Counseling@Northwestern Grad Reflects on Her Second AMHCA Conference

By Jennifer Reckner

Each year, the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) hosts a conference where clinical mental health counselors from across the country network with peers, learn from industry experts, address challenges facing the field, and attend trainings, seminars, and other continuing education courses. Counseling@Northwestern graduate Jennifer Reckner shared her thoughts on her experience attending the event for a second year. 

Preparing to Return to the Conference

In my second year attending the AMHCA annual conference, I felt much more comfortable with what to expect. A lot of the anxiety of meeting new people and being in an unknown environment that I experienced last year was absent. That was a huge relief! I went into the conference feeling energized and excited, as opposed to feeling somewhat scared and apprehensive. I do not know that I have experienced a warmer and more welcoming place than a room full of clinical mental health counselors, which helps to soothe nerves.

This year also felt different because I had recently graduated and was attending the conference as a practicing clinician as well as a board member and committee chair for the Graduate Student and Emerging Professionals Committee. As I prepared my presentations and organized check-ins for my clients with other counselors during my absence, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of imposter syndrome. I went from being a second-year graduate student who was fortunate enough to be co-presenting with one of her professors, to having a voice for graduate students and emerging professionals on the board for the entire association. I was also giving three presentations. I spent a lot of time before the conference researching content, preparing slides, and practicing the presentations.

Advocating on Capitol Hill

I arrived at the conference a few days early so I could do some sightseeing in Washington, D.C., attend the board meeting, and be a part of the pre-conference leadership summit. Having a day off to explore the city and relax was a vital way to ease some of the nervous tension that had built while preparing my presentations.

My conference experience started first thing Tuesday morning with the board meeting, followed by a briefing for our “Hill Day” advocacy movement. AMHCA arranged for everyone to meet with their members of Congress on Capitol Hill to discuss the Mental Health Access Improvement Act (HR 945/S. 286), which will allow clinical mental health counselors to bill Medicare. The CEO of AMHCA, Joel Miller, and others experienced with lobbying prepared everyone with talking points to guide discussions with congressional staffers. We then filed into the bus and headed to their offices.

Walking into the Hart Senate Office Building seemed surreal. Was I really there? How did I get this opportunity? Would I meet any of the members of Congress that I look up to? I chose this career field to continue my work in advocacy just as much as I did to provide counseling to those in need, so, for me, this was possibly the most exciting part of the conference.

I spoke with staffers for both of my senators and, although one opposes the bill, I still felt like I connected with those I met and raised valuable awareness with his office, which will hopefully help to ensure bills like this are considered in the future. I then headed to the Longworth House Office Building. I had time before my appointment with my House representative, so I decided to do some exploring with a friend. We visited offices of the members of Congress who we find most inspiring, which was exhilarating. We even spotted one of them, who chatted briefly with us and offered to take a picture. Getting to talk to my members of Congress and meet someone who has been so inspirational for the advocacy work that I do was the highlight of the conference for me.

Immersing Myself in the Conference

The next day was filled with state leadership activities and pre-conference training seminars, followed by the welcome reception. I think this is something that sets AMHCA conferences apart: leadership, speakers, and other members are available to talk, which is not something I have seen elsewhere. My first year attending, I was able to speak with the president of AMHCA, past presidents, and other board members. I truly felt I was part of the profession and respected, even as a student.

The following days were packed with impressive lectures and surprisingly delicious food. Through the Graduate Student and Emerging Professionals Committee, I was able to connect with others who are passionate about similar things like advocacy, research, and neuroscience. My hope is to keep that committee up and running to help guide other new professionals through their career path and through specializations as outlined in AMHCA’s mission and vision statement. Most of the lectures I attended focused on the integrated care and trauma track, which is what most of my clinical work is focused on. AMHCA offers different specialization tracks that are part of a new, five-phase career development path and will be outlined in the Essentials of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Profession handbook when it is published. This will lead to board certification in a clinical specialization and advanced clinical practice.

Along with attending lectures, I also had the opportunity to give three lectures. That may have been two too many, but I survived. I was most excited about working with Saba Aqel and presenting Immigration Issues in Counseling: Action Through Advocacy. She and I worked tirelessly on this presentation. It is something we are passionate about and is personal for both of us. I was nervous to give this presentation and it felt surreal to even have the opportunity. Right before I went into the room, Dr. Standefer shook my shoulders and said, “Jennifer, you are not an imposter. You did this and you earned this. Go in there and kick some butt.” Dr. Costello gave me similar motivational guidance. It was comforting knowing she was cheering us on. The participants in our lecture were well informed, which led to excellent dialogue and an exchange of ideas about how to better serve immigrants and their communities.

Shortly after, I had my final talk in front of the entire conference. This was a new format for the conference. I was relieved it was less than 10 minutes long, but I was also sandwiched between counselors I consider to be legendary. To add to my nervousness, I noticed about half my slides were not all showing on the screens. There’s nothing like presenting your idea about the future of clinical mental health counseling integrating with the medical model and seeing nothing but a giant black screen on the “my vision” slide. Luckily, I had rehearsed enough to get through without my slides and was able to make a joke about it. Once that was over, I felt a huge wave of relief! To my surprise, I was called in front of everyone again to accept the Emerging Professional Award. Then it was really time to just enjoy the rest of the conference.

Closing Out the Experience

To wrap up an exhilarating week, a few friends and I celebrated with dinner. It was bittersweet for it to be over. I could relax, but I also knew I might not see some of my favorite people for another year, until the next conference. It also meant going back to “real life” and not being surrounded by folks with similar goals, thoughts, and passions, which can be motivating and electrifying.

When I arrived home, I reached out to those I met at the conference to keep the momentum going, to follow through on ideas, and to stay in touch. I was honored to be contacted by Jim Messina to help with a study about mindfulness and physician burnout. I was also contacted by a few driven students with brilliant ideas for the graduate student and emerging professional committee, as well as the career field. We quickly established professional relationships and friendships that I hope will last for years.

Without attending the AMHCA conferences, my sense of professional identity as a clinical mental health counselor and community advocate would not be as strong as it is. I learned why I’m a “clinical mental health counselor.” I learned specialized skills to help me serve my clients, my research, and also myself. I made contacts with folks who provide insurance, residential treatment for mental health and substance use disorders, sign language education and services, and different types of therapeutic equipment that any office might need.

We can only learn so much while we are graduate students. Belonging to a professional organization can help fill in the gaps of what we did not learn for clinical practice and for being a professional. For me, attending a conference helped me integrate my training in school into practice and find a sense of community, especially after graduating.

Citation for this content: Northwestern University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program.