Self-Advocacy in the Real World

self-advocacy in the real world

“At the heart of all that civilization has meant and developed is ‘community’ – the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of man to assume a semblance of responsibility for his brother.”
–Martin Luther King

Johnny has been battling depression for the last few months and his concerned mother has brought him to my private practice for an assessment and consultation. After the initial session, it comes to light that Johnny has had difficulty handling the adjustment to a new school brought on by the fact that he and his mother had to move after the loss of his father, who was killed in the Iraq war.

Johnny is a 17-year-old who displays his African-American heritage (father’s side) and his mother is white. Johnny and his mother had to move in with her parents for economic reasons and the community they moved into is made up of mostly white Anglo-Saxon constituents.

After months of working with Johnny through consultation and therapy sessions, he has shown immense improvement and we concluded that unless Johnny and his mother feel it is warranted, our sessions will end.

Have I done enough to help Johnny? Have I, as a community counselor, given Johnny enough tools to combat the environment from which he lives within every day?

Social advocacy theorists would say no.

Courtland Lee from “Social Justice: A Moral Imperative for Counselors” states:

“In addition to working at the interpersonal level with clients or students, a counselor must also be able to accurately perceive environmental influences on human development and possess kills to intervene at a system-wide level to challenge environmental barriers that stifle potential and block opportunities.” (Lee, 2007, p- 1)


Many in the field of counseling would say that it is imperative that counselors fully prescribe to the ideal of not only treating the individual but also “to foster sociopolitical changes that reflect greater responsiveness to the client’s needs” (Kiselica, 2001, p- 387).

Others would counter and state that:

  • The duty and focus of a counselor is the internal needs of the client; leave the environmental adjustments to others in specialized fields such as social work.
  • Counselors should follow the wellness model and stay within the parameters they were trained.
    Some would question the value and worth of the effects of social advocacy. “There is often a high price to pay for being an activist including feeling emotionally drained, being viewed as a troublemaker, placing your job in jeopardy and becoming the target of backlash from colleagues at work or of harassment from intolerant individuals” (Kiselica, p- 393).
  • Still others would argue that that the complexity of an issue such as abortion cannot be stripped down to simple answers and divided camps would be created in the counseling field.

“Prejudice may develop towards professionals who do not self-identify as an advocate nor do they advocate for every single issue and topic in the advocacy literature. We believe that counseling professionals should be given the freedom to choose areas of social advocacy in a manner that is congruent with their culture and developmental level.”
(Smith, 2009 p- 488).

So let’s look at:

  •  Historical highlights of the counseling profession as it relates to advocacy.
  •  The ACA position on social advocacy mainly from the findings of the 2002 the American   Counseling Association (ACA) Task Force on Advocacy Competencies.
  • The pros and cons on the issue of social advocacy.


Historical Perspective

Smith, Reynolds and Rovnak (2009) in their abstract entitled, “Social Advocacy in Counseling” give us a historical perspective from which counseling activism is currently based.

They relate that significant events in American history and their impacts on American society have created changes in how counselor’s roles are perceived.

Examples of these events include The Industrial Revolution, Great Depression and multiple wars including World War I and II.

Frank Parson’s work at the turn of the century in education reform was in the forefront of changing attitudes that children needed to be regarded not as little adults but youth in need of proper education. This idea was regarded by many current social advocate theorists as one of the first examples of social advocacy.

Carl Roger’s combining the use of psychology and relationships in the 1940’s was perceived as key originator to unlocking social problems through the perception of a client’s own self-worth.

By the 1990’s, racism under the watchful eye of multicultural theorists, shared the fear of what current counseling practices were doing to the minority client. Currently professed by social advocacy theorists’ (using historical support) is not only should the client be supported but the environment in which the client resides should be put under immense scrutiny.

ACA Advocacy Competency Domains

In 2002, the American Counseling Association (ACA) Task Force on Advocacy Competencies came out with some guidelines that have been since supported (2003) by the ACA. The guidelines spell out the basic components of a client’s environment and the amount of involvement a counselor may need to undertake to help the client find a solution to the problems confronting them.

The domains covered consisted of the community, school and interacting systems in which the clients live, study, work and the importance that the environment plays on the client’s emotional state.

A blueprint of expectations for counselors was laid out defining how advocacy was to be implemented by the counselor for the client. It was called “Advocacy Competencies” and included three stages of advocacy: client/student, school/community and public arena (Ratts, 2009).


The empowerment of the client involves the counselor helping the client realize the position in which society has put him/her and the options available to make a difference in his/her lives.

Under the client/student advocacy heading is the idea that counselors, because of their training communication, listening skills development and multicultural background, makes the counselor the ideal candidate to represent the client.


