Editor’s note: Both audio and video downloads of the keynote addresses delivered at the ACA/CCA Convention are available on the ACA website at www.counseling.org.

If counselors occasionally feel that their work goes unnoticed or underappreciated by the world at large, those in attendance at the American Counseling Association/Canadian Counselling Association Convention in Montréal received a healthy dose of both gratitude and encouragement. Both Stephen Lewis and Mary Elizabeth “Tipper” Gore, the convention’s keynote speakers, readily and enthusiastically acknowledged the pivotal role that counselors play in society.

“It’s a tremendous privilege to speak (at this convention),” said Lewis, the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and one of TIME magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world” for 2005. “I have a huge admiration for the profession of counseling. … You are people who care deeply about the human condition.”

Gore, the mental health policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton and the wife of former Vice President Al Gore, told the audience, “Professional counselors have a very special place in my heart. … I know how very important your work is.” She told the assembled counselors that they perform a variety of important tasks, from saving lives to making sure that people live their lives more fully, from keeping families intact to helping people from all walks of life reach their potential. “You are not choosing an easy road in life when you decide to work in the mental health field,” said Gore, who asked the counselors in attendance to think about the victories they had achieved and to celebrate each other’s indispensable contributions with a round of applause. “I know sometimes we don’t do that enough,” she said.

But neither keynote speaker came to the ACA/CCA Convention solely to pat counselors on the back. Lewis in particular made a passionate plea for counselors to stand up and fill the void as “moral anchors” for a world that oftentimes seems adrift. Lewis, the former deputy executive director of UNICEF and former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, said he was particularly disturbed that nations in the Western world are spending billions of dollars to sustain wars but can’t seem to find a “microscopic smidgen of that to sustain the human condition.”

A ‘call for action’ in Africa

Much of Lewis’ address on April 1 focused on what he termed the “almost hallucinatory nightmare” of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. Based on current projections, he said, by 2012, the disease will have killed or infected approximately 100 million people. In his travels throughout Africa, Lewis regularly witnesses the devastation wrought by HIV/AIDS. One person told him, “My country is living with a holocaust.” Another simply declared, “My country is on its knees.”

In reviewing the program guide for the ACA/CCA Convention, Lewis noted that he saw one session for counselors that discussed feminist theory and another that focused on grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. Both topics have relevance to the current climate in Africa, he said.

No other communicable disease has ever focused on women to the extent that HIV/AIDS has, Lewis said. In sub-Saharan Africa, he explained, 60 percent of those infected are female. “The struggle to empower the women of Africa … is one of the greatest struggles we have today,” Lewis said. “You can’t imagine how frightened and anxious these large numbers of women are.”

Lewis said African mothers regularly ask him, “What’s going to happen to my children when I die?” Lewis admitted to the audience that he doesn’t know the answer to that heart-wrenching question, but he does know that Africa has a tremendous need for counselors.

“Counseling has become one of the most crucial components of treating this pandemic,” he said. Some African nations are now requiring that their citizens be tested for HIV/AIDS, Lewis said, and this testing requires both pre- and post-counseling. “The best counselors I have seen in Africa actually accompany the woman back home for the moment of disclosure to their husband,” Lewis reported. As can be imagined, the atmosphere surrounding these encounters is often intense. Counselor mediation between the partners “is becoming increasingly important,” he said.

Orphans are another group in desperate need of counseling, Lewis said. No one anticipated the number of children that would be left behind by the onslaught of HIV/AIDS in Africa, he said, and “the deluge has become an almost irreversible torrent.” Millions of African children have been left to crave not only nurturance and love, Lewis said, but simply a tactile connection with an adult. When he travels in Africa, children regularly grab on to him, Lewis said, clinging to the slightest opportunity for physical contact. Children as young as 8 are now heading sibling households, he said, while many others are reduced to wandering the landscape, overwhelmed by their circumstances. “These kids are desperate for some type of thoughtful, sensitive, therapeutic response,” Lewis said.

The communities are too poor and the numbers too staggering to absorb all the orphans, Lewis reported. In many cases, young girls are persuaded to have sex for pennies, while young boys are convinced to enter into egregious child labor because they believe it offers them their only hope of survival.

Under these most trying of conditions, Lewis said, grandparents — in particular, grandmothers — have emerged as Africa’s unsung heroes. At an age when “they should be looked after by their own children,” he said, “instead they are starting to parent again.” And in trying desperately to meet the children’s needs, these grandmothers have their own need, Lewis said. They often report to him that they desire counseling even more so than medicine or money, he said.

