Preparation and Reflection: WKU Counselor Looks Back on Career in Mental Health

By Cameron Coyle

Dr. Karl Laves, 60, has worked at the Western Kentucky University Counseling and Testing Center since August of 1991, and as he moves toward completing the final stages of his career, he can fully reflect on a field that has advanced leaps and bounds over the last 50 years.

Laves is a man of average height with short reddish-brown hair, the same colored beard with a patch of gray on the chin and rectangular black glasses. He is eligible for retirement with full benefits in three years, and while he admits he is not sure if he’ll be ready to leave just then, he acknowledges his time is coming soon.

“I’m accepting and celebrating that I’m on the tail end of my career, so what I’m trying to do now is give it all away,” Laves said. “So, I’m trying to spend more time with the younger staff, teaching, sharing, getting out of their way.”

Some of the ways Laves “gets out of the way” is by allowing other counselors to be in charge of lectures and workshops that he did for over 10 years or by connecting employees of the Counseling and Testing Center with committees, so they can begin leading.

Laves earned his bachelor’s degree in 1979, his master’s degree in 1981 and his Ph.D. in 1990 after he had worked as a guidance counselor for five years. He obtained all his degrees from the University of Missouri.

Laves, a licensed counseling psychologist, joined WKU the year after completing his final degree and has held many different positions at the university. His positions have included from working with students in counseling sessions as a staff psychologist and individual therapist, serving as an outreach spokesman to communicate information with WKU organizations, and engaging with students in crisis interventions. He cracked a smile as he remembered what he called “the dark years” spent on the parking committee.

Laves said he’s enjoyed his entire time at at WKU, but the position he holds now, associate director of the Counseling and Testing Center, is the one he’s liked most since he gets to do a variation of things. Half of his time is spent working with students in counseling or some form of educating, while the other half is spent making sure the Counseling and Testing Center is compliant with state laws and meets the code of ethics.

Counseling Philosophy

Laves said his counseling philosophy stems from his faith and his desire to help those in need become stronger.

“I think every person has some unique capacity, some unique contribution for the world and to make that contribution they have to become who they are,” Laves said.

Laves believes there are two main factors which contribute to depression in young adults, with the first being poor social relationships. He says he finds it fascinating, but also incredibly sad that some young people believe no one wants to get to know them. Laves said he has never met someone with too many friends, which frustrates him because he wishes it was easier to connect extroverts who love personal interactions with people who feel so alone.

The other element that Laves sees causing depression is a general negative view of the world which stimulates fear. Laves said he once had a professor who told their class depressed people are the only people who are sane, since they see the world for what it really is.

Laves said some people believe optimism is a technique people use to fool themselves, but he views it as a way to see through the miserable parts of the world and find the beauty in it. Laves’ outlook is there will always be evil in the world, and because of this, good will always be there to prevail.

He says the majority of this idea comes from his theology.

“I toy myself with the idea of ‘Does God really exist?’” Laves said. “Or is the fact that so many people across cultures want God to exist? Well, maybe that’s God. Just that we want God to exist, that certainly seems powerful enough.”

Laves said his faith is also how he deals with the weight of hearing students talking about suicidal thoughts. Laves said he recognizes students opening up about suicidal thoughts means they wish to get better and it is part of a process of a human trying to become happier.

Laves said he has always been interested in working with people, which has been reflected in all the jobs he has held, including ones at a young age, like day camps, after school programs or Burger King.

Becoming a psychologist

The interpersonal aspect of counseling drew Laves into the field, and this desire was sparked at a young age by his parents. Both of his parents were scientists, but they also instilled empathy in him as a child. His father had a passion for civil rights in the 1960s of racially torn Springfield, Missouri, Laves’ hometown. (Laves and his parents are Caucasian.)

As a boy, Laves recalls watching the evening news on television one night with his mother when he was surprised to see his father on television walking in the street participating in a civil rights march. He doesn’t remember his exact age, but he knows he was in elementary school and old enough to recognize the significance of the march.

