The American Counseling Association’s Tomorrow’s Counselor essay competition recognizes graduate counseling students with exceptional insight and understanding about the counseling profession and the work of professional counselors in mental health, private practice, community agency, agency, organization or related counseling settings.


Tomorrow’s Counselor: Grand prize winning essay 2022

By Erin R. Gellings of Minnesota State University, Mankato


According to the 2010 census, approximately 19% of the United States population live in rural areas (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Further, almost 60% of people in rural areas reside in a mental health designated health professional shortage area (HRSA, 2022). Rural populations present as an overlooked vulnerable group. Rural areas continue to have higher suicide rates than urban areas, with the gap continuing to widen (Pettrone & Curtin, 2020). Additionally, there are ongoing concerns about the accessibility, acceptability, and availability of mental health care in rural areas (Morales et. al., 2020). As the profession considers where to focus advocacy efforts, it’s clear rural populations need greater access to mental health providers and resources. One way to advocate for greater resources in rural areas is to promote these areas to young professionals, thereby expanding the reach of the field and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the profession.

To attract counselors to rural areas, the counseling profession must turn inward. Professionals are shaped by the topics discussed in graduate programs. Increasing graduate program emphasis on rural areas may result in increased interest in rural populations. CACREP specifies that all curriculum in its accredited programs must address certain social and cultural diversity standards. Though helpful to have these broad guidelines as program guidance, rural communities should be explicitly named as a diverse group for counselor education. The counseling profession can begin its advocacy efforts by lobbying for rural communities to be named in CACREP competencies.

Multiple federal and state programs offer tuition remission or waivers for clinicians who agree to work in rural areas. These programs should be advertised to future counselors and promoted as means to pay for education. Additionally, counseling programs should recruit more from rural areas, as individuals from rural areas are more likely to return to their home communities to practice. Finally, the counseling profession can increase access to mental health care in rural areas by supporting mental health clinicians who are working there. Counseling organizations such as ACA and APA can create virtual consultation groups for rural providers to reduce feelings of isolation and encourage providers to seek consultation for ethical and clinical problems unique to rural areas.

I grew up in rural Wisconsin and, through my work at an outpatient behavioral health practice in my hometown, I saw the shortage of mental health providers firsthand. I witnessed community resources stretched to the breaking point and knew people who fell through the cracks created by limited resources. It was troubling to see individuals with low-level mental health concerns end up in the emergency room or jail because there was no inpatient mental health facility in the county. My graduate education has affirmed my belief that, as a profession, we can do better.  This cause is worthy of advocacy because it is actionable and attainable if the counseling profession is willing to first identify the resources and capabilities it already has to address how future practitioners are trained and take steps in the right direction on this issue.



Erin R. Gellings

Erin R. Gellings is a pre-independently licensed therapist who recently graduated with her master of science in counseling and student personnel from Minnesota State University, Mankato. She specializes in working with rural populations and has experience in outpatient behavioral health and college settings. Erin’s research interests include rural populations and disparities in mental health service access. Erin is passionate about eliminating barriers to care and increasing awareness of how rural communities constitute a diverse population.




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