Dr. Michele Kerulis Discusses Her New Role as Chair of the Midwest Region of the American Counseling Association

Counseling@Northwestern’s core faculty member Dr. Michele Kerulis first became involved with the American Counseling Association (ACA) when she was in her doctoral training program. Her adviser was the president of the Illinois Counseling Association (ICA), a branch of the national organization, and sought her assistance during planning for the state association’s conference.

Dr. Kerulis worked as conference coordinator for several years, serving in various capacities with the Illinois Counseling Association, eventually being elected as its president. Additionally, in her role as ICA President and as board member of the Illinois Mental Health Counselors Association and Illinois Counselor Educators and Supervisors, she became involved in ACA’s Midwest region business meetings. Members of the region, which comprises 13 states with very different characteristics and populations, elected Dr. Kerulis to represent them at the national level as a member of the ACA Governing Council.

With years of service under her belt, Dr. Kerulis has now been selected to serve as the 2020-2021 chair of the Midwest Region of ACA.

“It is now my honor to be the chair of the Midwest region, which is a big responsibility,” she said. “There are definitely some challenges mixed with COVID-19 and social distancing.” 

To learn more about her new role and the duties it will entail, Counseling@Northwestern chatted with Dr. Kerulis, who shared her vision for the organization’s future. 

Why Did You Decide to Become Chair of the Midwest Region of ACA and What Do Your Duties Involve?

I took this position because I’m extremely passionate about advocacy and lobbying. Counseling members and leadership within any branch can attend the Institute for Leadership Training (ILT) in Washington, D.C., sponsored by ACA. Participation includes going to Capitol Hill and speaking to our state leaders about what’s important for our profession. I really wanted to continue that tradition and teach other branches in the region how to do that. 

I’m passionate about counselor health and wellness and talking to people about work-life balance. I was invited to do a few keynotes at state conferences, which have since been canceled and moved online due to COVID.

Right now, what I’m very passionate about is keeping all of our branches and our state leaders motivated and connected. Typically, we are together two to three times a year, face-to-face. This year, our LDA event in D.C. was canceled. The American Counseling Association conference in San Diego, California, in April, was also canceled. And then we were supposed to have our event, the Midwest Leadership Development Academy, in Dublin, Ohio, in September, and we just canceled that. We’re really devastated because being together in person develops career-long professional and personal relationships. The more we can develop as a region and as a nation, the stronger our voices are to pass legislation that will ultimately help heal people through mental health treatment.

What Are Your Priorities While You Serve in this Role?

The priorities that I have right now for the region include helping branch members stay motivated to be in their leadership positions, which are all volunteer roles. In addition to the stress going on in the world, they’re charged with leading a state association. It is a lot of work, and it can be challenging for different reasons. I want to make sure to keep people connected.

People are feeling Zoom fatigue and meeting fatigue. We’re trying to be creative about ways to meet. At the same time, we are encouraging our counselors to talk to their elected leaders about issues like telemental health and portability so that we can continue serving people across the country.

What Are the Biggest Changes That You Have Seen Facing ACA Members?

There are some positives and there are some drawbacks. I mentioned some very clear drawbacks. Those include the inability to be together and really develop those long-lasting relationships. The more we know about what’s important in different branches and states, the more we have the opportunity to try to provide solutions or ideas to help each other. 

Some branches, which are state associations that are affiliated with ACA, have executive directors to help with administrative tasks. Others do not. When we’re together having informal conversations, we get to hear a lot about what people are doing to develop success in their areas. Not being able to hear that informal learning in person from each other is a big drawback. 

People are feeling isolated. But many counselors are skilled at using technology to help them. For example, Dr. Lee Teufel-Prida, who is Counseling@Northwestern’s assistant program director, has been using telemental health for a very long time. I’ve been using it for a long time, because my clients are primarily athletes and they have unusual schedules. 

For counselors, using a digital platform enhances their ability to have counseling services, and I think one of the positives is that we are utilizing technology more. There used to be a stereotype or hesitation to use any kind of a digital platform for mental health, and now we see worldwide, not only is it a good thing, it’s accessible for many and it is effective. It’s not the same as being with a client in person, but it is extremely effective. 

That gives a glimmer of hope: The fact that we can use these kinds of services to provide supervision to new counselors, to consult with experts who might not be nearby, and to provide counseling services to people who might have some kind of physical limitation or injury that makes it difficult to move around.

How Has the Perception of Counseling Changed?

The changes that I have seen have been wonderful. We have been discussing the importance of mental health for decades, for as long as our profession has been around. And it’s really exciting that people are finally understanding that it is not shameful. It is not taboo. It’s not a bad thing to talk about mental health, to talk about problems, and to seek assistance from a licensed professional counselor. 

I see a lot of celebrities in the news talking about mental health. I wrote an article for Psychology Todayabout an interview where Lady Gaga talked about her mental health with Oprah Winfrey. Lady Gaga’s mom, Cynthia Germanotta, was our keynote speaker one year at American Counseling Association. She was phenomenal. I’m really excited to see this subject coming into the mainstream so I wrote a digital e-book and workbook called Demystify Mental Health as a way to encourage people to challenge their perceptions, decrease stigma, and rethink mental health. 

I think that people are more willing to utilize mental health resources, and it’s no longer a secret to say that you’re seeing a counselor. It’s now a badge of honor, and it’s now the ability for people to say, “I am in touch with my emotions, and I believe that counselors can help.” 

