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2013 Annual Conference
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Lives Up to Its Transformative Theme

By Camille Clay, EdD, LPC (right)
AMHCA North Atlantic Region Director
Treasurer, DC Mental Health Counselors Association
Washington, D.C. 

The more than 450 mental health counselors at AMHCA’s 15th Annual Conference just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., spent a busy, stimulating few days networking with peers, advocating for the profession with members of Congress and their staffs, and learning the latest counseling advances.

We gathered at the Renaissance Arlington Capitol View, an environmentally healthy (green) building with an abundance of glass, plants, light, and modern furnishings as well as easy access to the city. It was a beautiful setting for the meeting, greeting, listening, and learning that took place there. Unlike the last time the conference took place in D.C., however, the weather was unfortunately typical of DC summers—hot, hazy, and humid. “Oppressive,” and “heat wave,” understate just how withering a heat index of 105 degrees feels.

State Chapter Leaders Learn From Each Other

The gathering kicked off on Tuesday with Leadership Training activities for both new and established AMHCA state chapter leaders. More than 30 states were represented at Leadership Training, a matchless opportunity to learn about AMHCA and to learn from and interact with other state chapter leaders. 

The overview of legislative issues that AMHCA’s Jim Finley provided in preparation for our visit to Capitol Hill the following day was a highlight of the Leadership Training. Finley is AMHCA associate executive director and director of public policy. 

During the evening Leadership outing, a nighttime bus tour of Washington monuments,  we saw the White House, the World War II museum, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument lit beneath its sheath of scaffolding, the FDR Memorial, and the Martin Luther King Memorial. Although at some sights we were able to get off the bus and walk around, the steamy weather took its toll, and with each stop, fewer participants left the air-conditioned bus. 

We all moaned, complained, and laughed about the heat, but when one chapter leader saw the majestic Martin Luther King monument, she smiled and said, “I was ready to catch a taxi and return to the hotel earlier, but this makes it all worth it.” 

Charging “The Hill”

Every four years when AMHCA’s Annual Conference convenes in the nation’s capital, attendees take advantage of the proximity to Capitol Hill to spend time meeting their elected representatives and advocating in person for causes pertinent to the mental health counseling profession. 

This year’s visit to Congress was very worthwhile. Armed with “Tips for Hill Visits” from Finley, maps of Capitol Hill, and our Medicare and VA issue briefs, we all charged “the Hill” to keep the appointments we had made with our U.S. Senators. Everyone seemed excited and somewhat nervous. 

Because DC residents do not have voting representation in the U.S. Congress (Washington, D.C., is a federal district rather than a state), DC residents Sheila Holt, LPC; Philicia Jefferson, PhD, LPC; and I visited the office of the U.S. House of Representatives D.C. Delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D–D.C.). Her legislative assistant listened to us intently and assured us that Del. Norton shared our concerns. We felt we made a good connection with her office and will be contacting her in the future. 

Our experience with our representative seemed to mirror what most AMHCA members had with their Senators. Some were fortunate enough to see and take pictures with their Senators (see AMHCA members Jennifer Eberle in the above photo (far right) with Sen. Mary Kathryn “Heidi” Heitkamp (D-NPL–N.D.) (center), and her husband, Donny Eberle (left).

On our way out of the Rayburn House Office Building, we stopped to see an art exhibit in the lobby that depicted the persecution of those in China who practice Falun Gong, which is based on the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. It seemed appropriate that AMHCA would be in D.C. at the same time as that particular exhibit.

Our final noteworthy stop on our way to the bus was at the U.S. Botanic Garden for a glimpse of the “corpse flower” (Titan Arum)—an 8-foot tall, 250-pound plant that blooms for one day on no predictable schedule (the bloom cycle ranges from years to decades) and by all accounts emits a most unpleasant odor when it does. We missed the blooming by just a few days. Visit the Botanic Garden website for more information about this intriguing flower.

A Leadership Transition

One unpleasant thing we could not avoid, however, was that this conference would be the last attended by W. Mark Hamilton, PhD, as AMHCA’s executive director and CEO. Many years ago my neighbor, a soft-spoken Southern man, told me, referring to his ailing wife, “You praise a bridge for as far as it carries you.” Mark has done a monumental job during his 15-year tenure bringing AMHCA to where we are now.

At the Awards Lunch on Friday, Mark was indeed praised by the presence of as many as 15 past presidents and other leaders and honored by being named the first recipient of an award named in his honor—the Mark Hamilton Award for Service. Though he assured us he would still be around, I was quite pleased that his future involvement was formalized with the announcement that he will remain on the AMHCA Foundation Board. 

Thought-Provoking, Literally Moving Sessions

Both keynote speakers were most appropriate in terms of place and time. Dr. Jonathan Haidt (shown above) spoke Friday morning about “Why Good People are Divided in Politics and Religion.” A research psychologist, Haidt suggests the current political landscape could be better understood through the lens of morality. I found his talk so thought-provoking that I bought his book and attended his question-and-answer session. 

William Brim, PsyD (shown right), opened the Saturday sessions by speaking on the “Challenge of Reintegrating after Deployment.” He provided a wealth of information about the needs of military members and their families.

I found value in all the workshops I attended. Three that stood out for me were:

  • Thomas Field, NCC, talking about integrating right-brain and left-brain science in counseling practice;
  • The panel chaired by Gary Gintner, PhD, LPC, reporting the most salient changes in the new DSM–5;
  • Angele Moss–Baker, LPC, leading an excellent session on the Affordable Care Act and Behavioral Healthcare.

 My favorite session was, “Dancing Mindfulness,” led by Jamie Marich, PhD, LPCC-S, LICDC. Though I had not planned to participate, I was stretching, kicking, swaying, and dancing with the others in the group using principles of mindfulness and yoga. It was a freeing, relaxing, emotional experience. I hope to learn more about the practice.

Offering a Conference Filled With Whatever Attendees Need

As I write this, I am so aware of how unique and individualized the conference-going experience is. Each of us attends expecting, wanting, needing different experiences, and each of us brings different things to the experience. It’s not easy to meet all the needs for all the attendees all the time. 

Kudos to Judith Bertenthal–Smith, LPC, ALPS, and the AMHCA Conference Planning Committee. I think that whatever participants hoped to get from attending the 2013 AMHCA Conference, they left satisfied. 

I look forward to seeing everyone next year in Seattle … in the other Washington.