He felt pride and turned to his mother to say, “Hey, dad’s on television.” Laves said he realized the risk his father took by joining the activists in the march and it left an impression on him.

“I think that was one idea that shaped or influenced me about the importance of taking a stand and fighting the good fight, so to speak,” Laves said.

The other main factor that led Laves to counseling was the suggestion from a guidance counselor at Glendale High School in Springfield. When talking to a counselor that wasn’t even advising him, the counselor mentioned Laves should consider entering this area. Laves said both of these memories stuck with him while choosing a concentration when he was an undergrad at the University of Missouri.

Laves said his interest in the field began to peak during high school. He said he wasn’t diagnosed with depression or any other mental illnesses, but he was just a kid who became aware of how political adolescent friend groups can be. Sensitive of being rejected or isolated, Laves didn’t have one close-knit group of friends, but instead bounced around and spent time with many people.

With the knowledge he has now, he said he’s able to look back and recognize some of his old friends were most likely battling depression. Laves said he even knew one person who probably was schizophrenic.

Laves said some anxiety and obsessive tendencies run in his family, but he has learned how to manage these in healthy ways and dismiss them as quirks similar to those as everyone else. He says now it helps him as a therapist because it allows him to experience things from the viewpoints of others.

Laves declared as a psychology major as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri, but like most students, he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do in the beginning.

Laves said he still didn’t precisely know what he wanted to do after getting his master’s degree until one of his university advisers suggested he become a guidance counselor for a high school.

Laves said he recognized high school is full of problems and “lame,” but part of him still liked it, so he became the guidance counselor for Sweet Springs, a small high school in Missouri. Similar to his time at WKU, Laves held multiple positions at the high school, such as the student government sponsor, the assistant weight training coach for the football team and eventually the assistant principal of the school.

Laves later saw his adviser from his master’s program at a conference, and his former adviser suggested Laves return to school to get his Ph.D.

Laves admitted he didn’t know what a Ph.D. entailed at the time, but he trusted his adviser’s judgement and decided to return to the University of Missouri after five years at Sweet Springs.

Laves considered becoming a career counselor, but his doctoral program landed him an internship at Kansas State University, where he eventually came to the realization he enjoyed working with students. 

Laves wasn’t nervous when he began the program, but after he was soon given six students to counsel (a number that grew throughout his time there), he began having doubts about his ability to complete the program nearly every week.

However, each time Laves helped a student his confidence and his passion for counseling grew. He soon realized this was part of the training process.

“If you’re not scaring yourself, then you’re not learning enough,” Laves said.

Lavescompared this outlook to someone pursuing a career as a doctor. He says young doctors may become terrified they are going to let a patient die, but they soon realize this is what comes along with being a doctor, so they power through these fears.

After finishing his internship, Laves took an open position at the WKU Counseling and Testing Center in August of 1991.

Entering the field

Laves came to WKU during a time when teen suicide in males was at its apex, with nearly 18 out of every 100,000 young men taking their own lives, according to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These numbers remained the same for the next four years, but after 1995 male teen suicide saw a steady decline for several years. In 2007, just over 10 out of every 100,000 male teens committed suicide, the lowest it had been since 1975.

However, since 2010, teen suicide in both males and females has steadily increased every year, with the exception of a slight dip in male teen suicide in 2012.

Suicide is the second largest killer of Americans ages 15-24. Data from verywellhealth.com

According to Laves, though, mental health has moved in the right direction in multiple areas, such as accessibility and recognizing the correlation between oppression and depression.

“We have a much better understanding now of how early childhood trauma and abuse can affect people, and even as adults how they kind of still carry that around with them,” Laves said.

Laves said a prime example of this is how women have been treated poorly throughout history in nearly all aspects, including the mental health field. Many counselors and psychologists used to view women as more emotional and weaker, but experts have gradually realized women have been trapped, objectified and mistreated, which obviously directly correlates with their mental health.