Would You Say That More People Have Been Open to the Idea of Getting Counseling During a Pandemic? 

We have seen a significant increase in demand for counseling. While accessibility is greater through technology, some counseling services can be very expensive, and not all insurance covers counseling to a large degree. That is definitely a barrier to receiving counseling. 

People are more primed to seek counseling, but I think that they might hesitate because of the problems related to insurance.

One of my duties in the role of the Midwest Region Chair is to help out with issues or concerns that counselors have across the region. Unfortunately, at times state members reach out to us with concerns about insurance providers giving notice to private practice counselors that the company decided to decrease their reimbursement for counseling services.  I don’t think that an insurance company would ever contact a hospital and say, we’re not paying you the same anymore, and you have to just deal with that. We work to advocate for fair compensation and encourage members to have dialogue with insurance companies to educate them about the field of counseling. One example is ICA’s Insurance Task Force.

When counseling is not covered by insurance or insurance companies decrease reimbursement rates, not only are insurers impacting a counselor’s livelihood and their ability to pay their bills and support their families, but they are impacting the number of people who are able to receive counseling.

What Are Other Areas of Policy That Need to Be Addressed? 

I think one policy that really needs to be addressed is portability for counselor licensure. We need some kind of national portability so that we can provide assistance to more individuals, and there are definitely good reasons why each state has different guidelines. The culture of the state might be different and the needs of the people in the state might be different, but that really prohibits experts from providing direct services to people.

I recently received a call from somebody asking me to provide services to an individual who resides out of state and travels due to their job. Even though I am the best fit of a counselor for this individual, I can’t counsel them because they are not in Illinois. I find that to be a major drawback. This happens too frequently to me and to other mental health providers.

Additionally, counselors are not covered by Medicare. I could be counseling somebody the day before their birthday, and have a long-lasting relationship with them, and then all of a sudden, their birthday hits, and they’re in Medicare age range. I am no longer able to provide services to them and receive reimbursement for services through their insurance company. As counselors, we have to think about our values and ethics. We abide by the ACA Code of Ethics. Ethically, I would not want to end that relationship with my client if we were doing good work. It’s not right to suddenly end that relationship. 

We need more access for substance abuse treatment and eating disorders, and access to technology. Even though it’s readily available for most people, it’s not readily available for all people. We have come a long way and we are breaking through walls, but we have a lot farther to go. We also work on having better treatment for our veterans, and we lobby every year for specific federal grants for school children

The grants that we’ve received typically equal $1.17 billion every year that’s allocated to mental health or social/emotional learning. This grant applies to suicide prevention, bullying awareness, mental health awareness, and career development. We want to continue to see success with that funding.

What Is the Most Challenging Thing About Your Role as Midwest Chair?

I think the most challenging aspect is looking at each state and what their specific state guidelines are to practice and what their clients need. This speaks to why it is important to have cultural competency. To change to something that provides national portability, we would have to open every single state’s laws. When you open a law for revision, there are opportunities that could be helpful or harmful. Other laws might be tucked into it that have nothing to do with counseling. Through political discussion and negotiation, counselors can advocate for what we want, which is that we want to help more people.

Then because of how the system works, legislators and policymakers could alter language that has unintended consequences. For example, in Michigan, during the public commentary period, counselors noticed language changes and advocated to protect their license to practice. The terms “counseling techniques” and “ability to diagnose and identify the problem” were to be removed from their licensing laws. If passed, that would have stripped Michigan counselors the right to practice independently. Counselors in the state, region, and nationally made their voices heard and protected the language needed to allow licensed counselors to practice.  

I believe that states don’t want to open their laws because they don’t want to be vulnerable. Every state licensing board has worked very hard to keep the integrity of their licensure laws because the laws exist to protect the public.

The laws aren’t there to protect you as a counselor. You are expected, as a licensed counselor, to uphold the integrity of the profession. The role of the state board is to protect the public. The challenge is looking at the good of society and pairing that with the specific needs of each state, which is very complicated, especially when discussing portability

What Are the Benefits of Joining ACA for Someone Who Is New to Counseling?

There are so many benefits. Members will meet amazing colleagues nationwide. It gives us the opportunity to understand what’s going on outside of our towns. Especially for people in private practice, the work can be very isolating. ACA provides the opportunity to meet other counselors and brainstorm with other counselors. ACA also works on legislation and policy. Dues for the association partially pay for that kind of activity. It protects our license and our right to practice, as was the case in Michigan. 

Other benefits include access to the Journal of Counseling and Development and the ability to join different divisions. A division is a section within the American Counseling Association that has a specific focus and specialty. Divisions help counselors find a home within the larger association. For example, I am a member of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, where I’ve served on their Executive Committee, as their Treasurer, and am currently their Midwest Region Representative. I’m also a member of the Association for Creativity in Counseling through which I learn about ways we can use our creativity in our field. 

ACA membership helps you develop as a counselor. To maintain our license, we have to have continuing education credits to ensure that we are up to date with best practices in the field. ACA provides at least one free continuing education credit a month to be able to keep your skills up to date. I think that’s extremely important.

Why Is This Work So Important to You?

I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am without my mentors. I have so many informal mentors. That’s another thing I really love about our field: We lift each other up, and we’re helpers. We want to help people, and we want to help people in our field. I have very strong Adlerian values that tell us that we are really not full members of society unless we’re somehow contributing to society. I believe that my contribution is and will continue to be my work through counseling associations and through being a counseling professor.

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