Raissa Miller, an associate professor of counselor education at Boise State University, researches “neuroeducation,” a relatively new intervention that falls under the larger umbrella of neuroscience and mental health counseling integration. In fact, she coined and defined the term herself in her recent book, The Neuroeducation Toolbox: Practical Translations of Neuroscience in Counseling and Psychotherapy.
It is for her pioneering work exploring how neuroscience can benefit mental health clients that Miller has been named researcher of the year by the American Mental Health Counseling Association.
“Neuroscience is a newer area of focus for the mental health field and its reception and acceptance has been somewhat slow,” Miller said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the humanistic background of the field. Humanism emphasizes holism and first-person experience over reductionism and biological drives.
“Neuroscience and humanism do not have to be at odds, however,” she added, which is why “it’s great to be recognized by a national, active and impactful organization.”
“Raissa’s research has the potential to impact the field of Counselor Education because it translates neuroscience into practical clinical applications for counselors that are empirically-based and build on an interdisciplinary knowledge base helping clients understand their emotional responses and behaviors,” added Aida Midgett, chair of the Department of Counselor Education in Boise State’s College of Education.
Miller also works as an associate editor for the neuroscience section of the Journal of Mental Health Counseling, which is produced by the American Mental Health Counseling Association.
Explaining neuroscience and ‘the tip of the iceberg’
Miller began exploring neuroscience as another tool in the arsenal of mental health counseling while working on her doctorate 12 years ago at the University of North Texas.
“I started sharing neuroscience concepts with clients in an exploratory way, connecting the experiences they were sharing with me with what I was learning about neuroscience, to help them understand their experiences better,” she explained. “It’s just one of many ways counselors and clients can connect and share their experiences.”
Neuroeducation is highly individualized, Miller says. Take a common topic addressed in mental health counseling: trauma. How individuals react to trauma can vary widely, as is how they internalize and store that trauma.
“A lot of people don’t understand how trauma is stored in the brain and body, and don’t connect past traumas to their current experiences or struggles – maybe they’re hyper vigilant or tense all the time, or have a chronic low grade fear and that doesn’t make sense to them, because their trauma might have happened 20 years ago,” Miller said. “What they’re experiencing now could be memories stored in their bodies and manifesting through unrecognized perceptual bias, emotional reactivity, and behavioral impulses.”
Being aware of that connection can help clients better understand their reactions and address past trauma. Miller likens these reactions to an iceberg. She used to work in addiction treatment centers and community counseling clinics where she would draw pictures for her clients to illustrate the relationship.
“The top of the iceberg is everything you are consciously aware of, including explicit memories, and below the surface are all the factors that influence thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are less conscious, including implicit memories,” she explained.
Educating students to be effective counselors
Miller now helps counselors in training make those same connections at Boise State’s counselor training clinic housed in the College of Education. Second-year master’s and doctoral students in the counselor education program are required to enroll in a practicum, during which they see clients – other Boise State students who’ve volunteered for the chance to receive free counseling. The counselor education students practice under supervision; volunteers commit to a minimum of three sessions but many come for the whole year. Volunteers are screened to ensure they’re not in acute crisis – like experiencing suicidal ideation.
That said, “our students see very real issues from trauma to addiction,” Miller said. “Students have a lot of concerns and struggles and they bring that in the room.”
In addition, Miller was just awarded $4,180 from Association for Assessment in Research and Counseling to test a mobile resilience app that complements the counselor training clinic.
“It will look at how the counseling sessions plus use of the app increase resilience in the face of Covid-19,” she explained.
“Raissa clearly enjoys her work both as a researcher and as a teacher. She integrates her research into the classroom setting providing students with cutting edge approaches to counseling that students, in turn, can apply to their work with clients,” Midgett said.
The project will run December 2020 through May 2021 in the training clinic on campus. Miller’s co-principal investigator for the project, as well as the co-author of her book, is Eric Beeson, a faculty member at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
– By Cienna Madrid