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Doing psychology in the community

By: Hayley Haynes-Rolando (Educational Psychologist)

Working in the community had made me think a lot about the role of psychology in the community, and how relevant it is in being just that, community psychology. I suppose a more pressing issue then, is, what is community psychology? A loose definition of it may be that community psychology describes psychology as focusing on more than the individual. It suggests a focus on the individual’s context, which includes a focus on the relationships within the context and is also about creating change in the system. This is a complex and enormous task for any psychologist embarking on offering their services in a community context. One of the ways in which it can be tackled is through empowering community members. The empowerment approach allows one to learn about the participants through their culture, experiences and the way in which they see their world. It is about working with the people to understand their world and to meet them where they are at.

If the focus of community psychology is on the community, then the ‘community’s’ challenges or difficulties must be addressed. As in individual therapy, the ways in which the challenges of the client can be addressed, are often rooted in the past, and the way in which past experiences have been understood. Our South African society is plagued by so many social ills such as poverty, inequality, racism, housing shortages, and corruption that affect people’s lives on a daily basis. This conversation proposes that these issues need to be understood in terms of the past that has created them. Psychology in the community should also be about looking back at the past, and trying to understand its impact on the present, so that we can begin to envision a more hopeful tomorrow for our communities and children. Often the lens that we use to look at the communities that we work in is overwhelmed by these social ills, and it can be difficult to imagine or think about the impact that the community’s past has had on it. To understand the way in which people view themselves and others and the social issues that exist, it is important then to understand their context and make sense with them about what can be done.

This idea of community psychology, could also suggest many minds working together to understand a complex context, and how the difficulties in the context can be addressed. With this in mind, community psychology could also be about networking with other professionals, social workers, food banks, lobbying and advocacy organisations etc. In a way, community psychology suggests a shift in focus, not only from individual to community, but also from a therapist to a network of professionals.

Without going into too much detail about the complexities of working in communities perforated by unemployment, at times unreliable transport systems, multilingualism and often abject poverty, the model that is employed to think about, and begin to employ community psychology as a way of doing psychology must be different and innovative. Our exciting new work on the Ububele Ubuntu bus has really got me thinking about how the community can be reached, and how we can best use psychology in the community setting. Keeping all these social problems in mind, the existence of the Ububele Ubuntu bus and our efforts to bring mental health services to the community, feels like the beginning of a venture to doing psychology in the community.


Whilst this brief discussion has only touched the surface, and has raised more questions than offered answers, the hope is that as we begin to see the community as our client, we will grow in our understanding of what is happening in the life of the community, and become better equipped to address its issues.

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