Newswise — CHICAGO — For decades, community psychologists have used their psychology training to identify solutions to challenging problems like neighborhood violence and undiagnosed illnesses across large populations. At the forefront of this field is Leonard Jason, a professor of clinical and community psychology and director of the Center for Community Research at DePaul University.
“I was around during the Vietnam War, and it was a time filled with social change movements like the civil rights and women’s movements. At that time, most psychologists were trained to deliver what is called a traditional medical model treatment with one-on-one psychotherapy, which involves waiting for clients to visit their offices,” said Jason, who’s been on faculty at DePaul since 1975.
He and other community psychologists noticed several problems with this model. “Most people were being treated at a time when their disorders were more entrenched and long-standing, and these might be the times when it was most difficult to bring about change. This was also a passive model and did not attempt to prevent the problem in the first place,” he said.
“Early in my career, I wondered how I could bring a community psychology perspective to my work as a psychologist. And that is when I started thinking about prevention and policy-level interventions that focused on social justice,” said Jason.
At its core, community psychology centers on three aspects: preventing problems, rather than treating problems in both mental and physical health areas; concentrating on the larger ecosystem and the multiple levels of intervention needed beyond the individual; and a social justice facet that focuses on providing equal access to treatment and resources, said Jason.
“Community psychologists are like community organizers,” explained Jason. “But they are different from them in that they use theory and rigorous research methods to bring about structural systems change. We are agents of change as we take a public health approach to psychology.”
The public health approach focuses on prevention, bringing in community members to actively collaborate on how to bring about social justice change. It’s about understanding the person in context, and not just focusing on the individual, according to Jason.
“In our work, we don’t parachute ourselves as experts into a community, but rather collaborate with community groups to use their wisdom and guidance to identify solutions to problems. This is what differentiates us,” said Jason.
DePaul’s Center for Community Research conducts community-based research throughout Chicago and internationally. One project focused on a very stigmatizing illness known as myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, ME/CFS, and aiming to understand how many youth had this illness and what their characteristics were. Adults and youth with this illness had often been thought to have a yuppie flu like illness, and this characterization is rather stigmatizing.
“In our research, we found in a sample of about 10,000 youth, that this illness does occur among youth, most predominantly among African American and Latinx youth, and only about 5% had been diagnosed,” said Jason.
This is where the importance of community psychology lies. By working with a marginalized group that experiences discrimination associated with ME/CFS and identifying an unmet need by diagnosing members of the population, the work uncovered adequate expertise to identify those who are ill, and discover that most youth with this illness were not being treated.
“Community psychology, in a sense, tries to identify community issues, such as a youth not being appropriately diagnosed with ME/CFS, and this type of research can galvanize the public to bring about change,” Jason said.
Another area of Jason’s work focuses on researching Oxford Houses, the largest network of recovery homes in the U.S., and studying how and why this self-supporting residential community model works for over 20,000 residents living in them. The homes are democratically run, with no professional staff.
“Here is a true example of community psychology,” said Jason. “It’s individuals who are the most at-risk, with most having past histories of homelessness, criminal justice involvement and psychiatric comorbidity helping themselves.”
The DePaul group has published over a hundred papers on this topic, and has helped bring about changes at the federal level to expand the reach of these recovery homes. They’ve also testified at judicial hearings to be sure that these recovery homes have a place within communities, added Jason.
The third focal point of DePaul’s community psychology work focuses on violence prevention in Chicago Public Schools through the Success Over Stress Violence Prevention Project, which is funded by a $6.6 million research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.
“With my colleague LaVome Robinson, we are developing programs to teach youth the skills to identify stress, manage it and cope with it,” said Jason. “We’ve been able to find positive results among youth who are provided these types of basic skills through group sessions.”
Widening the audience for community psychology
While the field of community psychology has grown, all the textbooks are expensive, which places a barrier on getting this critical information to undergraduates, noted Jason. When a publisher approached him to write a textbook, he came up with a plan to work with more than 50 contributing authors from around the world, including undergraduate students, to write a free online textbook titled: “Introduction to Community Psychology: Becoming an Agent of Change.”
“We wanted to make it fun, easy to read and accessible,” said Jason, noting the book has interactive exercises, a glossary of terms and lots of pictures.
Almost as important as the concept, was the need to make the book free and accessible online. “College textbooks are expensive, and we didn’t want the cost of the book to be a barrier for students to learn about this field,” said Jason. “We also wanted to make it accessible to high school students and others who might not have access to a university library.”
Jason’s goal also was to share the community psychology model with professionals in other fields, including psychiatrists, sociologists and lawyers.
The textbook can be accessed at https://bit.ly/CP_textbook.
DePaul a pioneer in the field
DePaul’s clinical community psychology program was founded in 1967, shortly after the birth of the field of Community Psychology in the mid-1960s, and it was one of the first such programs founded in the U.S.
DePaul is now the only school in the world where there is doctoral training in clinical-community psychology and community psychology, and an undergraduate concentration in community psychology. Starting in the fall, they are adding a master’s program in community psychology, and current DePaul undergraduates can enroll in a combined degree program to receive both a B.A. and M.S. in community psychology.
Information on DePaul’s M.S. in community psychology program is available at https://bit.ly/MS_CP. Information on DePaul’s M.A./Ph.D. in community psychology program is available at https://bit.ly/MA_PhD_CP.