Psychologists not only learn how to understand the inner workings of the human mind from biological, mental and social perspectives – they also learn how to apply their knowledge to improve all of our lives. According to the APA, psychologists “identify and help people overcome the obstacles that inhibit them from making better choices.” They use psychological science to help people be the best they can be.
Sometimes, this means that psychologists become advocates because they know how to improve social issues on an inter- and intrapersonal level. A psychologist may be the one to give a patient the resources they need to escape a bad living situation or help them navigate problems they’re having with gender equality.
Many psychologists are trying to confront the “social determinants of health,” according to a 2017 report on trends from the American Psychological Association – “poverty, family discord, community violence, barriers to care and other environmental and developmental stressors” affect health in various ways. By studying and researching these factors, psychologists have been able to implement strategies such as assessments, studies and programs to help patients and others through these obstacles.
Below are some of the ways psychologists and counselors are working to help these changes.
Researching Social and Racial Discrepancies
In one example, a recent study conducted by a psychologist on children of immigrants found that those who had parents who were detained or deported had much higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Using this information could then help psychologists reach out to those children and give them strategies to cope with the disorder.
In another example, a recent report from the APA revealed that those with low incomes and minorities experience more stress than wealthier white people, and that leads to lower life expectancy.
“Good health is not equally distributed. Socio-economic status, race and ethnicity affect health status and are associated with substantial disparities in health outcomes across the lifespan,” said Elizabeth Brondolo, PhD, chair of the report group in a statement. “And stress is one of the top 10 social determinants of health inequities.”
If psychologists and other care providers are able to intervene in time and teach stress management techniques like yoga and meditation, there may be a chance to improve their outcomes. The report also said that there needs to be additional research in this area, and that psychology programs should be improved to give those in treatment a better awareness of the inequality and how they can work with it.
Providing Service Through Counseling
Counseling can help those who have to come back from terrible circumstances. A 2007 story illustrates the need for change in the system – a 12-year-old Maryland boy died after bacteria from a tooth infection spread to his brain. His mother was denied Medicare coverage and she couldn’t get him to a dentist in time to get the tooth extracted before the bacteria spread.
In an interview with Counseling Today, past president of the American Counseling Association, Courtland Lee, outlined how a psychologist or counselor could have helped the mother after the death of her son.
“Imagine this mom coming for grief counseling. It’s one thing to help her process grief, but at the same time, she is stuck in a dead-end job… grief counseling on its own is not sufficient.”
Lee goes on to say that the counselor could help the mother find a program to get a better job to help her care for her other child, or call social services to help her find services she is eligible for. By helping the patient, the psychologist or counselor is advocating for their rights.
Reaching Out Through Community Programs
Community coalitions sprung up across the country since the Drug-Free Communities Act of 1997 was created, and the programs have helped decrease drug use among the participants. In middle school students, a decrease in use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and illegal prescription drugs was attributed to these programs. Solving an issue on this scale requires a community approach, involving law enforcement, counselors and others.
Psychologists can also be of service to a community in need after a disaster. In 2017, natural disasters struck Florida, Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the Texas Psychological Association stepped in to give pro bono therapy to survivors – in person and via telehealth. The Florida Psychological Association worked with the Red Cross to provide services to Hurricane Irma victims, and the Puerto Rico Psychological Association aided those in need after both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, even private psychology groups opened just days after Hurricane Maria swept through, providing support even though the islands were crippled by loss of infrastructure. These psychologists were able to provide vital encouragement in a time of need, giving victims a chance to process their losses and work through their grief.
Creating Federal Policies to Combat Drug Addiction
In the U.S., the opioid crisis is a cause for concern. In 2015, the epidemic incurred a $78.5 billion cost for the country. More than 2 million people are estimated to be misusing opioids, and in response, the government allocated $1.1 billion toward prevention and treatment programs. The APA is working with the government to figure out the best response and to drive Congress toward providing more funding for the recommendations.
Ethical Principles to Consider
“Psychologists respect and protect civil and human rights and the central importance of freedom of inquiry and expression in research, teaching and publication,” according to the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics.
While keeping this in mind, psychologists should be careful to publicly endorse views on controversial topics, according to a paper published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Because of their profession, their opinion could be solicited more often and if they are shown supporting certain views, it could be detrimental as patients may find out and seek treatment elsewhere if they feel uncomfortable around them.