American Counseling Association Honors Dr. Eric Beeson With Trailblazer Award

The American Counseling Association recognized Counseling@Northwestern faculty member Dr. Eric Beeson with the Garry R. Walz Trailblazer Award for 2020. The award honors pioneers in the profession who reflect the vision, passion, and leadership exhibited by Dr. Walz, who established the Education Research and Information Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services in 1966 and led VISTAS, an ACA publication and database of counseling resources, for more than a decade until he retired in 2014. Honorees are recognized for development of an innovative program or practice that stands out in originality and practicality and has been validated through research or experience. 

What Does Being Recognized With the ACA’s Garry R. Walz Trailblazer Award Mean to You?

I used to think humility was lowering yourself, and I sometimes struggle with self-deprecating humor. I’ve since learned that humility is building other people up and still being OK to lean into your own strength. I think it was an exercise in that kind of humility to be able to say: “Thank you. I want to acknowledge this tremendous honor of the award for my own contributions, but also the many people that have helped make it possible.” Part of the Trailblazer Award is bringing other people along and giving other people opportunities. That was one of the most special parts of that award. It’s not just saying that you have done great things, but you have done things, and it has propelled other people to do great things, too.

The process is this: There’s a nominator, then you have to write a statement, and then you have to get letters of support. I get a little teary just thinking about it. It’s very meaningful. I’ve had so many people throughout my career give me a chance. This is just another example of me standing on the shoulders of people that have come before me. I am that person for the next generation, too. It’s not about me. It’s about the power of the collective pushing the profession forward. 

What Was the Idea or Concept That This Award Recognized?

It was really a hope that counselors will not only be competent in the infusion of neuroscience in our practice, but also set the bar for the application of neuroscience among all helping professions. Most of us will not conduct primary, basic molecular and cellular science research but we need to think about what this basic science research means when I’m sitting next to a person or a family or a group. What does that finding say about the work that I do?

We’ve really been pushing the field to ask those questions, create new theories, and then engage in research to evaluate them. The vision is that we are not only competent in knowing that type of research, but we also can begin to theorize and examine what it means to apply it in the counseling process. There are many ways that I’ve been able to implement that vision, including the formation of the first dedicated section in a counseling journal to neuroscience-informed practice, first ever Neuroscience in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Task Force through the American Mental Health Counselors Association, and the Brainstorm Neuroscience Community (www.webrainstorm.org). I think these strategies are what the award has recognized: a lot of tangible efforts that I, alongside others, have been able to do to bring that to reality.

Can You Explain a Little More About Basic Science Research?

Scientific inquiry exists on a continuum from basic to translational science. In neuroscience, basic science focuses on the underlying building blocks of the nervous system, often through molecular and cellular methodology; however, some would argue that measures of brain activity, like fMRI, and other peripheral measures, like qEEG, also fall into this category. Translational science takes those findings, creates theories about what the basic science means in the real world, and then tests the application of theories, the translation of the basic science in practice. Basic research is just very expensive. For example, every time you turn on an fMRI machine, it’s very expensive. Counselors are not typically a well-funded research profession. We teach a lot and we practice a lot, and that takes away from time in some of the large-scale, multimillion-dollar research projects.

A lot of times, we take the basic science research and we translate those findings into clinical applications. We take those basic findings, turn them into theory that we can apply, and then research to see if it works. That’s where counselors exist. I, along with many of my colleagues who have been on this journey, want to ensure that counselors aren’t left out of that discussion. We want to make sure that the values, which we bring as a profession that focuses on human development, social justice, and wellness, are in that conversation.

What Else Did Your Colleagues Highlight That Led to Your Trailblazer Award?

The key areas that people highlighted in the award nomination include: 

I’m a gap-analysis guy, and I’ve noticed a lot of gaps. There was a gap in the field where the education related to neuroscience isn’t in our graduate programs. The questions were: How do we fill that gap? How do we provide access to research? How do we provide access to new ideas? So, we created the Brainstorm Neuroscience Community, which is a monthly meetup where we read an article, invite the author, get together, and dialogue with the author. Sometimes, it’s a formal presentation. Sometimes, it’s an informal conversation. The unique part is we read beforehand so we’re informed about what they’re talking about, and we can get the most out of our conversation together. That’s been going on for two-and-a-half years now and is bridging a gap between researcher and clinician.

