Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Looking Beyond a Single Person: Community Psychology and Mental Health

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Consider a child at a local elementary school that seems to have some depression and is very quiet. She does not have much to say about her family, and won’t have any friends over to her house. She seems bright, but her homework is frequently incomplete or undone. The teacher may recognize that there is an issue and refer the child to the school counselor. The counselor teaches the child some coping skills, and calls the parents in for a meeting. He cannot understand why the parents will not attend despite multiple messages that he has left. Looking beyond the individual, we come to find out that the family is homeless, and concerned that the school will find out that they do not have an address in the district. The child is concerned that her peers will make fun of her for not having a home.

Looking beyond the individual as well as focusing on prevention are two key elements of community psychology practice. I learned about these ideas with the following analogy: A lot of people are in a river, drowning.

Other people are trying to pull them out of the water, using a lot of time and energy – and still missing some. Then someone realizes that you could go upstream a little ways, and stop people from ever jumping into the water. It takes less time and energy, and the people don’t have to get wet! This paradigm pushes community psychology practitioners to think about preventing a variety of distressing situations, and how to work with an entire community rather than a particular individual struggling in the water.

So how does community psychology practice address this homeless child’s needs? There are a variety of interventions that aim both to prevent mental illness as well as to help to improve the situation of those with mental illness in their lives beyond services (many of which can be found at For example, by working with children who are homeless on a Photovoice project (giving children cameras and lessons on how to take pictures to document their experiences, think “Born into Brothels”), colleagues of mine gave these children an opportunity to have a voice that is not typically heard. This project also helped them interact with positive role models and peers who were also homeless.

Beyond the individual, interpersonal, and organizational levels, these photographs served the entire community by bringing awareness to the fact that there are many children who do not have a stable place to live. This better understanding of the issues of homelessness– particularly the personal experiences of children – helps community members to be less likely to have stigmatizing views of homelessness and even support homelessness initiatives put forth by local government.

So community psychology, a field at the juncture of psychology, social work, and public health (among others) challenges us all to promote mental health for everyone. Learn more about community psychology at

Post by Rachel Smolowitz
Psychology Intern
Community Psychiatry
University of Maryland-Baltimore

1 comment:

  1. Terrific post, Rachel. Interesting application of Photovoice. And happy birthday! :)