By Christine Murray, See the Triumph Co-Founder
Many survivors of intimate partner violence face concerns that impact their mental health and relationships. In light of these concerns, survivors may benefit from seeking counseling services from a mental health professional.
However, finding a counselor who is adequately prepared to address the unique and complex needs of survivors of abuse can be a challenge. As a professor in a counseling program, I have learned that many mental health professionals don’t receive significant training related to domestic and sexual violence.
This lack of training is a big problem for many reasons--including that counselors may not be aware of the full scope of safety-related issues that survivors often face. In addition, they also may not be prepared to address the trauma-related symptoms that can result from experiences like abuse victimization. In our research, we heard from several survivors who experienced further stigmatization from mental health professionals who they turned to for help.
However, there are mental health professionals who have the training and experience to help survivors with a range of mental health and relationship concerns, both immediately after the abuse and in the long-term.
If you’re a survivor who is seeking counseling, or if you’re helping a survivor you know find a counselor, it’s important to talk with any prospective counselors to learn whether they know enough to be able to provide safe, effective services. I’ve shared the list of questions below with domestic violence advocates in trainings, and they’re useful for asking prospective counselors to learn their views toward and counseling approaches for working with survivors.
Questions for Survivors to Ask Prospective Counselors
1. What level of training do you have on the topic of intimate partner violence?
Ideally, the counselors will have taken a graduate-level course on family violence. Other coursework may have been taken at the undergraduate level. However, many training programs don’t offer courses on this topic. If that’s the case, then you can ask if the counselor has sought out continuing education courses on intimate partner violence. Counselors also may have done additional reading on the topic, such as through professional books and research-based journal articles.
2. How much experience have you had working with clients impacted by intimate partner violence?
If a counselor lacks extensive experience, they should be working with a clinical supervisor who’s had sufficient experience in working with clients who have experienced intimate partner violence. A counselor with experience should be able to describe his or her general approach to working with clients who’ve been abused.
3. Do you understand safety planning? How would you address safety planning when working with clients impacted by domestic violence?
Safety planning is a basic intervention for survivors of abusive relationships. Survivors may face safety risks, whether they are still in the abusive situation, have just left, or even if they’ve been out of the abusive relationship for a long time. Therefore, it’s important to ask a prospective counselor how s/he would account for safety concerns through the course of counseling.
4. Would you provide couple counseling when a couple is experiencing violence? If so, how would you proceed?
In general, conjoint couple counseling (i.e., when both partners are together in the session) is not recommended when couples are experiencing violence in their relationship. Couple counseling can create an unsafe situation for survivors, and it also can imply that the survivor shared some blame for the abuse. There are some situations in which a counselor may make an exception to this general rule to avoid couple counseling when violence is present. However, you should ensure that a counselor you’re seeing understands the safety risks inherent in doing so and would put in place a number of safeguards to protect the survivor.
5. Are you required to assign a diagnosis to all clients you counsel? If so, how do you account for trauma symptoms in your assessment and diagnoses?
A mental health disorder diagnosis may be required in order for a counselor to receive third-party (e.g., insurance) reimbursement for providing services to clients. However, the application of a diagnosis of a mental health disorder label must be done carefully, as these labels can add increased stigma that a survivor may experience from others, as well as internally. Without a careful assessment process, symptoms of the traumatic aspects of the abuse may be mislabeled through inappropriate diagnoses. Therefore, it’s important for a counselor to understand how to account for trauma symptoms in the diagnosis process.
6. Are you familiar with community resources and legal processes related to intimate partner violence?
Intimate partner violence is not just a mental health issue--it has implications for many aspects of survivors’ lives, including their physical health, work and educational functioning, and parenting. In addition, intimate partner violence is often a crime, and survivors may be involved in the legal system in various ways (e.g., seeking protective orders or getting divorced). Therefore, it’s important to work with a counselor who understands the broad range of resources available in your local community so that s/he can help you connect with other sources of support that you may need.
Your local domestic violence agency may be able to provide you with a list of counselors who they trust and know to be competent to work with survivors. In general, it’s extremely important to feel comfortable and safe with any counselor you choose to work with. When you’re screening prospective counselors, if they say anything that makes you uncomfortable, pay attention to your intuition. That person may not be the right counselor for you.
Although it can be a difficult process to find the right counselor for you, don’t give up until you’ve found the person who you believe is most likely to be able to help and support you!
To download a pdf copy of the checklist above, please click on the link below.