Community Psychology

community psychology

It was the 1960’s, and the times they were a-changin’.

The 60’s were a time to focus on others, solve the world’s problems, and cast away the bonds of the establishment. And for psychologists, the 60’s brought about similar changes.

In 1965, a group of psychologists held a conference in Swampscott, Mass., to discuss the future of the field of Psychology. The psychologists discussed the need for the field to expand, shifting from only providing individual psychotherapy treatment, to psychologists becoming advocates for social and political change.

The group members concluded that focusing on individual psychotherapy was too inefficient to solve multiple psychological problems in a community. In order to solve mental health problems on a larger scale, they had to focus on enacting community and social change.

By focusing on social justice, increasing access to social services, and helping to promote change at a community level, the psychologists aimed to increase the psychological well-being of all members in a community.

Today, professionals in the field of Community Psychology continue the traditions set by the Swampscott group, focusing on developing broader solutions to multiple problems in a community.

But to truly solve problems at this level, community psychologists first must learn the psychological definition of a community.

Contemporary Issues in Community Psychology

  • Reproductive Rights
  • Environmental Issues
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender rights
  • HIV/AIDS Prevention
  • Unemployment
  • Violence Prevention
  • Substance Abuse Prevention
  • New Immigrant Rights
  • Homelessness

Source: Handbook of Community Psychology

Defining the Psychological Sense of Community

Human beings are social beings drawn to interacting with each other and forming communities. But what exactly does a community provide its members?

For community psychologists to effectively analyze a community and its needs, they first learn the psychological outcomes behind a “psychological sense of community.”

According to “Viewing Community as Responsibility as Well as Resource: Deconstructing the Theoretical Roots of Psychological Sense of Community,” published in The Journal of Community Psychology, there are two outcomes of psychological sense of community:

  1. Psychological well-being
  2. Community engagement

Because community psychologists work with many members of a community to enact positive changes, encouraging community engagement is an inherent part of community psychology. But often, those most in need do not feel this sense of engagement or well-being.

In fact, those most in need might not feel like part of the community at all. For example, a homeless person requires support but often lacks a voice. Someone working in the field of Community Psychology must act as a voice for this person, and involve the person in the community to enact changes.

To effectively enact these changes, community psychologists must develop a concrete understanding of the psychological components of community.

In “Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory” published in The Journal of Community Psychology, researcher David W. McMillan describes four main components of community that community psychologists still base much of their research on.

First component. McMillan said community must involve a sense of membership. People who feel they belong in a community are more likely to positively engage with that community and work with psychologists to improve it.

Second component. This component states that a sense of influence empowers members of a community to take action and to make a difference. Community members with influence often work directly with a community psychologist to help enact new projects, helping engage other community members.

Third component. This aspect of community states that members must feel a fulfillment of their needs. This means that community psychologists must analyze a community to identify those members whose needs are not met. It might be that handicapped people in the community need more access ramps or parking spots, or could mean that the community psychologist works with older adults to establish a Meals on Wheels program.

Fourth component. Finally, members of a community must have a shared emotional connection. Working with each other and forging relationships, members of a community share similar beliefs and have experienced similar events. A community psychologist working with a community must understand the bond shared by its members to effectively develop new programs.

Communities must have these characteristics for people to feel accepted and happy in the environment. Community psychologists must identify those who don’t feel this sense of community and find ways to engage and empower these members. To improve individual wellness on a larger scale, the field of Community Psychology identifies ways to expand community services through community building.

Building a Stronger Community

One of the main focuses of community psychology is community empowerment. By assessing a community, community psychologists identify pockets of people who might feel helpless in their present situation. The psychologist’s goal is to empower these individuals.

For example, consider a coal mining town in West Virginia. When economic downturns hit the town hard, many in the community have trouble providing enough food for their families.

A community psychologist in this situation might identify the coal miners as the most affected group in the community, and work with local food agencies and community centers to establish a community-wide initiative to help feed coal mining families.

Working with the agencies and empowering the rest of the community helps provide those most in need with additional resources. The coal miners and their families might previously have felt helpless and did not think of themselves as active members of a community.

Providing this sense of community empowers the mining families to seek help, and later, they might even provide similar help to others in need. According to “Community Building,” published in The Journal of Community Psychology, community psychologists help build this sense of community to spark further change in an environment.

In the article, author Joseph McNeely writes that the primary aim of community counselors engaging in community building should be not just to provide more money, services, and material benefits to those in need.

Rather, the goal of community building should be to replace attitudes of dependency with attitudes of self-reliance, responsibility, and confidence. Focusing on community building, community psychologists bring together multiple agencies, program coordinators, leaders in the community, and the community members to bring about improvements in the environment.

Because community psychologists work with multiple members in a community, these expert planners must have excellent leadership and communication skills. Community psychologists help multiple agencies and people come together, measure their combined assets, and help develop solutions to improve the community.

McNeely describes one community that successfully engaged in community building to improve the lives of the community members. In a low-income Baltimore neighborhood, a community group met to discuss the increasing drug and crime problem in the area. Comprised of community members, representatives from the law enforcement and other agencies, the group made a series of decisions that greatly decreased violence and crime in their community.

Working together, the community denied drug dealers space for conducting business by boarding up vacant buildings. Then, the city and the community worked together to conduct community cleanups, provide additional street lighting, and increase anti-drug education.

Additionally, community members and agencies created more summer camps for teenagers.

Overall, in a two year period, violence decreased 52% and drug arrests dropped by 80%. With leadership and agency cooperation, the community empowered itself to improve its living conditions. Rather than treating each drug offense with substance abuse therapy, the community came together to solve the problem on a much larger scale.

What Makes a Community Psychologist?

Community psychology, with its focus on preventing a multitude of mental health problems and providing support in diverse environments, attracts a certain kind of individual. Globally minded leaders with a knack for organizing, community psychologists should have a number of outstanding features that set them apart from the rest of the psychology family.

According to “Qualities For The Community Psychologist,” published in The American Psychologist, there are a number of qualities a community psychologist must possess to effectively elicit social and community changes. In the article, author James G. Kelly notes that community psychologists must possess a “clearly identified competence.”

A competence is any skill a community psychologist brings to a community setting to solve a problem. This might be an expert ability to communicate with multiple agencies, bringing them together under a common cause. The community psychologist should share this competence with the community, identifying those in the community who have similar competencies. Kelly also says community psychologists must develop an ecological identity in the community. Kelly reasons that in order to truly push for changes in a community, the psychologist must become part of it, and care for that community.

The psychologist cannot see what needs to be fixed in a community without enriching himself or herself in that community. Because they work with multiple communities in different settings, community psychologists must also have a large tolerance for diversity. The most diverse members of a community might be in the ones most in need, so the community psychologist must work with and communicate with those populations.

Working with diverse communities means understanding the unique resources and needs they have. For example, when working with African American or Native American communities, the psychologist must understand the traditions of those cultures. Community psychologists must also be prepared to deal with limited resources when working in a community. Some communities might not have access to services or agencies that are common in other areas. The community psychologist must understand this, and work to create partnerships and new plans to provide services.

Finally, a community psychologist must be a risk taker. Not every community will have a perfect atmosphere for the psychologist, so he or she can’t be afraid to try something new.

This could involve working with new groups the psychologist didn’t previously consider, or might even include partnering with other communities in the area to provide assistance. Taking risks means not stopping at the first failure, and thinking outside of the box. According to Kelly, community psychologists with these qualities will effectively meet the needs of a community, and will be successful in promoting societal change.

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