New LGBTQ Counseling Course for MFT Students
Working in the field of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) brings something new to the table with each day through interacting closely with a diverse population of clients. These highly-trained mental health specialists work directly with individuals and focus on couple’s counseling, family intervention and group therapy. These therapists are presented with challenging and unique cases because of the vast range of conflicts people face.
One such group of clients are individuals who identify as LGBTQ and comprises anywhere from 4% to 10% of the population. These individuals in particular tend to seek therapy more often than non-LGBTQ individuals because of the pressures and prejudice they may face in society. To serve this population, Dr. Erica Hartwell, assistant professor of Marriage and Family Therapy in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions (GSEAP), designed a course to teach Fairfield’s MFT students about counseling LGBTQ individuals.
The only one of its kind in the state of Connecticut, this elective course is open to all graduate students of GSEAP, as well as students from other schools seeking specialized knowledge and training with LGBTQ individuals. The course emphasizes affirmative therapy, which encompasses a positive view of LGBTQ identities and relationships, and calls upon the negative influences of homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism that LGBTQ individuals may be subject to. Dr. Hartwell created the class after receiving high demand from students pursuing an MFT degree who sought advice on their clinical cases with LGBTQ clients and their family members.
“Overall, I find that students are eager for more knowledge and understanding of LGBTQ people, both for their personal lives and for their clinical work, and I have been continually awed by my students’ dedication to this course and to their own personal growth,” said Dr. Hartwell.
The course is meant to broaden perspectives on the multicultural competence that therapists must attain when working with LGBTQ clients, and takes into consideration various modern, historical, social and political ideas surrounding the LGBTQ community and how this relates to treatment. Topics of interest integrated into the coursework and applied to treatment in the students’ practicum include intersectionality, heterosexism, homophobia, trans-phobia, power, privilege and oppression. Dr. Hartwell has three main objectives for students in her course: 1.) they be knowledgeable about past and present issues facing the LGBTQ community; 2.) they understand their own biases, privileges and worldviews as they pertain to LGBTQ identities; 3.) they be able to practice affirmatively with and advocate for their LGBTQ clients.
Dr. Hartwell has received positive feedback from many students who have taken her course, and Fairfield University had the chance to speak to a few of her students:
Michelle Bottone ’15 currently works at the Department of Youth Services in Norwalk, Connecticut as a Youth Counselor for adolescents and their families. Michelle’s goal as a therapist is to support and understand the societal pressures that the LGBTQ community faces. She emphasizes how this course helped her become comfortable working with LGBTQ clients: “I communicate to my clients that I am here to support and guide them and to help them be themselves.” She recalls that what she took away most from the course is the historical, social and political aspects of LGBTQ issues and how it influences the counseling she delivers to her LGBTQ clients.
Sarah Lynott ’15 is currently a Marriage and Family Therapist in northern New Jersey. Sarah says, “It’s important for professionals working within the field of mental health to be well educated and informed in the areas of cultural diversity and multicultural issues.” Through this course, Sarah said she expanded her awareness around the diversity that occurs within the LGBTQ community and how to bring forth her support for them. When working in class groups on the wiki page aspect of the course in which students compiled research on a subgroup in the LGBTQ community, Sarah believes it was beneficial because she collaborated with her team, and working in a team is valuable experience for working with a variety of clients therapeutically.
Gisselle Acevedo ’16 is working towards her MFT degree. Gisselle believes this course is especially important because of the opportunity to be exposed to diverse communities. Gisselle shared that it was beneficial to learn about gay rights and the lesbian community, and how to treat LGBTQ individuals in terms of how they are represented in society. Gisselle thought that the hybrid style of the course helped her by allowing her to converse with classmates about the different research they were working on. She claimed that working with others, especially on the wiki page, was valuable to the course. “As family therapists we believe in systems, and group work develops its own systems which are important to the learning process,” said Gisselle.
Dr. Hartwell shared, “My goal is that students will leave my class with a more critically-tuned eye for societal values and assumptions, and how those can affect someone’s mental health, relationships and overall quality of life.” She wishes to expand the population of graduate students who take her course to other professions such as school psychology, teaching and nursing.
Written by Nicole Kowalczyk ’16