Editor’s Note: Spotlight is an occasional feature on board certified counselors with a story to share. Feel free to send your ideas for Spotlight candidates to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christopher Townsend, PhD, NCC, LPC, LCAS, CCS, never envisioned himself graduating from college, let alone being called a doctor.
Today, he is an assistant professor and Director of the Your Life Behavioral Health and Wellness Clinic in the Department of Clinical Counseling and Mental Health at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, and has two decades of experience as a leader in reaching troubled youth.
Townsend’s journey to helping those less fortunate obtain mental health care came after living a difficult early life himself.
Townsend was born into a family of sharecroppers—tobacco and cotton farmers. He was raised by his mother in High Point, North Carolina, and lived in constant terror of his abusive, alcoholic father. His mother eventually applied for an apartment, and after two years of waiting, she and her son “escaped” into the projects of High Point.
It was during these years that Townsend began to connect with the elders of his community. Townsend looked after his neighbor, who was wheelchair-bound, and would change his bandages and clean his bed sores.
In addition, despite early behavioral and academic problems, in the fifth grade Townsend met a teacher who took a special interest in him. The woman he calls “Mrs. Hart” had a passion for helping young African-American boys.
“She taught me that I was capable of learning, and not only capable, but that I could excel,” Townsend says. “Her picture is on my refrigerator right now.”
His mother and the community rallied behind Townsend. He was coached from a young age to stay away from alcohol, drugs, and gang activity. The crack cocaine epidemic had hit High Point hard, and his “village” made sure he took no part in it.
As Townsend became more interested in leadership roles, such as his school safety patrol, he began to excel in his classes. He decided he wanted to study human behavior in college, so he received a degree in psychology from Appalachian State University, thinking that would do it for academics.
“Coming from the sharecropping generation . . . I always thought master’s degrees were for white people,” he says. “While no one directly told me that, everything around me communicated that an African-American was not capable or competent of earning that degree.”
Just before obtaining his bachelor’s degree, though, Townsend met Dr. Robert White, then a doctoral student, whose research was on accessibility to higher education for minorities. White not only persuaded Townsend to get his master’s degree, but helped him find the resources to do so.
In 1998, Townsend graduated from Appalachian State University with a master’s in counseling, after completing an internship in addictions counseling. This led him to opportunities to work with children in foster care. Townsend later moved into a private practice, where he worked with many clients, but in particular focused on assisting juveniles with substance use disorders. He says working with such youth captured his heart because he saw the opportunity to impact treatment outcomes and influence the courts to consider rehabilitation over incarceration.
Townsend also began to take on consultant and training roles, including identifying and implementing an assessment to improve the ability to target children who need substance abuse treatment. His training broadened across North Carolina, the United States, and overseas.
In Africa, he began working with populations struggling with war and genocide. Townsend completed his Mental Health Facilitator (MHF) training, and he and his team implemented the MHF program in Liberia. He’s since traveled to other countries in Africa, including Rwanda and Uganda.
“Most of the places I visit, counseling is not available in these countries,” Townsend says. “The MHF program offered a first-aid approach to identifying those with needs and finding resources within the community. If there wasn’t a resource, we were it. Most of the people were suffering from PTSD.”
As his relationships within the local communities grew, Townsend began meeting with government officials of Liberia in an effort to positively influence their mental health care infrastructure. It was during these meetings he saw the need to return to school and earn his PhD. He not only wanted to gain more skills in training and development, but also needed the title of “Doctor,” as those who he worked with tended to respect people with doctoral degrees.
In 2017 the NBCC Foundation selected Townsend for the National Board for Certified Counselors Minority Fellowship Program (NBCC MFP). The goal of the program is to strengthen the infrastructure that engages diverse individuals in counseling and increase the number of professional counselors providing effective, culturally competent services to underserved populations.
Townsend earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Rehabilitation Counseling and Counselor Education from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 2018.
Although he has traveled the world, Townsend remembers his roots. In 2011, the High Point Housing Authority selected Townsend for its Pillar of Fame award to celebrate his achievements and to inspire others in the community.
Because of Townsend’s background and his ties to High Point, he understands the challenges counselors face. Many African-Americans spurn the chance to speak with a counselor, depending on their faith and church community to push through.
“The African-American community still does not trust the system,” Townsend says. “Right now, I represent the system until they learn how to trust me, and we are justified in not trusting that system.”
Although he sees and experiences the injustice in the system on a daily basis, he has hope for change.
“Counseling should and will look very different as we make advances in the counseling field. The people that I need to help I don’t envision coming to sit in an office. We can’t understand the true scope of the environment and its dynamics until you go into that environment and see it,” he says.
“Hearing the client is one thing, but you may be working with someone who is not able to articulate what their struggle is. But if you can go and see and be in that environment long enough, your interventions can be more effective.”
While working on his doctorate, Townsend decided to seek a new challenge. He left North Carolina to join Texas Tech University, where, through the Your Life Behavioral Health and Wellness clinic in Lubbock, he has the opportunity to shape mental health services through addictions, mental health, and rehabilitation counseling. He is currently working on a grant that seeks to close the gap on the disproportionality of African-American boys referred for placement in special education.
“I pursued the program at Texas Tech Health Sciences Center because it was a good fit in its diversity of programming in the counseling department (i.e., addictions, mental health, and rehabilitation counseling),” Townsend says. “Most importantly, the department was supportive of my desire to address the needs of marginalized and oppressed groups of people by bridging the gap in services to those populations.”
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