Another gap in the field that I saw was that people who were doing neuroscience research were having trouble getting it published in the counseling field for two reasons. One, some people still believe that it’s counterintuitive to who counselors are. I disagree with that. Two, the reviewers on the editorial review board just didn’t have the technical expertise to review the articles well.

As a result, we approached the Journal of Mental Health Counseling and we pitched a dedicated section in the journal about neuroscience research. That started about two years ago, and the section has really proliferated neuroscience publications in the counseling field. People not only have a place to read but also have a place to contribute articles. That speaks to the benefit of being able to provide spaces for people to thrive and to do good work.

I persuaded one of my colleagues to co-edit a book (The Neuroeducation Toolbox: Practical Translations of Neuroscience in Counseling and Psychotherapy) with me. We’re excited about that. It pulled together 54 contributors from across the world and compiled how they translate neuroscience in their work. 

Three years ago, at AMHCA, we established a neuroscience task force. The task force is doing good work and trying to determine some answers that the field hasn’t answered yet, like what is the minimum level of knowledge and skills in neuroscience necessary for all counselors and for those at later stages of their development.

I’ve been working with a company out of Australia called Hello Driven, which builds a neuroscience-informed resiliency model. Driven has a mobile application as well as an artificial intelligence chatbot to facilitate that platform. I’ve been on the company’s science advisory board, and we’re starting to do some research. I was able to negotiate a partnership with AMHCA to bring that to the U.S. The company’s focus is primarily Australia but is expanding across the world, so we wanted to bring that resource to the U.S. as a way to provide some self-care for clinicians. It also can help with additional training, additional clinical interventions, and potentially other revenue streams for counselors who want to diversify their practice. They may not want to work just one-on-one with people. They might want to work at a broader level. We are trying to meet the needs of those folks. 

You Mentioned Resistance Related to Neuroscience in the Counseling Field. How Do You Manage That?

Change models have champions, early adopters, and late adopters. I certainly haven’t been the first, but I think that we’ve been able to build momentum that others previously haven’t. That’s just the natural evolution of the field. We’ve seen that with trauma, when people say, “This is trauma-informed.” Everything should be trauma-informed. It just takes an intentional focus to get it there, and that’s where neuroscience integration is now. It needs intentional focus, so the counseling field can debate, so the field can create, and then the field can decide whether it’s integrated into everything that we do or not. Part of building momentum has been through allies, and there have been some journals that have allowed us to have that debate in an academic setting.

The biggest concern has always been people thinking it’s too reductionistic, and people have the same belief, about a mental health diagnosis—saying you can’t boil people down to one diagnosis or you can’t boil people down to one neurotransmitter or one network or one whatever. I think people have that view of neuroscience.

I have a different view of neuroscience. I view it as more exploratory, rather than explanatory. I view it as opening up more possibilities, rather than reducing people down. And, I still view it as a theory. Some of the criticism is that when people see neuroscience, they assign it some superiority, whether it’s true or not. There’s research where they’ve given two pieces of information. One was factual, without neuroscience attached to it, and one was a lie, with neuroscience attached to it, and people believed the neuroscience lie or the lie supported by neuroscience. There’s reason to be cautious.

I think it’s important to look at it from the lens of theory: This is like any other theory that we build, evaluate, and further develop . Whether it’s cognitive-behavioral therapy or neuroscience-informed therapy, they’re all theories that we explore, we theorize, we evaluate, we research, and hopefully it changes the way that we do things for the better. People would criticize, saying that there’s little evidence to say that it’s better. I agree. We need that research, but that’s the natural flow of scientific inquiry. It’s not like you can go from theory to this wealth of research evidence overnight. There is a process.

We’ve been able to respect one another, learning from each other’s perspective while also providing space for disagreement to happen in an academic setting and also in a professional association.

Citation for this content: Counseling@Northwestern, the Online Master of Arts in Counseling Program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University.