Do School Counselors Have LGBTQ Competence?

Acceptance of lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) individuals has grown over the past decade. However, LGBTQ people still face many challenges. For LGBTQ high school students, those challenges are even more magnified. When sexual minority students face problems with discrimination, violence, bullying, and aggression, they often turn to their school counselors for help. These clinicians are trained to address a diverse set of psychological and psychosocial problems that exist among adolescents, such as substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and stress. But attending to the specific fears and needs of LGBTQ young people requires a unique approach and one that may not be fully developed in existing school staff members.

LGBTQ youths are at increased risk for mental health problems that include suicidal ideation, sexual risk taking, victimization, low self-esteem, and identity issues, among others. They also are more likely to face alienation from peers and family members and miss more school than their heterosexual peers due to fear of harassment. All of these combined conditions result in poor academic achievement, fewer employment opportunities, and increased risk for homelessness. Mark P. Bidell of the Department of Educational Foundations and Counseling Programs at Hunger College recently led a study comparing the LGBTQ competency of community counselors with that of school counselors to determine whether students were being helped adequately.

Bidell evaluated 75 school counselors and 89 community counselors, 10% of whom were LGBTQ, and found that based on self-reports, the school counselors had much lower levels of LGBTQ and multicultural competency than the community counselors. To date there is no specific tool to measure this type of proficiency, but Bidell believes that the reports in his study warrant further exploration in this area. He said, “Designing multicultural and LGBTQ counselor education and training specifically tailored to professional school counselors represents an important area for the counseling profession.” In order to best serve the needs of these vulnerable youths, school counselors must possess knowledge pertaining to social, personal, and cultural issues and develop the skills to effectively advocate for and counsel to these students.

Bidell, M. P. (2012). Examining school counseling students’ multicultural and sexual orientation competencies through a cross-specialization comparison. Journal of Consulting and Development, 90.2, 200-207.

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  • Cherylynne Berger, LCSW

    May 15th, 2012 at 1:43 PM

    This is such an important issue! Thanks for posting this on Twitter as well. Do you happen to know how large this study was? How many school counselors were surveyed? Did the study include an adequate geographical survey of the whole United States? If so , I wonder how much the results vary by region, East Coast versus Midwest, urban versus rural, etc.

    Also the problems of bias and prejudice by adults who are there to help students is being documented. Did this research suggest any interventions that could be made to improve the competency of school counselors to help these kids?

  • Cherylynne Berger, LCSW

    May 15th, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    Oops! My error regarding your blog post being on Twitter as well. Sorry.

  • gavin

    May 15th, 2012 at 3:59 PM

    You better hope that the numbers for school counselor competence in this are continues to grow, otherwise there is going to be an entire segment of the student population which could begin to feel like they have no one to turn to! Many times counselors at school will be the only ones that these teens will reach out to or will even know that are available for them to talk to. They don’t know about the resources in their community that they could go through, and for most of the the counselor at school is going to be the logical answer. A lot of the are facing parents at home who don’t understand and may not even know the things going on in this child’s life. They need someone who can at least point them toward some answers even if they don’t have them themselves.

  • Sandra F

    May 15th, 2012 at 5:00 PM

    In my head I know that school counselors need to be able to relate to pretty much any issue that comes their way.

    But things like this just make me sit back and htink just how different high school is today from when I was in school!

    Thess counselors are expected to know a little about a lot of different emotional issues facing teens, and still are in charge of getting them ready for life after high school. That’s a pretty tough challenge that they are rarely given credit for.

    And what about those who have been in these positions for a long time now and are probably pretty hesitant to get involved in issues like this? They have to know the right things to say and do so that the kids feel safe and not ashamed.

    Maybe they need to work out a very strong referral program in their area so that someone who is specifically trained to work with an issue like this could be called upon to help.

  • Martha d

    May 16th, 2012 at 5:51 AM

    Unless these school counselors have had specific training with these students then I don’t think that they would be well equipped at all to help these students.

    If they don’t know the right things to say than we know that they can do far more harm than good.

  • Rebecca

    July 21st, 2012 at 2:00 PM

    Being a school counselor myself, I appreciate articles like this and hope that other counselors express interest in learning about newer topics such as this one. Sandra, thank you for pointing out that counselors are required to know a little bit about a lot of things. It can be so overwhelming at times because we are often expected to be experts in everything from depression to college admission requirements and self-injurious behavior to designer drugs and everything in between. Parenting styles, information for drug rehab, effective studying techniques, 504s and IEPs, advice about dating and friendships, helping students write college essays and then composing hundreds of letters of recommendations…the list goes on. Our job is always changing and we are required to be knowledgeable about all of the changes. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining by any means…I love my job and the knowledge that I learn every day, but for all parents out there: Please don’t expect us to always have the right answer all the time and be an expert in everything. If we don’t know something we will go learn and in the meantime, we will make sure that we refer you to someone who will know more about a particular concern.

  • Cherylynne Berger, LCSW

    July 21st, 2012 at 6:52 PM

    Thanks, Rebecca, for your very thoughtful response. You point out, quite accurately how many varied expectations are placed onto high school guidance counselors. You really do have to wear a lot of different hats, so to speak. I appreciate that the job is inherently overwhelming. At the same time, I know from my psychotherapy clients who are now young adults, that it was often the high school counselor who was the one and only person they felt they could turn to for help when it was needed. The issues (divorcing parents, a friend who’s suicidal, dealing with a difficult teacher, college essays, etc.) are endless. So thanks for thinking about the issue of kids who are struggling with sexual orientation. Your caring really makes a difference in the lives of teens every single day.

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