The American Counseling Association (ACA), the primary professional association that represents professional counselors, is comprised of separate divisions, or “specialties,” that strive to reflect the interests of different segments of the professional counseling community (ACA, no date). Originally named the American Personnel and Guidance Association, the American Counseling Association was established in 1952 when three of the current “divisions” joined together as one organization. These were the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, the Counseling Association for Humanistic Education and Development, and the National Career Development Association. Over time the ACA grew to encompass 17 different divisions, with professional focuses that include serving aging populations, working in educational settings, multicultural approaches to counseling, social justice, and mental health employment, and rehabilitation counseling. (ACA, no date). Being comprised of many different factions has led to a unique professional identity dynamic for professional counselors, permitting many different perspectives to coexist under the same umbrella but at the same time potentially weakening the profession’s ability to coalesce around a common vision. According to one source, “Our specialties are at once a rich heritage and a strong force for fragmentation” (Myers & Sweeney, 2001). Fundamental Approach to Treating Mental Health Problems
Historically, one of the central tenets of professional counseling has been that, unlike other mental health disciplines, the paradigmatic focus has been on wellness and positive developmental health, not psychopathology (Remley & Herlihy, 2001; Ivey & Ivey, 1998). According to the ACA, “What makes professional counselors unique from their peers in other mental health disciplines is their "wellness" orientation. While trained to understand pathology and mental illness, professional counselors take a preventive approach to helping people” (ACA, no date). In adopting the “wellness model” as its primary paradigm for understanding mental health issues, professional counseling reacted against what some professional counselors call the “illness model” used by other professionals including psychologists, clinical social workers and psychiatric nurse specialists (Remley & Herlihy, 2001). Instead of focusing on treating mental health problems, a segment of professional counseling believes their practice should be aimed at helping individuals achieve the best level of mental health and functioning possible for them (Remley & Herlihy, 2001; Briddick, 1997).
This focus on wellness stems in part from the profession being rooted in the field of “guidance” which was centered around developmental models that focused on optimizing human performance (Myers, 1991). The “developmental perspective” of professional counseling means that, for the most part, mental health problems are viewed as normal