Counseling Strategies in the Wake of Hate Crimes

Graduates from Rutgers University’s online Master’s of Social Work program often successfully pursue careers as a social worker or clinical social worker. Professionals in this line of work can be found in a range of settings, from hospitals to prisons to private practices. They manage multiple cases at any one time, helping both individuals and families deal with challenging circumstances and issues, such as drug addiction, child abuse, sexual assault, homelessness, and victimization. The help social workers provide includes representing clients while they deal with local authorities, listening and counseling clients on their problems and devising strategies and plans of action to enable individuals to cope with their difficult time and find a way forward.

Clinical social work

A notable difference between social workers and clinical social workers is that individuals who pursue careers as clinical social workers need additional qualifications to enter the profession. As outlined by the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work, clinical social workers need a master’s degree, at least two years of supervised practice in a clinical setting, and then a license from their state of residence.
The added qualifications allow clinical social workers to carry out more involved duties. For example, professionals are able to provide counseling services to individuals with behavioral health problems, diagnose mental health issues and even make judgments concerning patient treatment. Much like standard social workers, clinical social workers work in a wide array of settings and with diverse groups of people.
If you decide to pursue a career as a clinical social worker upon graduation from Rutgers University’s online MSW program, you may find yourself counseling survivors of hate crimes. Before an examination of the kind of strategies that are most effective for this kind of counseling, it is important to take a comprehensive look at the issue of hate crimes in the U.S.

What is a hate crime?

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, violent or threatening criminal actions — such as murder, rape, arson, assault and vandalism — motivated by hatred toward an individual or individuals who belong to a certain group or demographic, are considered hate crimes. For example, individuals who have experienced a hate crime may have been targeted due to their race, gender or gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or ethnicity.
As detailed by the University of California Berkeley’s Division of Equity & Inclusion, common forms of hate crimes include physical assault while using slurs that target an individual’s identity and any graffiti or written language that can be understood as offensive to a particular group. Verbal assaults alone, however, are not regarded as hate crimes, due to the right to free speech protected under the First Amendment.
Hate crimes in the U.S. are investigated by the FBI and all cases are managed by professionals from the Bureau’s Civil Rights program. Investigations involve working with local and state authorities in the jurisdiction where the alleged crime occurred, to bring perpetrators to justice and secure a conviction. In addition to actively investigating hate crime cases, the FBI’s Civil Rights program also conducts community training sessions and outreach programs designed to educate leaders of local organizations, law enforcement officials, and members of the public.
According to statistics from the FBI, in 2014, there were almost 5,500 hate crime incidents reported nationally, the majority of which were motivated by race, followed by sexual orientation, and then religion. While this number may seem small relative to the population of the U.S., it is important to keep in mind that many hate crimes go unreported.
Examples of high profile hate crimes which garnered nationwide media attention include:

  • The murder of Matthew Shepard: In October 1998, in Laramie, Wyoming, college student Matthew Shepard was violently beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. He died several days later in hospital. The attack on Shepard, who was gay, partly inspired the 2009 legislation, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd. Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama.
  • The Charleston shooting: In June 2015, Dylann Roof allegedly opened fire at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people, according to prosecutors. Roof reportedly confessed to police that he hoped the attack would start a race war.
  • The Pulse nightclub shooting: Omar Mateen opened fire at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, killing 49 people. Investigators believe the attack, which occurred in an LGBT establishment, was at least partially motivated by anti-LGBT bias.

The reasons why hate crimes occur are often complex and nuanced – too much so for an exhaustive discussion in this article. It is possible, however, to take a look at one of the primary motivating factors: biased language and phobic social norms.
Bias and discrimination against oppressed groups has its foundation in everyday speech that posits non-normative subjects as “other.” For example, when language that is biased against African-Americans or LGBT individuals, is used on a routine basis, in the media, in homes, and in other institutions such as schools and churches, it can have a cumulative effect that is damaging – prejudice can be “learned” author Jacob B. Jacobs and Kimberly Potter argue in the book “Hate Crimes: Criminal Law and Identity Politics.” Biased language can contribute to fostering a world outlook in children and adolescents that is limited in scope and uninformed about individuals and identity categories that are different from the status quo. The status quo in the U.S., of course, is understood in terms of whiteness and heterosexuality.
While a majority of individuals who are exposed to biased thinking will not commit hate crimes, for the select few, such a world outlook can fuel resentment and hatred of others to the point where a crime becomes a reality.

