In the 1960s, a group of psychologists became frustrated by clinical psychology’s limitations in addressing issues broadly at a social level. They established a need to focus on social change and community broadly as a means of addressing mental health, and community psychology was born.
Community psychology aims to address social and mental health issues at both an individual and system level through public and private interventions and research. The overarching goal is action to improve communities. The social emphasis expands the practice of community psychology from a discipline that is solely individually-based to one that is focused on mental health, support systems and potential barriers within individuals, groups, organizations and communities.
How Community Psychology Differs from Other Disciplines
Similar to clinical psychology and public health, community psychology focuses on action. However, instead of advocating for an individual change, community psychology champions health systems in the community and pushes for social change. Community psychology is also distinct from social work with its research-based roots and specific emphasis on mental health.
In addition to its professional and scientific nature, community psychology also requires an element of broader assessment of all systems that compromise an environment, pushing the discipline to address not only theory, but also political application, social environment and community culture.
What Do Community Psychologists Do?
Community psychologists often focus on vulnerable populations. Core goals include empowering people within communities, advocating for both individual and community well-being, promoting diversity, advocating for positive change, and preventing mental health issues. To equip communities toward these goals, community psychologists may work at both an individual and system level, including:
- Establishing programs designed to help people control stressful aspects of their community
- Promoting individual change and preventative measures
- Providing immediate intervention when needed
- Equipping those who have been labeled “deviant” to contribute to the community
- Assessing community needs and teach people how to address those needs
- Consulting with organizations to better address social problems
- Building relationships in the community
- Analyzing existing systems to understand and improve them
Community psychologists can work in a variety of environments: universities, health and human services departments in governments, non-profit organizations, consulting groups, evaluation firms and private practices. Often, the application of community psychology means a professional may encounter several different environments through the course of treating the community. For example, advocating for a new social program may entail attending a city council meeting, evaluating a hospital and educating at a community center.
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Applying Community Psychology in the Real World
With a perspective rooted in research and a goal of direct action, community psychologists partner with community members in promoting change and implementing new approaches. Practically, this may mean understanding social issues in minority groups or establishing disadvantaged people in their communities. Community psychology often moves from theory to problem identification to solution development at the community level. For example, a community psychologist may aspire to work on reducing recidivism rates and help populations re-enter society after incarceration. To successfully support this, they must equip not only the former prisoner, but also the community he or she will rejoin.
Community doesn’t have to be physical. For example, the team of psychologists at the University of Kansas are an example of broader community psychology at work. In an effort to encourage people to help themselves and their communities, the group established the Community Tool Box (CTB) website, a 7,000 page guide spanning poor nutrition poverty, disease, and violence. Currently, the guide is available in English, Spanish and Arabic, though additional languages may soon be added.
Mainly comprised of learning modules and toolkits, the website has helped to train volunteers, provided templates for PowerPoint presentations to be used in advocacy and offered guidance on grant writing. The resource has had a global impact, equipping community leaders in Kenya’s Central Province after the 2008 elections displaced some of its citizens, and helping a local entrepreneur launch a produce market in the previously food-devoid central district of Detroit.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not specifically track community psychologists, but between 2016 and 2026, the need for psychologists is projected to grow 14%. As of May 2016, psychologists earned an average annual salary of $75,230. Salaries may vary by state, so job seekers are encouraged to do their own research.
To become a community psychologist, students must begin with a bachelor’s degree and then pursue a master’s or a doctorate. While some specialized community psychology programs are available, many students first earn an interdisciplinary or general degree with an emphasis on psychology coursework. Graduate programs emphasize both research method and the application of those methods in programs, often with guided practice in partnership with a faculty member. Experience in the field is also recommended – and required, in some cases – through working with populations or in communities prior to attending graduate school.