The counselor has an understanding of a client’s situation because of counseling sessions and understands first hand the level of oppression, discrimination and prejudice the client has faced.

In Johnny’s case, it may be that the counselor needs to connect with the school to express concerns about why Johnny has been picked on.

It could be that the counselor may have to find other services that might help Johnny deal with the community he lives in and the social-economic differences he can’t relate to–including the fact that he is black in a community overwhelmingly white.

In that case, it may take more than being an ally for the client. The counselor must be a leader with leadership skills to help create the environmental change for the client to become emotionally and physically healthy.

Public Arena

The Public Arena Domain is the last and final step in the three Advocacy Competencies Domains headings and to most counselors, the most difficult and foreign concept of all.

Many counselors can subscribe and support the ideals of helping the client become empowered and teaching the client to be an advocate for themselves.

But for many counselors, the public option can be a stretch.

A counselor must not only be prepared to picket, address media and organize an awareness of the issue but also needs to have the skills to be able to be in the forefront of the public eye if called to do so.


In this post, we’ve seen the counselor’s role evolve from a therapeutic counseling session with a client suffering from depression to a role that may involve creating marches, using television and other media outlets to suggest a need for social change to eradicate the elements within society that can make one susceptible for depression.

Many counselors don’t have the gifts associated with implementing all the Advocacy Competency Domains, though they may have the heart and compassion for the individual they are counseling who is suffering from disorders.

One may be able to create a consortium of people with different skills and passions that would, as a living, breathing advocate group, possibly implement social change. But what would be the cost to the client/therapist relationship?

For any social movement to remain strong, its members must recognize both the strengths and limitations that make up its body.

It would be wonderful to protect Johnny from the potential environmental influences that could trigger his depression. At this time, the intent is on the right course but the financial resources are limited and educational enlightenment is sparse at best.

I applaud the grandeur of the social advocacy plan and agree with its premise that to create social change is one key to implementing improved individual mental health.

We may be closer to finalizing the dream Dr. King espoused.

The field of psychology has given us a great word, “maladjusted.”

This word is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is a good word. Certainly, it’s a good idea that in dealing with what the word implies, you are feeling the destructive maladjustment should be eradicated.

You are saying that all must seek the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities.

On the other hand, I’m sure we recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never adjust.

We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation.

We never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry.

We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.

We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. (“King’s Challenge to the Nation’s Social Scientists,” 1999, pp-9-10)


Constantine, M.G., Hage, S.M., Kindaichi, M.M., & Bryant, R.M. (2007). Social
justice and multicultural issues: Implications for the practice and training of
counselors and counseling psychologists. Journal of Counseling & Development,
85, 24-29.

Kiselica, M.S., & Robinson, M. (2001). Bringing advocacy counseling to life: The
history, issues, and human dramas of social justice works in counseling. Journal of
Counseling & Development, 79, 387-397.

Lee, C.C. (2007). Social justice: A moral imperative for counselors (ACAPCD-O7).
Alexandria, s A: American Counseling Association
Lee, C. C., & Rodgers, R. A. (2009). Counselor Advocacy: Affecting Systemic Change
in the Public Arena. Journal of Counseling & Development. 87(3), 284-287.

Lopez-Baez, S. I., & Paylo, M. J. (2009). Social Justice Advocacy: Community
Collaboration and Systems Advocacy. Journal of Counseling & Development. 87(3),

Ratts, M. J., & Hutchins, A. M. (2009). ACA Advocacy Competencies: Social Justice
Advocacy at the Client/Student Level. Journal of Counseling & Development. 87(3)

Roysircar, G. (2009). The Big Picture of Advocacy: Counselor, Heal Society and
Thyself. Journal of Counseling & Development. 87(3), 288-294.

Smith, S., Reynolds, C., & Rovnak, A.. (2009). A Critical Analysis of the Social
Advocacy Movement in Counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development:
JCD, 87(4), 483-491. Retrieved November 18, 2009, from ABI/INFORM Global.
(Document ID: 1865222681).

Toporek, R., Lewis, J., & Crethar, H.. (2009). Promoting Systemic Change Through the
ACA Advocacy Competencies. Journal of Counseling and Development:
JCD, 87(3), 260-268. Retrieved November 18, 2009, from ABI/INFORM Global.
(Document ID: 1740940831).

Counseling session photo available from Shutterstock

Self-Advocacy in the Real World

Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC

Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in northern Michigan who has a passion for reading, writing, music and helping others. He specializes in counseling complex family situations, substance abuse, and parenting. Steve’s counseling philosophy is holistic, approaching each issue on its own merit and evaluating influences to help overcome life’s dilemmas.


APA Reference
Greenman, S. (2016). Self-Advocacy in the Real World. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 16, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 19 Feb 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 19 Feb 2016
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