A Brief History of the American Mental Health Counselors Association
W. J. Weikel, March 1985
(Updated July 2010)
By the mid-1970’s increasing numbers of counseling graduates were finding employment in a variety of community and non-school settings. Yet the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA) had no distinct division for community and agency counselors. Until the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) was founded, the thousands of professional counselors working in these settings had no organizational home. The American Psychological Association (APA) seemed to be supporting doctoral-level training and APGA had a reputation as an association for school counselors, vocational counselors, college student development people, and rehabilitation counselors. AMHCA was born at just the right moment. People who were community counselors, agency counselors, and so forth quickly latched onto the title mental health counselor and the idea that a unique professional group had been formed to meet their needs.
AMHCA was born in May 1976 when Jim Messina and Nancy Spisso, then director and co-director, respectively, of the Escambia County (Florida) Mental Health Center, were discussing the issue of the lack of a professional organization for community counselors. Their discussion was prompted by a letter to the APGA Guidepost, written by Ed Anderson and a group of Wisconsin colleagues, calling for representation and recognition of non-school counselors in APGA. About a year earlier, Gary Seiler of the University of Florida had written a similar letter.
Being action oriented, Messina decided to call APGA President Thelma Daley, whom he knew from previous work with the American School Counselors Association. Daley promised to send the necessary information for establishing a new division. The process had begun. The name American Mental Health Counselors Association was chosen that first day “because we wanted to have counselors who worked in mental health settings identified and we wanted the name to have a good ring to it” (J. J. Messina, personal communication, November 14, 1983). Messina and Spisso contacted Gary Seiler and Jim Hiett, also in Florida, for help, and AMHCA was born.
Letters were sent to the Guidepost announcing the formation of a steering committee. Anderson and other Wisconsin people joined a nucleus of University of Florida graduates and faculty, helping the steering committee to rapidly grow to 50 members. In July of 1976, the request to form a new division was presented to APGA President George Gazda. At that July meeting, the APGA board had passed a resolution calling for a moratorium on the establishment of new divisions. Hence, the proposal was not acted upon. Undaunted, the steering committee decided to go ahead and establish an independent organization. Bylaws were written and edited, and they were approved by the members on November 7, 1976. AMHCA became a reality and was soon incorporated in the state of Florida.
The first annual AMHCA conference was scheduled concurrently with the APGA convention in Dallas on March 6, 1977. From November 1976 until March 1977, AMHCA had grown from the original 50 to almost 500 members. In Dallas, dynamism and energy were abundant. Most of the charter members were there, and several exciting new persons joined the movement. A variety of half-day training workshops on topics of interest to community counselors were presented, and the first-official membership meeting was held, with presentations by Spisso, Messina, Rodney Goodyear, and Terry Sack. An AMHCA Board of Directors was elected, with Spisso as president, Messina as president-elect, Rebecca Stall as secretary, David Rouse-Eastin as treasurer, and Don Didier as member-at-large. Committees were formed and chaired by some of our most enthusiastic members. The official slogan “AMHCA Works for You” was adopted, but at the late night parties and socials, the unofficial policy of “work hard, party hard” became the rule.
AMHCA’s strong foundation was in place, cemented by competent hardworking professionals in key positions. Norm Gysbers, APGA president-elect, attended the AMHCA meeting in Dallas, and by the close of the APGA convention, the moratorium on new divisions had been lifted. Because AMHCA was already incorporated, a membership vote regarding APGA affiliation was necessary. There were strong sentiments pro and con, but in November, 1977, the membership voted by a margin of 51% to 49% to become an APGA division. Also, at this time Steve Lindenberg was voted as the new president-elect.
Throughout the remainder of 1977 and into 1978 the association continued to grow to almost 1,500 strong. In March 1978, prior to the APGA convention in Washington, DC., another “First Annual AMHCA Conference” was held, this time in Columbia, Maryland. Twenty competency-based workshops were presented, and membership and business meetings were held. The agenda represented the diverse needs and concerns of mental health professionals. From the Columbia meetings emerged many of AMHCA’s present-day priorities: licensure, third-party payments, full parity with other mental health professionals, private practice, and the treatment of special populations in community and private settings.
