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Fresh Breezes and Fresh Ideas Flow at AMHCA's Annual Conference in San Francisco
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Fresh Breezes and Fresh Ideas Flow at AMHCA's Annual Conference in San Francisco

By Linda L. Lawless, LMHC, LMFT
President, CAMHCA/ALPCCC, 2011–2012

Frugality was my mantra when I registered for the recent AMHCA Annual Conference in San Francisco. My financially cautious inner voice said, “Only register for the conference, not the pre-workshops and extra events.” Boy, did I end up paying a stiff price when I discovered what I had missed. 

On the up side, while the rest of the country was sweltering under record-breaking heat, conference attendees in San Francisco were looking for places to buy a coat—ASAP. Happily we were in the heart of San Francisco’s shopping district, so that wasn’t a problem. But I diverge!

Take Time to Enjoy the Conference City

Living just a beautiful 45-minute ferry ride away from San Francisco, but only infrequently taking the time to “play,” I was excited to join friends in “The City by the Bay” for the AMHCA Annual Conference. I had never been to Alcatraz Island, site of the infamous prison, so I eagerly planned a day before the conference to see the sights.

Note to Self and others:
 When planning to attend a national conference, reserve some time before or after to see the city in which it takes place. I speak from the experience of being miserly with my time, and consequently missing some of the wonders of our beautiful country. I know the inside of hotels in Nashville, Florida, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and more, and wish I had ventured outside more when attending conferences there. I know some conference attendees who always look for local theatre events and spend an evening enjoying the flavor of each city. My visiting friends saw the local Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco and raved about it throughout the conference.

The Reason for These Adventures—the AMHCA Conference

I’m pleased to report that I did splurge on the Leadership closing event, a trolley tour and dinner on the Bay. We saw local “flavor” as only San Francisco can serve it up, as well as national architectural treasures and local history sites. 

The next day the conference began in full force. Everyone I spoke to said the pre-conference workshop on psychopharmacology was the best one they had ever attended. I go to a medication workshop every year to stay on top of changes, and apparently my pennywise policy made me miss a great one.

New Note to Self: look more closely at my overall continuing education plan (yes, you should have one) to see what conference offerings fit into the plan.

Since the conference presentation topics ranged from inspirational to pragmatic, attendees could follow their own interests when creating their conference schedule—not an easy task. So I ask, is “Self-Directed Neuroplasticity” pragmatic, inspirational, or both? The tracks identified in the program this year were helpful. Each workshop was coded as one of nine tracks—Assessment, Clinical Approaches, Children & Adolescents, Creative Therapies, Current Trends, Education & Supervision, Ethics, Multicultural, and last but not least, Self-Care, which I don’t believe clinical mental health counselors do enough of.

This year’s conference offered two keynote sessions, both by rock stars in our field. One of my favorite sessions was the keynote on “The Power of Self-Directed Neuroplasticity,” given by Rick Hanson, PhD, author of “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.” He gave an overview of how we can use our mind to change our brain to change our mind for the better. After each keynote, an all-day workshop was available to deepen the experience and understanding of the speaker’s and others’ work. 

While in Dr. Hanson’s workshop, one of my colleagues had his ever-present cell phone buzz. Knowing that a family member may need help, my colleague left the room to take the call. He later described using his new skills to let go of his inner turmoil after managing things over the phone. He said he returned to the workshop able to be present, rather than preoccupied with events going on at home. 

This experience is one of the things I love about our field. No matter how long you’ve been a counselor, there is always something new on the horizon to help me, and my clients live a better quality of life, and often I discover them at professional conferences. 

The other keynote speaker, Scott Miller, PhD, issued a professional growth challenge in his address, “Achieving Clinical Excellence.” There was some controversy about his data-gathering methods and his use of outcomes data, the kinds of things that would go over my head but that I believe are important. Since Dr. Miller’s presentation style was part satire, I found myself laughing so hard that I sometimes didn’t pay enough attention to the details. That’s why it was so great to connect and dialogue about presentations afterwards. I believe we, as professionals, must always keep a keen eye on the quality of our work. Miller challenged all of us to do that.

Candy, Pens, and Stress Balls = Exhibitors Support AMHCA

Then there were the exhibitors. On my first pass through the exhibitor center, I picked up several pens, a new insulated lunch bag, a globe-of-the-world stress ball, and my favorites—a See’s Candy sucker and a pedometer to walk off the calories. Later, guilt and the search for morning coffee and bagels took me back to the exhibitor center where I discovered new resources (besides the candy) for my clients and myself. More exhibitors and sponsors than ever supported AMHCA this year.

Networking and Feeling Rich From New Experiences 
and Networking with New People

Too late in the conference I sought out the networking room, a peaceful space to chat and meet someone new. What a great place! Every time I went there I met new people or reconnected with others. It was a bit like a game of chance. I’d meet someone in a workshop and the next thing I knew, they’d be sitting next to me studying the conference agenda. I’d wonder what they thought of the previous presenter and an easy conversation unfolded. 

I enjoyed learning about the different perspectives of clinicians working in different settings, such as schools, prisons, and elsewhere. Then it would turn out they grew up in a place close to my hometown, and the world got nicely smaller. 

Stepping back, I recognize that I find these big conferences are like a rich, five-course meal. There is so much information that deepens and broadens knowledge, there needs to be a time for integration and accommodation as well.

New Note to Self: Keep the re-entry week lightly scheduled so I can go over my notes, buy the books I missed at the conference book store, and digest the experience rather than add those tasks to my unending To Do list. Yes, there were some minor frustrations. The greatest for me was missing a few of the local restaurants and shows so that I could catch up on sleep!

Conference Gave Me Quality Time, in Lots of Ways

Personally, I spent quality time with old and new friends; professionally, I grew in many ways, which include new business directions and funding sources for my practice. And let’s not forget the great food that I didn’t have to cook or clean up after!

More importantly, I supported my national association, which looks out for me in the professional marketplace. 

Though I gained so much from attending this year’s AMHCA Annual Conference, my mental miser is already pinging me about the cost of attending next year’s conference in Florida. Using my new “reduce the inner chatter” skills, my plan is to act by adding up all of my expenses for this year’s conference, and start a continuing education budget line to create a win-win solution for next year. I hope to peacefully see you there!

Linda L. Lawless, LMHC, LMFT, is 2011-–2012 president of the California Association of Mental Health Counselors (CAMHCA). She maintains a private practice in Benicia, Calif.; she is a partner in the training company, the; she directs the MaMHCA/MA LMHC continuing education program, MMCEP; and she teaches professionals how to create, maintain, and sustain successful private practices. To be notified of the release of her new book, “LifeDancing—Mastering Life’s Movement,” email, and put “Subscribe to LifeDancing” in the subject line.