Washington Mental Health Counselors Association
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 March 1976 when Jim Messina and Nancy Spisso, then counselors 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.