As a psychotherapy or counseling student, you are very likely to come across such written assignments as counseling case studies. As this is a very particular type of academic assignment, we created this guide to help you write psychotherapy case studies as a professional.
A counseling case study is basically a simulation of your future work as a counselor. You have got a case about a person who has some psychological or mental challenges. You are provided with a description of the situation, the client’s complaints, behavior, some environmental factors like family, work, ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic factors, and you need to present your opinion about the situation and a tentative treatment plan.
So essentially, you need to imagine yourself as a psychotherapist who works with this client and knows how to treat him. Therefore in your paper, you cannot just write irrelevant information such as definitions of mental diseases, history of counseling, or other side digressions just to fill up the required word count. This approach may work for many types of essays, but not for counseling case studies. When writing case studies on psychotherapy, you need to be very on point.
Your paper should contain three basic sections:
- Your analysis about the client’s situation;
- Diagnosis or summary/interpretation of the client’s problem from a particular theoretical standpoint or from an integrative perspective
- Interventions that might help the client based on your analysis.
Your counseling case study should contain the analysis of the client's situation, assessment or diagnosis, and treatment plan containing proposed interventions and reflection on the therapeutic process.
Keep in mind that the basic principle of academic paper writing is: KNOW WHAT YOU WRITE. That means know what you are required to write (make sure you understand the assignment and read the case carefully) and have the background knowledge about the theory and practice of psychotherapy, general counseling theories or a specific theory, and therapeutic techniques and interventions.
For some people, such an assignment may seem overwhelming as you are not a working counselor yet and you are not sure how to tackle the client’s problem. But do not panic, just follow the steps below to produce a high-quality counseling case study.
1. Read your assignment and the case description carefully
Clarify all the terms you encounter in the case. Make sure you know what theory of psychotherapy you are expected to follow in your diagnosis and treatment plan. If no theoretical approach is mentioned in your assignment, check if you have covered any particular theories in your classes.
If you are not sure what a theory of psychotherapy is, it’s a particular approach to interpret psychological and mental problems. The first theory of psychotherapy was psychoanalysis developed by Sigmund Freud. Its theoretical foundation relied on distinguishing three parts of the mind: ego, superego, and id; recognizing the role of the subconscious with its instincts and drives in psychological conflicts; interpreting maladaptive behavior through the lens of ego defenses; recognizing the role of early childhood experiences, particularly childhood traumas, in the pathophysiology of mental problems. Later, many other theories of counseling were developed, such as Adlerian, existential, humanistic and person-centered, behavior (BT), cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), Gestalt therapy, reality, feminist, narrative, solution-focused brief therapy, family systems therapy, and many others. So if earlier in the class, you covered humanistic counseling, you can use the humanistic theoretical approach in your case analysis (unless, of course, your assignment clearly states what theory you need to follow).
2. Review the textbook chapters on that theory paying attention to particular approaches to diagnosis and therapeutic techniques.
Theory is important as different theoretical frameworks interpret the same situation in a different way. For example, the same symptoms could be interpreted as defenses caused by childhood trauma in psychoanalysis, malfunctioning behavioral patterns in Behavior therapy, dysfunctional cognitive schemes in CBT, unfinished business in Gestalt, destructive environmental factors in feminist therapy, being stuck in a pattern of living a problem-saturated story in narrative therapy, and so on.
3. Re-read the case again paying attention to special terms
and see if you now understand the meaning of these terms after studying the literature.
4. Read additional resources (optional)
If you still have doubts about the case and how to proceed with it, you might need additional resources, either provided by your teacher or found on the Internet. If you have a specific psychotherapeutic theory to follow for your case, you can google “assessment and treatment in [your theory]” and search for books, worksheets, or articles.
5. Summarize the client’s situation in the case.
In this stage, we start writing up the draft of the case analysis. Describe the gist of the client’s problem as he sees it and as you can grasp from the description of his behavior, thoughts, and feelings in the case. If you can locate it in the case, summarize his family situation, relationships, the family of origins, and work relations. Also, note if any sociocultural factors, like race, religion, ethnicity, gender, income level, sexual orientation, or neighborhood, may have impacted the client and his significant relations. Note if the client has previously done efforts to deal with his problems and what these efforts were.
