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Annual Conference 2012
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A'Hooah' Says It All

Stephen A. Giunta, PhD, LMHC, NCC
Tampa, Fla.

I jumped at the chance to write this year’s first-person account of experiencing AMHCA’s Annual Conference, but find myself now facing the daunting task of explaining how completely enjoyable and rewarding the experience was without sounding saccharin. My experience was soincredible—it is as if the conference was designed specifically for me—that I’m afraid that describing it to the reader will sound barely credible. 

However, in keeping with the theme of our keynote speaker, Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, I’ll rely on “The Power of Vulnerability” and give it a try.

A great deal of work goes into producing and then orchestrating a large national conference—in this case, a record-breaking conference with more than 550 attendees, participation from 30 state chapters, an excellent array of presenters, and a record number of exhibitors and sponsors. In turn, Brown’s keynote address was inspirational, completely capturing the “Challenges & Opportunities in a Changing World” theme of the conference, and set the stage for the presentations to come. 

Congratulations to everyone involved in the success of the conference. Much of the credit can be attributed to the efforts of Conference Planning Committee Chair Karen Langer, LMHC, now AMHCA’s president, along with the conference committee members and AMHCA’s enthusiastic staff, led by AMHCA Executive Director & CEO W. Mark Hamilton, PhD. 

The conference setting was pleasant and reasonably priced. The Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa was walking distance from Downtown Disney and an assortment of restaurants and shopping opportunities that made the participants’ after-hour activities very entertaining. In fact, even the weather was kind to the conference. With temperatures in the low 90s, many of the participants noted with some irony that Orlando was balmy compared to the record heat wave felt across the rest of the country in July. 

Why Was the Conference Special for Me?

At first blush, I thought maybe it was because I’m a Floridian. I graduated from the University of Florida; I’ve been in private practice and taught in counseling programs in this state for 20 years. One could argue that I had a “home-field advantage.” 

But, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that home-field advantage had very little to do with geography and a great deal to do with feeling at home among professionals dedicated to the mental health and wellness of individuals and families. Yes, I was surrounded by a lot of friends and colleagues last month in Orlando. But, I felt no less comforted at any AMHCA conference I have ever attended. 

In fact, when I have traveled out of Florida to attend an AMHCA conference, I have, if only by necessity, a greater opportunity to make new friends and colleagues. Last year, I met a publishing representative I have since worked with as a reviewer. Meeting her advanced my career, just as this year I helped secure panel speakers for the Orlando conference and advanced their careers. 

This year, I had the pleasure of meeting Robert Wubbolding, PhD, who agreed to Skype into my class to discuss reality therapy, and last year I got to meet and talk to the Coreys—Gerald Corey, PhD, NCC, and Marianne Corey, LMFT, NCC—in San Francisco. In short, this year was not special, because every year is special at an AMHCA conference. 

Timely, Informative Sessions

There were notably more presentations this year and, with a growing need to address military populations in general and suicide prevention in particular, I found those presentations very timely and informative. 

Participants valued the pre-conference workshop on “Suicide Prevention, Intervention, and Postvention,” by Judith Harrington, PhD, LPC, LMFT. Harrington was also a panelist during Saturday morning’s panel discussion, “Warriors and Their Families: Adjusting to Pressures and Transitions.” 

I had the pleasure of personally knowing two of the six panelists, one of whom, Ellsworth “Tony” Williams, is a retired member of the military, a mental health counselor intern in the Suicide Prevention Program at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, and a student at Troy University.

Tony has remarkable clinical skills and brings so much to population of veterans in acute need of services. The faculty at Troy are so proud of Tony and equally proud of the yeoman’s job that AMHCA has done to help open the VA to mental health counselor interns like Tony. Tony also played a role in what, for me, was the most affirming and genuine moment in the conference when he gave out a “Hooah” to his Army brethren in the audience and they responded in kind. 

One of the things I enjoy the most about our conferences is the opportunity to meet with the presenters, either informally after their presentations or during a more structured Networking Break. Armed with a question from a fellow clinician unable to attend, I approached a presenter following his presentation and we discussed in detail his ideas regarding working with veterans in extreme rural environments. I learned a great deal about that issue and later had the opportunity to share that information with the colleague who had raised the question. 

I equally enjoyed meeting Norman Hoffman, PhD, EdD, LMFT, LMHC, CCMHE, president of the National Board of Forensic Evaluators (NBFE), after his presentation, “The Role of the Expert Witness.” Later, I introduced him to a few members of the executive board of the Florida chapter of AMHCA since NBFE is based in Florida. We discussed the state of mental health assessment in Florida and the challenges that Florida’s LMHCs face. 

Another uniquely enjoyable experience was the opportunity to sit in at the students-only 
luncheon. I had been asked to introduce the guest speaker, Claudemir Oliveira, a doctoral student at Barry University. Looking around the room at all the faces of young professionals brought back memories of my first conference experience and how overwhelmed I was by the process. It also reminded me of how important it is as a member of the academy now to introduce students to the habit of attending conferences as a key component in their professional development. 

Oliveira’s presentation on positive psychology focused on how fortunate we are as professionals to be invited into the lives of our clients. Quoting Charles Darwin—“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most responsive (adaptable) to change”—Claudemir inspired the students to set high goals for themselves and the profession. 

Leadership Training Nurtures Chapters and AMHCA

Toward the end of the conference, I had the opportunity to meet with the Florida chapter’s immediate past president, Denny Cecil–Van Den Heuvel, PhD, and our president-elect, Seria Chatters, PhD, LMHC. As outgoing president, Denny had made sure that Seria attended AMHCA’s Leadership Training, which was held immediately prior to the Annual Conference. Seria filled us in on the training, noting that it was an excellent opportunity to meet AMHCA’s current and future leaders. Seria is a very dynamic and engaging person with prior leadership experience within the American Counseling Association, and we all feel confident in the Florida chapter’s future with her as president next year. 

I am already looking forward to next year’s AMHCA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. When I look around the exhibit rooms in 2013 and scan the audience at the various presentations and workshops, I hope to see you there. Hooah!

Stephen A. Giunta, PhD, LMHC, NCC is the Clinical Mental Health Program coordinator at Troy University’s CACREP-accredited Tampa-Bay site. He is a past president of AMHCA’s Florida chapter and maintains a small private practice centered on custody evaluation and post-divorce family counseling. He can be reached via email at 

NOTE: Though the term "Hooah" claims other definitions and spellings, according to Wikipedia, it is a U.S. Army and a Canadian Army battle cry “… referring to or meaning anything and everything except ‘no.’”

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