Consider two men walking alongside a river.
As the men walk, they see a person struggling to stay afloat in the rapids. In a rush, the men wade into the river to save the person. But as soon as they drag the struggling person to shore, they see another person struggling down the river.
The men save this person as well, but sure enough, as soon as they save one, another struggles downstream. One of the men stays to rescue the drowning people, while the other journeys upstream to discover the reason why so many people are falling into the river.
The man finds a damaged bridge upstream where people are falling off. What if, instead of just trying to save as many people as possible in the stream, the man fixed the bridge, preventing people from falling in the first place? The previous scenario is a classic analogy in community psychology, a field dedicated to preventing problems before they occur.
But unlike this scenario, most community psychologists won't spend their days jumping into rivers to make daring rescues. Instead, they interact with community members and service agencies to create partnerships, meeting the needs of the community.
Community Psychology: a Nontraditional Approach
While traditional psychology focuses more on providing psychotherapy at an individual level, community psychologists view mental health through a wider lens. According to “Community Feeling and Social Interest: Adlerian Parallels, Synergy, and Differences with the Field of Community Psychology,” published in The Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, an important goal of community psychology is to prevent problems that cause later mental health issues.
In the article, authors Russell A. King and others say that traditional psychotherapy is unnecessary when proper prevention programs are put into place.
Types of Prevention
There are generally three types of prevention employed by psychologists:
- Tertiary Prevention
- Focuses on treating individuals who currently have mental health disorders.
- Secondary Prevention
- Focuses on treating people showing early signs of a disorder, aiming to reduce the intensity, severity, and duration of the disorder.
- Primary Prevention
- Looks to reduce the incidence of new cases of the disorder, targeting the whole community. Community psychologists are most interested in this type of prevention.
Source: Handbook of Community Psychology
King writes that community psychology focuses on the political, institutional, and social processes involved in mental health care policies. This means examining the community mental health and social service structures currently in place, while looking for ways to improve or add to them. By improving these structures, community psychologists look to prevent the onset of mental health problems in others.
For example, teen pregnancy is a community-wide problem that often leads to future mental health issues. A community psychologist looking to decrease future mental health issues might work with school districts to implement or improve community-wide pregnancy prevention initiatives. In order to identify the needs of a community, the psychologist must first go to the community members. Giving the community members an active role in the community psychology process empowers them, helping elicit the environmental changes the psychologist seeks to instigate.
Empowering Community Members
Many people with mental health issues are conditioned to be compliant and powerless, even in supportive communities. These community members are struggling for an identity, and must be included in the community discussion.
According to “Empowerment Theory: Psychological, Organizational, and Community Levels of Analysis,” by Marc A. Zimmerman, community empowerment leads to organizational partnerships, accessible community resources, and gives members of the community problem-solving skills.
Zimmerman says that empowerment not only refers to giving community members a voice, but also includes them in the planning, agenda setting, and implementation of new projects. Members of a community have the unique ability to identify specific areas that need improvement, helping guide how much effort is put into improving those areas.
For example, community psychologists often work with diverse populations. If the community psychologist was working with a Native American community that is having trouble accessing and receiving good health care, the psychologist would enlist the help of the members of that community.
The psychologist might discover that the Native Americans desire health care workers with a greater understanding of their culture, and the psychologist would brainstorm with them on how this could happen.
Working with Organizations and Members of the Community
Given the community-wide focus of their field, community psychology professionals believe that many people working together toward a common goal is more effective than one person providing care for a select group.
To this end, community psychologists are leaders in their environments, bringing together multiple agencies to increase collaboration and breadth of support for a larger portion of the community.
In “Community Psychology at the Crossroads: Prospects for Interdisciplinary Research,” published in The American Journal of Community Psychology, the authors write that in order for community psychology to develop programs to improve community life, psychologists must work with community systems.
In the article, authors Kenneth I. Maton and others note that only through collaboration with professionals from the education community, public health, law, health services, and social agencies, will community psychologists be able to effectively address the needs of a community.
Professionals in other areas bring expertise and knowledge from their respective fields, providing community psychologists with a deeper understanding of how to implement change.
For example, suppose homelessness is a concern. The city has recently cracked down on people sleeping in public, giving out more tickets and arresting some.
A community psychologist might work with local law enforcement officers to identify where the homeless are sleeping. Then, the community psychologist talks with homeless individuals, discovering that the local shelter has been at capacity each night. This has led to more individuals sleeping outdoors.
The community psychologist might then visit the local shelter to gain its views on the matter, finding that the shelter is understaffed and struggling to keep up with the number of homeless individuals seeking services.
The community psychologist then meets with the city council, suggesting the formation of a task force to find solutions for these problems. This might include increasing collaboration between the shelter and other agencies that provide assistance to homeless people in the area.
By combining the tools of multiple agencies, as well as including the homeless community in the discussion, the community psychologist works with the task force to expand the services of multiple social service agencies, providing more shelter and sleeping options.
Providing Leadership and Stimulating Change
Today more than ever communities are encountering challenges that require leadership. Community psychologists are in the perfect position to provide this leadership, bringing communities and services together.
If you're interested in a career helping others find a voice in a larger community setting, request information from psychology college.
Community Psychology and HIV/AIDS
Given their roles as leaders in the community, and their interest in prevention, community psychologists bring important and effective strategies when developing HIV/AIDS prevention programs.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the end of 2008, there were over 1.17 million people living with an HIV infection in the United States. HIV is a virus transmitted mainly through unprotected sexual contact and through sharing contaminated needles.
Through time, HIV attacks the body's white blood cells, lowering them and increasing the risk of further illness. When a person's white blood cell count becomes very low, doctors diagnose them with AIDS.
Using their assessment and analytical skills, community psychologists develop programs and institute community-wide initiatives to promote safe sex practices, and spread awareness of HIV and AIDS.
In “Community Psychology and The HIV Epidemic: The Development of Helping Communities,” published in The Journal of Community Psychology, the author examines the community psychologist's role in communicating with people with HIV. The articles also discusses how psychologists effectively work with the community to implement successful prevention policies.
In the article, author Anthony R. D'Augelli notes that coordinated community planning is critical to AIDS prevention efforts. By integrating medical and human services, various support groups, and identifying leaders in the community, community psychologists can reduce the incidence of new HIV cases.
D'Augelli explains one of the HIV prevention programs he helped implement at a university. In the article, he writes that he helped form a committee that expanded the sex education program at the school to include more information about HIV.
With time and more cooperation between the university and other health care groups, the committee soon implemented several programs and provided increased information about HIV to students. This included an AIDS brochure, a sex-health telephone crisis hotline, and partnerships with gay student organizations, providing condoms and brochures about safe sex.
Soon other community professionals began to get involved in the program, taking the information and other aspects of the program off campus and into the community.
D'Augelli's account of the programs he developed shows that community psychologists are important leaders in the health care community. D'Augelli's initiative to create the HIV committee and implement multiple policies is just one example of how community psychologists help communities in need.