Excitement at Columbia was high, because the APGA board was expected to act on AMHCA’s proposal to become a division during their Washington meeting a few days later. Norm Gysbers delivered the good news to AMHCA leaders that, effective July 1, 1978, AMHCA would become APGA’s 13th division. On that date, AMHCA President Jim Messina took his seat on the APGA board, with Betty Knox presiding. There was not 100% crossover of members with the move to APGA, but AMHCA quickly rose back to 1,500 members and continued to grow.
Prior to the Columbia meeting, a special ad hoc committee within AMHCA composed the “Blueprint for the Mental Health Counseling Profession,” which added a sense of direction and continuity to the movement. Because counselor licensure was nonexistent at that time, AMHCA leaders proposed the founding of the National Academy of Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselors (NACCMHC). For legal purposes, the academy was established as a corporate entity separate from AMHCA. The first certification examination was given to a group of over 50 applicants on February 3, 1979, at the Johns Hopkins University, Columbia, Maryland campus. The Academy merged with the National Board for Certified Counselors on July 1, 1993 and is located at NBCC headquarters in Greensboro, North Carolina.
In April 1978 Volume 1, Number 1, of the AMHCA News appeared, replacing the mimeographed newsletters of the previous two years. Editor Colleen Haffner and Associate Editor Janet (Asher) Anderson, who later became editor, soon established the AMHCA News as a useful, high quality publication with a grassroots orientation. Under Editor Charles Huber, the AMHCA News expanded to six issues per year (1982-84). Next editor John Moracco expanded the News’ coverage of committee and task force events. News editor Bill Weikel (1987-89) delivered six, twelve page issues per year with regular feature columns and news from the NACCMHC. In the 1988 year, six issues including a 16 page special edition were presented In 1989 there were six regular issues and two special issues. In the summer of 1989, the AMHCA News was re-christened the AMHCA Advocate under new editor Carol Hacker; ten issues of the Advocate are planned for 1989-1990. The Advocate has also expanded to accept regular, paid advertisements and classified ads.
In 1979, Bill Weikel was selected to establish and edit the AMHCA Journal. The editorial board sought a balance between theoretical manuscripts and practical articles that would be useful to AMHCA members. The charter issue appeared in January 1979, carrying important articles about professional identity and certification and a warning to counselors about possible exclusion from the mental health care system. The journal was published semiannually until 1982, when James Wiggins became editor. In 1983, publication began on a quarterly basis, while the journal continued to grow in both stature and reputation. As the journal gained credibility, Linda Seligman (1984-1986) delivered on her editorial promise of guiding it to a period of “. . . esteem, establishment, and enlightenment” (Seligman, 1984). Editor Laurence Gerstein facilitated the change in the name of the journal to the Journal of Mental Health Counseling and continued the journal’s growth with ventures into special topical issues.
Several years ago AMHCA abandoned the governance model of president, president-elect, past president, secretary, treasurer, and members-at-large in favor of a regional representation model. Now the president, president-elect, and past president serve along with four regional representatives who are elected from each of the four geographic regions for two year terms. All committees report to the AMHCA president. The AMHCA board appoints a representative to serve on the ACA governing council. After some recent modification and clarification of duties, this model seems efficient for communicating from the bottom up and vice-versa.
AMHCA has enjoyed a strong, steady growth since its inception. There are many reasons for this: the unique appeal of an association for all mental health professionals, strong leadership, excellent publications, a coordinated lobbying team, and high visibility at regional and national conventions.
AMHCA welcomes all members whose primary responsibility is in an area of mental health counseling. Although usually about 70% of members have a master’s degree and 20% have doctorates (Weikel & Taylor, 1979), there are members who are psychiatrists, nurses, psychologists, social workers, pastoral counselors, and paraprofessionals. There are also about 30% student members at any given time, and current membership programs, scholarships, and special student rates are aimed at increasing the number of graduate student members.
