What’s Wrong with the Counseling Intern Picture?
Frequently, I get contacts from students panicked, sometimes legitimately, over one internship thing or another. I try to help in any way I can, but often, my answers may have a similar ring to them. It lead me to start wondering, both from the perspective of counseling interns and the perspective of the counseling industry’s culture toward them, what is wrong with this picture?
Here’s an email I got recently from a student:
(Only identifying information has been changed – the rest is verbatim!)
I’m a desperate mental health counseling graduate student attending an online school. I have been searching, calling, emailing, and visiting potential internship sites with no success. I was a bit disappointed when none of the ten agencies I called returned my call, so I moved onto emailing directors. Again, no replies. I then went out to five different places (portfolio in hand) and was ignored or put off. Honestly, I am surprised that my future colleagues have been so rude and unresponsive.
A little about me: I have a 4.0, member of Chi Sigma Iota, have little work experience in the mental health field but a strong work history in administration and accounting. My schedule is very flexible, I’m willing to travel and I’m open to a practicum/internship anywhere at this point. I conclude my classwork in May and I am supposed to begin practicum this summer.
I am very worried that my graduation will be delayed. The word from other students in my town is that the local university has it in with all the agencies and they do no consider others. I feel like I am fighting a losing battle. Any insight or assistance you can offer will be very much appreciated!
From my vantage point, there are at least 2 problems here.
• Part 1: How interns should be oriented regarding this sort of scenario.
• Part 2: Needed changes in intern culture in the counseling profession.
I still can’t get over how many of these kinds of emails I get. I mean, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. And as the above example makes clear, they are from bright, capable people. It’s not like this is the bottom of the barrel. I guess this should come as no shocker, given that Google finds itself the lucky recipient of some 10,000 global searches per month for counseling internships. So, what causes all this?
I’ve been accused of oversimplifying things before. That could be true. But I don’t think this is really that complicated. If I had to pick a consistent theme among all the contacts I get from would-be-counseling-interns, one item stands out head and shoulders above the rest. You cannot wait until the end of your counseling studentship to find and secure an internship. You must start that process now, and start working in the field.
Imagine the difference at the end of your counseling studentship if you’ve already been working in the mental health field. You’d have:
• An inside track – most agencies release vacancies to internal staff prior to the general public.
• An implicit network – working for a community mental health practice, for example, you’ll likely be in an and among some 100-500 other mental health practitioners!
• Experience (potentially leading to QMHP status) – students are always perplexed by this question: how do I get a counseling internship if it requires 1-2 years experience? Answer: You start several years earlier in a position that does not require it.
• Connection to other agencies – again, speaking primarily of community mental health (the largest employer of interns), most agencies are part of a network of other like agencies within 100 miles or so. This naturally increases the pool of job openings available to you!
Again, you must get your foot in the door now. Not tomorrow, not next semester, not next year. Now. If you’re working in some other industry full-time and going to school part-time and are otherwise occupied with life, something is going to have to give if you don’t want to find yourself in this position.
But, I pedal this message all the time. If you’ve read my other blogs, you already know that. Usually, there are 2 responses:
• You’re right! There’s no way I should’ve expected this whole thing to accommodate me. What was I thinking?!? Oh, wow. I’ve got a lot of decisions to make.
• You’re not being practical. I’ve got kids, a full-time job, and a house to take care of.
Both of these responses are absolutely correct. I am right, and I’m not being practical, if practical means trying to find a way that you can do everything you’re already doing and find yourself in a position to complete an internship at the same time. But the belief you could do such a thing is itself impractical, because no counseling agency worth working for is interested in hiring a person who can only devote a tiny fraction of their overall work week, and then only if it suits their schedules. From a counseling intern employer perspective, the cost of acquiring, supervising, and administrating for you is simply not worth the investment.
If this is you, I don’t know how to say this delicately, so I’ll just say it and the risk of incurring some angry responses – you’ve got to wake up. There are 100+ people applying for most counseling internship opportunities you find. Part of the reason counselinginternships.com is so helpful is that it gives you a much larger pool of opportunities to choose from, thus lowering the number of likely applicants. But even then, as I told the panicked student above – you’ve got to find out what this is worth to you and find it out now. Decide to make whatever sacrifice is necessary, and start prepping work, parents, spouses, children, family, friends, your church, your civic organization, etc. I think the best possible approach is just to ask for help.
Note: If you decide to have a conversation with your current, non-mental health, full-time employer, you might get fired, so use caution and seek specific counsel. But otherwise, and sometimes even then, you might be surprised just how much help you get by asking. But that’s the thing – most would-be-counseling-interns are looking for the mental health industry to bend to accommodate them. To be fair, I think it ought to (see Part 2), but thus far, it is not doing so. So, you must be willing to bend, and those around you, supporting you, will often be willing to bend as well. Try stacking the responsibility to accommodate this thing on your side, and on the side of those who say they love and respect you.
“Hey guys, I wanted to talk with you about the internship phase of my program coming up. I’m going to have to make some hard decisions about my time, because I really want to finish my program and step into my calling to help others. Intern sites are generally looking for people who can dedicate themselves to the task. I’m wondering if you could help me think through how I should best orchestrate my time.”
Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CounselingInternships.com, and helps counselors-in-training and student counselors find internships and direction in clinical practice. Find a counseling internship now at http://counselinginternships.com.