While the efforts to find a vaccine or develop drugs to treat HIV/AIDS are intense, Lewis said, what are not adequately taken into account are the African societies raw with loss. That’s why he told the assembled counselors that they “have an extremely important contribution to make” to the ongoing battle against HIV/AIDS. Lewis said he could envision a “Counselors Without Borders” type of program and charged those in attendance with fashioning some type of solidarity with Africa and the developing world.

“The opportunity, the possibility of the counselors of the world united … in the decency that pounds in your hearts,” Lewis said, “you can’t imagine the difference you could make.”

CCA President David Paterson told convention attendees that Lewis’ address should be “taken as a call for action.”

When life skips a beat

When ACA President Patricia Arredondo started thinking about possible speakers for the convention, Tipper Gore was at the top of her list. “She is a tireless advocate in eradicating the stigma of mental illness,” Arredondo said. “She is someone who is so humble about what she does yet has made such an impact on our society.”

Indeed, Gore’s career has been the embodiment of activism, including founding such groups as the Congressional Wives Task Force, the Parents’ Music Resource Center and Families for the Homeless. But in addressing ACA/CCA Convention attendees on April 2, Gore said she didn’t originally set out to blaze a trail as an advocate and activist. An avid photographer, she shared not only her personal story with the audience but also family photos that marked her life’s journey.

Married at age 21, Gore envisioned herself becoming a family counselor and thought her husband would become a writer. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University and then her master’s degree in psychology from George Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. Her interest in family and mental health issues was born in part from personal experience. Her parents divorced when she was 4, and her mother struggled with clinical depression. “At the time,” Gore said, “mental illness was something that wasn’t discussed” outside of the home.

Her plans to become a counselor changed, however, when “life skipped a beat” — a theme repeated throughout Gore’s life and incorporated into her keynote speech. In this instance, the change in life’s rhythm came about because of Al Gore’s decision to end pursuit of a writing career and to instead enter politics. Soon after he was elected to Congress, Tipper Gore established the Congressional Wives Task Force, which focused in part on the effect that TV violence had on children.

Gore’s own children inspired her to take on the challenge of advocating for the homeless. One day, as she and her children were out walking, they saw a homeless woman. Curious, the children asked Gore why the woman was talking to herself, and she explained that the woman probably had a mental illness. The children next asked a question that spoke to Gore’s concern for the human condition: “Who’s going to take care of her, Mom?”

Gore went on to co-found and chair an organization to help the homeless, focusing especially on those who are mentally ill, and to raise public awareness of homeless issues. Gore herself often spent time talking with the homeless population in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, and helping them to attain services. Having asked one woman what she could do to help, Gore vividly remembers her response: “You can help me get my reality back.” Today, Gore reported to the audience, that same woman is living independently and working full time.

During her time in Washington, Gore made personal connections with many of the city’s homeless. “This isn’t what I dreamed of when I said I wanted to be a professional counselor,” Gore confessed to the audience. Nevertheless, she said, building those relationships and playing some part in helping others improve their lives has proved to be both a satisfying and transformative experience.

Despite Gore’s personal belief in the importance of mental health services, it took a near tragedy close to home and a tragedy that shocked the entire nation a decade later before she embraced her role as an outspoken advocate and revealed her own story. In 1989, the Gores’ son, Albert III, was struck by a car and almost killed. Following that accident, Tipper Gore said, she realized she was suffering from clinical depression, which was successfully treated with the help of professional therapy and medication. However, Gore was too worried about the stigma attached to mental illness to reveal her struggle publicly.

But an experience shortly after the nation’s most infamous school shooting convinced Gore that she needed to speak out. In the aftermath of Columbine, she met with students and teachers to talk about the issue of suicide. When asked if they or someone they knew had ever considered suicide, a majority of the students in the room raised their hands, to the dismay of all the adults present. When asked why they were hiding their feelings instead of reaching out for help, many students responded, “We’re afraid. We don’t want to be labeled.” Gore quickly realized that she was doing the same thing. Unless she and others in the public eye found the courage to step forward, she decided, yet another generation would suffer in silence because of the stigma of mental illness.

From that point forward, she publicly acknowledged her own struggle with depression and became one of the nation’s most visible advocates for mental health care services. In addition, she served as chair of the first White House Conference on Mental Health.

In preparing her talk for the ACA/CCA Convention and in reviewing the pictures she had chosen for her presentation, Gore said she was reminded of opportunities — both those she had seized and those she had missed. When life skips a beat, she told the assembled counselors, it is wiser to embrace the change instead of mourning the best laid plans. “It’s the journey,” she said. “The journey is the reward. Make the most of the unexpected twists that have come your way.”