In the early years of the association, the majority of AMHCA members worked in community mental health centers. The majority are working in private practice, including private counseling centers (38%). About 10% working colleges, universities, and junior colleges, 7% in community mental health centers and 7% in community mental health agencies. The rest work for elementary, middle, and senior high schools, rehabilitation programs and agencies, associations and foundations, parochial and private institutions, business and industry, employment services, state, local, federal government, probation or parole facilities, corrections facilities, clearinghouses and research facilities, military installations, aging networks, vocational and technical schools, and “other.” (ACA, July, 1988)
Also, a large percentage of members have traditionally worked in part-time private practices. Seligman and Whitely (1983) reported that “at least 20% of the Virginia Mental Health Counselors Association and AMHCA members in Virginia are in private practice” (p.180). These counselors spend an average of 16.28 hours per week in private practice (Seligman & Whitely, 1983), which compares to the nationwide average of 15.75 hours per week for AMHCA members in private practice reported by Weikel, Daniel, and Anderson (1981). The trend for part-time private practice seems to be increasing and is most certainly related to counselor licensure and credentialing.
Along with their legislative and public relations efforts, AMHCA leaders have made cash grants for licensure and third-party efforts on a state-by-state application basis. They have also offered technical support in developing legislation. The national leadership team attends all AMHCA regional meetings. These are often held in conjunction with the ACA regional branch assemblies and other regional meetings. AMHCA leaders have collaborated with several ACA divisions on projects of mutual concern, most notably with the ACES task force for the training of community counselors. AMHCA has also supported NBCC and CACREP and has representation in both organizations.
Until 1978, when AMHCA hired Judy Weihe as its first lobbyist, mental health counselors had no voice in Washington, DC. Mental health counseling now receives the full- time attention of AMHCA’s Director of Legislative Affairs.
AMHCA leaders work for full parity for mental health counselors in terms of third-party payments and non-discrimination in federal legislation and by private insurance carriers is of equal concern. This too will likely be a long term struggle. Current issues that will increase in importance are: the role of mental health counselors in business and industry through employee assistance programs (EAP’s) and other modalities; health maintenance organizations (HMO’s); hospital privileges for counselors; the counselor’s role in diagnosis; and interprofessional liaisons.
AMHCA leaders hope in the future to generate legislation more favorable to mental health counselors and to propose programs aimed at better health care. The AMHCA Key Person Network, is operational and gearing up for the big fights in the coming years. In a self- evaluation of the association, AMHCA leaders noted a deficit in the depth of leadership, especially among women and minorities. Hence, Vital Vision 1984 in Houston was initiated by Ed Beck and planned by Bob Rencken to recruit and train a cadre of new leaders with fresh ideas and energy. This new leader recruitment and training module has continued in one form or another since then.
AMHCA has been gaining strength and using its influence to bring the power of our members to the forefront on matters of concern to all counselors. One area of concern is the education of the general public about who counselors are and what they can do. Another is the provision of excellent service to AMHCA members. For the past several years, any member in the continental United States has been able to call the AMHCA office toll-free on the 800 line to reach staff and share their good ideas. AMHCA is proud of its chartered state divisions and of the excellent work done by the four region representatives. The toll-free number allows all of these leaders to call the central office with their news and views and helps to prevent the national leadership from getting out of touch with the grassroots members.
AMHCA has capitalized on the uniqueness of mental health counseling by touting the counseling skills, developmental approach, and preventative strategies employed by its members and demanding recognition of their contributions to the health care team.
As long as AMHCA members remember the humble beginnings from the Messina’s spare “central office” bedroom to the current sophisticated, central office, the association will be okay. As long as AMHCA officers can identify those members with talent, energy, and enthusiasm and train them for leadership positions, the association will prosper. AMHCA is the vital voice for all mental health counselors in the nation -- a voice that calls for full equality for all counselors in the health care delivery system and the provision of quality services and care for all clients throughout the country.
American Association for Counseling and Development (1988) ACA and division membership report. Alexandria, VA.
Seligman, L. (1984) Introductions and goals of the AMHCA Journal. AMHCA Journal, 6, 102-103.
Seligman, L. & Whitely, N. (1983), AMHCA and VMHCA members in private practice. AMHCA Journal, 5, 179-183.
Weikel, W. J. Daniel, R.W., & Anderson, J. (1981). A survey of counselors in private practice. AMHCA Journal, 388-94.
Weikel, W. J. & Taylor, S.S. (1979) AMHCA: Membership profile and Journal preferences. AMHCA Journal, 1, 89-94.
On March 14, 2019, the American Counseling Association’s Governing Council approved the request of the American Mental Health Counselors Association to disaffiliate as a division. Both organizations look forward to continued collaboration on issues that will benefit mental health counselors and the profession.