6. Formulate a diagnosis for the client.
This section will often require you to provide a diagnosis according to DSM diagnostic criteria or formulate a problem according to the conventions of your counseling theory. Some theoretical frameworks, like Narrative or Feminist therapy, do not make diagnoses in working with clients as they view clinical diagnosis as a pathologizing, discriminatory and condescending practice that skews power balance in favor of the therapist. So if you are writing the case study within one of these paradigms, you will not have to provide a diagnosis for the client. However, you will still have to make a sort of assessment. While diagnosis involves identifying specific mental disorders based on patterns of symptoms, for assessment, you need to point out the client’s main problem and identify the main factors of the client’s life that you think might be contributing to this problem.
If you need to provide the diagnosis according to DSM-V manual, pay attention to the Differential diagnosis section for each disorder description. If the client’s symptoms initially look like major depressive disorder, you can consult the differential diagnosis section in the major depressive disorder chapter to see if there are alternative explanations fitting the client’s symptoms. Thus, for major depressive disorder, the alternatives may be substance/medication-induced depressive or bipolar disorder, mood disorder due to another medical condition, ADHD, adjustment disorder with depressed mood, and sadness. Check the diagnostic criteria for all these disorders to find which one fits better. Some of the assignments will require you to spell out how many symptoms fit the criteria of the disorders, and name these symptoms.
7. Outline the developmental context of the problem.
Write how the client’s problem developed over time. Consider if early childhood experiences, the family of origin, or family structure may have contributed to this problem. Has a similar problem been experienced by some family member before? Have environmental and socio-economic factors, like income level, race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or any others, contributed to the development of the problem? How do these developmental factors interact with the current stressors and conflicts to shape the client’s worldview? Does the client have social support or safety net to rely on? In some theoretical approaches, you will also have to identify the client’s pathogenic or irrational beliefs about himself (like BT and CBT), maladaptive styles of functioning (Gestalt, psychoanalysis), or internalized dysfunctional cultural narratives (narrative and feminist therapies).
8. Propose interventions and techniques that might benefit the client.
If you follow a specific theory, this assignment is not that hard. Just go to the textbook chapter of your theory, check the techniques and interventions, and choose the ones that are appropriate for your situation. But do not just mechanically copy the list of techniques from the textbook. Imagine yourself sitting with the client and having a counseling session with them. Where would you start? If you are at loss, remember that almost all theories start with establishing a contact, creating a therapeutic relationship with the client. You might start by explaining your role and responsibilities, the client’s rights and the process of therapy, and getting informed consent from the client. Listen to his story attentively and respectfully, learn reflective listening, suspend judgment about the client, show empathy. These are basic things that almost all therapists irrespective of their theoretical orientation and client’s problem, use. To these, you will add specific techniques from your theoretical approach or techniques that are normally used for similar problems.
9. Add reflections on the therapeutic process.
This section is not required in all case studies, but it’s often present since you need to be aware of this aspect as a future therapist. Here, write what you think about the client. Does she and her problems engage you emotionally? How might your feelings help or hinder the therapeutic process? Is there room for countertransference (when a client’s problem triggers an emotional response from you connected with your previous experience or your own problem). How might this client perceive you? How might her feelings help or hinder the therapeutic process? What challenges you might face while working with the client? What traits of your personality or any previous experience might help you establish trust and connection?
This is the general outline of all counseling case studies. The requirements might vary from case to case, but these steps are pretty much essential for a solid analysis of a client’s situation in a therapeutic setting. All these steps might seem overwhelming to you, but do not despair. To be successful, it is essential to understand the requirements and the case, have knowledge about your theory and counseling approach, and then use your brains to reflect on the given case using common sense, knowledge from the textbook, and your imagination of how you would work with a person presented in the case. As you see, in this paper there is not much room for paraphrasing or filling the space with irrelevant information. Everything must be very to the point. The only place where you can use some rewriting is the DSM diagnosis section, ONLY if the teacher asks you to note down all the symptoms that fit the diagnosis. Then you can take those symptoms from the diagnostic criteria of the disorder and slightly paraphrase them. The rest of the paper is your own reflection about the case, the client, and the ways to help him. If you feel intimidated, do not worry. Just start doing these cases, and you will get better with time.
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