking away the appropriate self disclosure which has been proven to be so effective? Of course not! Do we take away what the Manual for Drug and Alcohol Credentialing states to be a powerful tool Or do we take another approach?
Instead of taking away the proven effectiveness of sharing experience and insight that has been paid for through life’s hard learned lessons by the now healthy counselor coming from an AODA background, we should instead be teaching the counselors who have not gone through it, how to respond to questions like the example above.
One way would be to have the non- AODA experienced counselors practice their right to not disclose if they had a past AODA problem or not. This could be done very easily by simply saying something such as: I’m sorry, I would rather not talk about my personal past. Right now we need to look at working toward what will help your situation. This would achieve getting the focus immediately back on the client while at the same time stopping any questioning of the counselor’s personal life or competencies. This is just one example of an unlimited number of ways to deal with this issue without taking away from anyone. This would be a much more effective approach, rather than pushing the elimination of the right of counselors who have had AODA issues to practice effective appropriate self-disclosure.
The Manual for Drug and Alcohol Credentialing Examinations defines self-disclosure as: The counselor’s sharing of his/her personal feelings, attitudes, opinions, and experiences for the benefit of the client.(p.68). The key words here are,” for the benefit of the client”. We need to remember that our number one priority should always be what benefits the client, and therefore we should not be taking away one of the most powerful things a counselor can have, the ability to connect with people.
It pains me to see that our focus can so quickly be shifted from using a tool such as self-disclosure that can literally help save lives to, worrying about uneven playing fields for professionals when all we need to do is use a little bit of thoughtful wisdom on how to respond to certain situations.
To the counselors who have been fortunate enough not to have gone through a chemical abuse or dependency issue and have the passion to help people, don’t think that you can’t be just as effective as others. By using your compassion, your empathy, your education, and your own life experiences you can be just as effective. I have seen it done. I have had the opportunity to witness clients thanking counselors with no past AODA issues for being the main reason that they have been able to stay clean and sober.
To those counselors with AODA personal experience, don’t let your voices be silenced by those pushing the confidentiality theory. It’s not necessary. If you chose to self disclose, do so.
Don’t be silenced.
Keep your voice.
You have earned it!