Starting from a young age, Dr. Amber Pope was intrigued by the human condition and what makes people think and act a certain way. After witnessing what she believed to be mental health issues among some of those closest to her, she was inspired to pursue a career in counseling, not only to find the answers she was looking for but to teach others how to help those struggling with mental health issues.
As the program chair of Hodges University’s clinical mental health counseling program, Pope is unafraid to share her personal struggles. By creating an open conversation among her students, she finds that many begin to share their own stories of struggle and personal growth.
“It’s about being engaged and learning from each other, in addition to learning from me. Our students are very diverse and bring interesting experiences into the program,” she said. “There are times they may know more about something than I do, but that’s what makes it fun. It’s a continual learning process for me, too.”
Earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in community counseling and a doctoral degree in counseling and counselor education, she accepted a full-time professor position at Hodges in 2015 after a former classmate, Dr. Ali Wolf, suggested she apply.
From private practice to academia, Pope specializes in couples counseling, sexuality, gender and sexuality development and LGBTQ-related counseling, and she uses her experiences and knowledge to generate conversation among her students.
For students in the clinical mental health counseling program, Pope and her colleagues’ main goal is to provide students with the knowledge needed to become licensed as mental health counselors. While the program, which is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), consists of essential coursework required for state licensing, it also requires students to complete an internship component and elective component, which enables students to focus on more specialized areas of mental health.
Although textbook instruction is a necessary part of the curriculum, Pope incorporates a “flipped classroom” method, often using class time to discuss cases and current topics and to practice role-play scenarios.
“To see the growth in our students and know I had at least a little part in it is what makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.” – Dr. Amber Pope
Encouraging her students to step out of their comfort zone and embrace difficult or uncomfortable topics, she explains, “When I teach Human Sexuality, I remind the students that you have to learn how to talk about this [sex] because it’s part of being human. Your clients are going to come in with these issues, so we need to learn how to talk about this professionally.”
In addition to learning the appropriate language regarding a sensitive topic, Pope also discusses topics that require students to “think critically of the material beyond what I’m telling them,” she said. For instance, in one class, the discussion revolved around diagnosing mental health disorders in clients and the “Catch-22” of the situation. While it is important to diagnose in order to understand and treat the client, Pope explains the reality of how diagnosis is necessary in order for insurance to reimburse counselors for services. In addition, there is the continued stigma attached to being diagnosed with a mental health disorder – an action that keeps many people from seeking help.
When discussing this stigma surrounding mental health with her students, Pope finds it beneficial to be open about the topic at hand, even admitting she has sought counseling herself. “I talk openly with students about it. I don’t try to hide it, but I try to normalize it,” she said. While not disclosing the conversations of her personal counseling sessions, she uses it as an opportunity to explain what it was like to be the client while the counselor practiced a particular counseling method.
“Students who have had diagnoses and choose to bring it up, I ask them what they learned from their experience and how they can use that experience as a counselor to help others. We try to make it a normal part of the conversation and not something to be ashamed of or feel they have to hide,” she explained.
With the growing need for mental health counselors, there are more than 90 students in Hodges’ clinical mental health counseling program, both blended and online. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for mental health counselors, as well as substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors is “expected to grow 20 percent from 2016 to 2026.”
“We survey our alumni each year and of those who respond, over 90 percent who have looked for a job have found a job in the field,” said Pope. “Because of the type of profession it is, you have to really want to do it,” and Pope is certainly one of those who is passionate about her work.
She has not only participated in interviews to discuss Hodges’ online clinical mental health counseling program, but she has published articles in professional journals on topics relating to supervising counselors-in-training, working with LGBTQ clients and counseling couples. However, her greatest rewards come from teaching.
“To see the growth in our students and know I had at least a little part in it is what makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.”