Congruence Counseling Group aims to connect patients with mental health providers who value and understand different cultures
In January 2019, after sharing an office suite at the same private practice for almost two years, Donna Bell asked Leslie Stevens to talk over coffee. That first outing quickly led to numerous conversations over coffee. Before they knew it, the two counselors bought a space on West Main Street in Carrboro and hired two clinicians and a client care coordinator. In October 2019, they officially opened their own counseling and therapy practice, Congruence Counseling Group, where they now serve around 170 clients.
As told to James Dupree
What drove you both to pursue counseling?
Leslie Counseling chose me. I got my undergraduate degree in public relations [from UNC]. I fell in love with the service of people. So I made it a matter of prayer and meditation to figure out what I would do with that idea and where I thought my heart and soul were going. I stumbled upon counseling by talking to some of my friends who were in similar programs and did what I felt in my heart I could do to serve people. I [then] went to North Carolina State University for a master’s in clinical mental health counseling.
Donna I started out in the nonprofit sector doing a lot of macro work and found that it was the smaller individual interactions that I was drawn to [the most]. I [later] went to Smith College for a master’s in social work.
What made you decide to start your own practice?
L We had a shared vision. We wanted to serve a diverse community and create a safe space where people could come and have quality counseling services. We also wanted a space to help train the next generation of clinicians.
D It was not just the idea of creating this space for folks that looked like us, but thinking about being out in the world and looking at therapy sites and not seeing yourself. You’re having to trust that if you go to this space that someone there can start a conversation with you. That doesn’t mean that just because someone is Black that I am their therapist. But at least [here] it might be safer to start that conversation because we have some shared experience.
The word ‘congruence’ is in your practice name. How does the idea of harmony or compatibility factor into your counseling methodology?
L That name was my heart. [Congruence] is one of the main tenets of Carl Rogers’ person-centered therapy. It’s finding that harmony in one’s self and allowing that to be a reflection of balance with one’s experiences. In life, we have [events] that happen to us, and we can get out of alignment and out of a congruent space with others. So congruence reminds us to come back to ourselves, to come back to alignment. I’m in the passenger seat, and my client is driving. I’m guiding you with questions and sort of getting into the heart of things.
What specific areas or issues of mental health do you focus on?
L I focus on anxiety, depression, perfectionism, stress management and life transitions. I have a background in ministry, and I can bring that spiritual component into the counseling space if the client requests it. I see clients of all faiths and backgrounds.
D I also focus on depression and anxiety. I tend to use attachment theory. I also do couples work.
L As a practice, we have some awesome clinicians. They focus on LGBTQI issues, substance abuse and dialectical behavior therapy. Our clinicians have diverse experiences and backgrounds that allow us as a group to serve a [wider] clientele base.
What do you say to people who may still be hesitant about seeking therapy or counseling?
D We laugh a lot [with our patients]. I think people are afraid of things getting too dark. That they’re going to go someplace that they might not be able to come out of. Part of our job is to make sure that things don’t get too hard. You’d be surprised at how many people around you have gone to therapy or how many people have taken medication to help with their anxiety and depression.
L It’s a conversation, and the therapist isn’t some foreboding figure telling you everything about your life and what’s wrong with you. It feels real easy most of the time. We’re not judging you or sending you home with a label that you can use to tell other people what’s wrong with you. It’s a conversation.
What have been some challenges with starting your own practice?
D COVID-19 and hiring. I haven’t done the demographic study, but we have really found it difficult to find [diverse] licensed clinicians who are looking for employment. There’s a part of me that says, ‘Well, why are you surprised?’ Part of the reason why we’re trying to put this practice together is that we want to create spaces that reflect us. But that is a struggle that everyone is having right now during the pandemic. Everyone is having trouble hiring in almost every field. It’s hard to tell if that’s part of the same issue.
What do you love most about having your own practice?
L I am an autonomous being to my core. I just love the freedom to do whatever I want to do. But I don’t abuse it. [I can] choose my own schedule, work from home or the office, make a living and not have to punch a clock for someone else.
D The ability to create my own space that I can invite others into. People can choose me, whereas, in other places I have worked, people are assigned to me. I love coming up with new ideas and ways to grow and support each other and our vision. And supporting our clinicians and not [letting] them feel that they are beholden to us. That makes me glow.
How has this area influenced your practice?
L People stop through Chapel Hill, whether [as a] student or someone working at the hospital. We see so many students or grad students or people getting their Ph.D.s. They’ll keep in contact with me from wherever they move on to. I feel like we are a grounding safe space when a lot of my clients are in a time of transition. I think being in Chapel Hill affords that opportunity.
What do you see for the future of your practice?
D Nothing but good stuff. The world started shutting down in March 2020, and we’ve been pivoting ever since. And the fact that we’ve been pivoting and our hearts and our hope haven’t been crushed means that I see us continuing to push on. I’m excited about that. I don’t feel tired. I don’t feel overwhelmed. I feel happy and energized.