Laves said these type of realizations have caused psychologists to see mental health as a spectrum, instead of viewing people as either mentally ill or mentally stable.

Laves does not agree with his contemporaries on all issues, though.

While he understands the importance a person’s childhood has on their development, he said there has been a recent trend to focus almost solely on upbringing which leads to ignoring the patient’s morals.

“If you go to Warren County Jail right now, most of the people that are locked up probably have depression and anxiety, but that doesn’t excuse their criminal behavior,” Laves said.

Laves said he believes some therapists take advantage of their patients in this regard. He said he understands the importance of safe spaces and trigger warnings, but he also thinks there are counselors attempting to make money off their patients by promoting and advocating this type of thinking.

Laves said there is an ongoing debate in the field right now about how much resiliency people should have. He said in the past the majority of people he counseled came from abusive backgrounds, but now he sees a trend of kids who were spoiled growing up needing counseling.

Laves believes in some circumstances, spoiling children can harm them more than neglect because it causes young adults to be unable to deal with pain. Laves said he would never tell a student to “knock it off” or “grow up,” but instead tell them the pain they fear doesn’t have to control them. He believes if they slowly begin to take risks then they can begin to manage these thoughts and become stronger.

Practicing Psychology

Budget cuts at WKU have caused the Counseling and Testing Center to fire multiple employees, which makes it more difficult for students to schedule appointments frequently (multiple students have shifted from weekly appointments to bi-weekly) and sometimes causes them to meet at a different time than they requested. The Counseling and Testing Center still takes emergency counseling requests, though.

The WKU Counseling and Testing Center is located on the fourth floor of Potter Hall.

Spencer Wells, 22, Louisville, went to the Counseling and Testing Center and requested an emergency session in the spring of 2018 after having intrusive thoughts that bordered on suicidal ideation. Laves was on staff this day and counseled Wells. Wells had been to the Counseling and Testing Center before, but this was his first time being counseled by Laves.

Wells said Laves used a direct and controlled counseling style that prevented Wells’ OCD to go on a looping pattern which repeated the same suicidal thoughts. Wells said this approach didn’t allow his repeating thoughts to dictate the conversation, which helped him calm down in five minutes and allowed him to continue his day as planned. The entire session lasted slightly over an hour.

“Having that cycle broken by a professional who listened, but at the same time added input, I find very efficient,” Wells said.

Not all of the students at WKU Laves has counseled have been thrilled with the outcome, though.

Dillon Goetke, 21, of Cincinnati, went to see Laves at the counseling center during his sophomore year of college after months of dealing with what he thought to be depression.

Goetke said after waiting in the reception area for over half an hour, he was brought into Laves’ room where they had a brief dialogue about things in his daily routine which might contribute to his depression. Goeteke said he felt rushed and that not all of his problems were heard.

“I didn’t really feel any better about anything,” Goetke said. “I didn’t necessarily feel cared about. I didn’t feel like anyone was really there for me.”

Dr. Rick Grieve, 50, a psychology professor at WKU, said he thinks very favorably of the Counseling and Testing Center and has respect for Laves as a professional. Grieve said he has gone to Laves multiple times for advice on how to deal with certain patients and to seek out his thoughts on challenging cases he is working on.

“He’s always a great sounding board,” Grieve said.

Grieve acknowledged the Counseling and Testing Center is slightly understaffed, but he believes this is not their fault because of the way mental health is funded across the country.

“For the funding they have and their purpose up there, I think they do a great job,” Grieve said.

Laves’ plans for the future aren’t definitive, and for now, he still has work to do. This semester, WKU President Tim Caboni asked Laves to co-chair a review committee to look at student conduct and Title XI on top of the duties he already has. 

Once he retires, he said he might become a part-time instructor, but most likely he will stay in volunteer roles. Laves wants to organize suicide survival walks and other community events. He does not want to stop helping people find who they are and discovering who they want to be.

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