Common responses to hate crimes

Individuals who have been victims of hate crimes may experience a range of emotions and respond in varying ways in the aftermath of their attack. And although individuals who were not directly affected can still be negatively impacted by a hate crime — the victim’s family, friends, partner and local community, for example – for the purposes of this discussion it’s necessary to focus on common responses from the victims themselves, as you will likely be working closely with those who experienced the incident directly in your future role as a clinical social worker.
As with any traumatic incident, there is no one way that all victims respond in the same way. Each individual is different, and his or her response will vary contingent on a number of factors including the nature of the attack, overall mental health, age, gender, and so on. However, according to the National Association of Social Workers, reporting on a 1994 study conducted by the National Institute Against Violence and Prejudice, there are a number of common responses that you may notice while counseling individuals who have experienced such crimes.
They include:

  • Anger
  • Fear of another attack
  • Fear or anxiety about death
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of powerlessness
  • Depression
  • General anxiety

The study also found that in addition to the feelings outlined above, many people will exhibit behavioral changes. For example, researchers found that, out of the 59 hate crime survivors surveyed, roughly a third took measures that they believed would keep them safe and prevent another attack from occurring — actions such as buying a gun or moving away from the area where the incident occurred.

Common counseling approaches

There are a number of approaches to counseling that should be applied whenever possible, although it is still important to keep in mind that each individual will require varying degrees of assistance. They are as follows.

Build trust

The first step toward a successful counseling relationship is to build trust with your client. The survivors may feel uncomfortable opening up at first and providing information or details about their experience. This is a normal response. It is important to display empathy, understanding and of course, patience. As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explained, it is also crucial to ensure that clients feel safe in your company, especially considering that they may be experiencing chronic symptoms of fear and anxiety. One way to achieve this is to ask clients if they feel safe and if there is anything you can do to improve their comfort levels. The source elaborated that asking everyday questions such as, “are you warm enough?” and “would you like some water?” is an effective strategy for allowing your clients to feel more in control of the situation and your working relationship.

Focus on the incident

Perhaps the most important strategy you can implement to help survivors of hate crimes is to have survivors acknowledge the incident verbally, in order to begin the healing process. By acknowledging the trauma, and scrutinizing it in a critical way, survivors can begin to heal through taking control. Put another way, discussing the incident can help individuals face up to the reality of their situation and begin to locate strategies for emotional progress. As explained by researchers Lloyd Sloan and Kelli Craig Henderson in the study “After the Hate: Helping Psychologists Help Victims of Racist Hate Crime,” this approach can be understood as “trauma specific.” They recommended that initial discussions of the traumatic event should also be seized as an opportunity for you to assess whether your client is experiencing any symptoms that may be an indication of post-traumatic stress disorder and/or clinical anxiety or depression. As a clinical social worker, you will be licensed to recommend courses of treatment for such symptoms.

Provide guidance

The next step, after the incident has been discussed and analyzed, is to provide guidance and strategies that can help clients begin to rebuild their lives and heal from the traumatic event. This includes providing any resources they may need, such as references to psychiatrists, legal representatives, and so on. Sometimes, it may require simply listening and providing further counseling.

Counseling techniques

Clients may request that you guide them throughout the entire healing process. As a clinical social worker, you will be licensed to practice the following counseling techniques. It is important to remember that no one technique is effective for everyone, and that courses of treatment should be contingent on the client in question and his or her unique needs. Review the quick guide of two effective counseling techniques below.

Narrative therapy

Narrative therapy, as defined by the Institute of Narrative Therapy, is a common approach to counseling that helps clients to understand themselves as separate from their problems or any traumatic events that they may have experienced. Indeed, often after a difficult life event or trauma, many people will come to view such occurrences as intrinsic to their sense of self; they cannot imagine themselves independently of the negative thing that occurred. Survivors of a hate crime, for example, may blame themselves for the incident and replay what happened over in their mind, to the point that it becomes a constant presence in their everyday life.
Narrative therapy works by allowing clients to “take charge” of their own stories and narratives — they are the experts on what happened and should therefore be treated as such. By imbuing clients with this sense of control, and encouraging them to view their trauma in narrative form, many clients will begin to feel a sense of remove from what happened, while maintaining control. The event becomes something that occurred to them, but does not define them. Certainly, a guiding principle of narrative therapy is the idea that humans are multifaceted beings, with various beliefs, principles and relationships that work in tandem to define a sense of self.
Narrative therapy is implemented through unguided conversation. As a counselor employing this strategy, you should sit back and let your client take charge of the exchange, and ask questions only when it is appropriate to do so.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

According to the Beck Institute, cognitive behavioral therapy is predicated on the notion that negative thought patterns can directly affect our mental health and world outlook. Consequently, CBT carries the objective of helping clients to think differently. If you decide to use CBT in your counseling work, you will help clients to scrutinize their trauma, and then offer them coping strategies for breaking negative thought cycles that impede recovery.


In your future career as a clinical social worker, you will likely encounter clients who have experienced hate crimes. Although a challenging subject matter, helping individuals find peace and mental stability in the aftermath of these devastating events can be rewarding.
To qualify as a clinical social worker, you will first need to complete your Master’s in Social Work degree at Rutgers University. The online program will offer you the ease and flexibility of completing your studies at a time that suits you best, allowing you to manage other responsibilities, such as work and family, at the same time. For more information, review the admissions page here.

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