Respect Psychology and We All Win

I’ve been thinking a lot about psychology lately because it feels like we’re the Rodney Dangerfield of the world — we get no respect! Case in point: I met today with an elementary science teacher to discuss our upcoming Science Fair. I was a judge last year and noticed that there weren’t any social science projects. I mentioned that I’d like to put in a plug for behavioral science projects and he told me that we could do like another school district already does and lump psychology projects in with history ones (never mind that we don’t have a History Fair). When I mentioned that, for example, a project like “training your dog” doesn’t really relate to history he backed down. But really! Ummm…that is why we call our field the behavioral sciences!

I realize that psychology, sociology and anthropology are considered ‘soft’ sciences but I think that is an inaccurate categorization. respect, behavioral scienceMost people seem to believe that the ‘hard’ sciences — you know, the ones that include math — have concrete answers, but that just isn’t true. Quantum physics has shown that there is a lot of uncertainty in the mathematical universe. But even beyond that, all you have to do is talk to two different statisticians about the same problem to get two different answers. So, the hard sciences aren’t really as solid as we thought.

Soft is also sometimes correlated with weak and that isn’t true for the behavioral sciences either. It is much harder to discover workable conclusions about people (individually and in groups) than it is to simply manipulate data where everything can be controlled. If you broaden that perspective to include general healthcare, it quickly becomes clear that counseling and psychological aspects of medicine are even trickier than the purely physical ones. If you see a tumor, you take it out. It’s pretty cut and dried. Yes, I know that there are more holistic kinds of medicine but even if you look at a broader picture of how the tumor developed, you’re still dealing mostly with the individual.

If you have a psychological cancer though, the treatment is much more complex. You have to go beyond the single person to discover the context in which it was created and then deal with that. Many other variables must be factored in to see if you need to correct dysfunctional communication, inadequate coping styles, disordered expectations, blocked emotions, unworkable rules and a host of other issues that are influencing the problem. Treatment also has to include an analysis of strengths and provide an element of hope. That’s pretty hard stuff.

Psychological work takes time. Unlike many other healthcare professionals, we cannot see high numbers of people per hour. By virtue of what we do, we must see anywhere from one person to a small group of 10 who get our sole attention. The skills we help people develop are works in progress but the benefits are huge. If I can help a family learn how to get along better, the chances are good that they will reduce their stress and improve their level of self-care. This will lead to fewer physical problems for themselves and, as a bonus, they may influence their friends to do the same. Similarly, if we concentrate on prevention by teaching healthy relationship skills, we can decrease the incidence of societal ills that cost so much (addiction, violence, and inadequate parenting just to name a few).

Given all that, why is psychology still the redheaded stepchild of the healthcare profession? It just doesn’t make sense. We have professional organizations — lots of them. We even have a governmental research group — the National Institute for Mental Health — but it doesn’t seem to make much difference. Perhaps it is that we have no really good public faces of psychology. Everyone knows the old guard like Freud, Jung, Adler, Skinner and Watson but there’s no one currently at work on a large stage. The only one I can think of is Dr. Phil McGraw and his work is much more about show business than it is about healing. So perhaps we need to get to work on that. Whatever it is, the lack of a charismatic public figure or something else (and I am definitely open to suggestions!), we need to figure it out so that we can fix it. Once people respect psychology, then we can really start making a difference.

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