John Weaver, Psy.D.

Talks About…

An Overview of Integrated Mental Health – Part 4

This will be a multipart blog, so keep watching for the subsequent updates.

In part 2 & 3 of this series, we looked at the biological and psychological components of a theoretical model of healthy psychological functioning. Another area that regularly appears in research showing a clear impact on human functioning is the social context in which a person lives.

It is unsurprising that individual who are raised in poverty or experience discrimination to a greater degree than the average person has compromised outcomes in research on human functioning. It is also unsurprising that families that are warm and loving improve outcomes for children from these families, or that we want our children to have positive friendships.

What is surprising is that this data appears too often to be overlooked or at least minimized in theories that guide interventions to improve human functioning. This is, in part, because interventions to address these issues are not in the range of interventions that occur within traditional psychotherapy or medication management.

The model that is followed for intervention within the medical/insurance system is treatment that is individualized. Couples and families are treated but as if they couple and/or family is a single entity. This creates a bias toward viewing the individual as responsible for his/her functioning apart from the social context. The treatment is also individualized so that the social context is often barely considered in the effort to improve functioning for this individual person, couple, or family.

This treatment model provides clear accountability for both the treating professional and the client – which simplifies the payment model but ignores important factors that influence the outcomes.

The reality is more subtle and more complicated than the model we use within our treatment framework.

Implication: social context has a much larger impact on human functioning than we often realize. Belonging is one of the most substantial influences on our behavior. By contrast, loneliness is detrimental to our psychological and our physical health. These issues are better addressed within the social and cultural context of our society.

It is not surprising that our social environment has a large impact on our functioning if we remember that, when we were born, we were entirely dependent on others for our physical survival. This same dependence is in effect throughout our entire lifetime, even though we often claim individual credit for an accomplishment. It is so much a part of our daily lives that it often becomes an unnoticeable background, but we would not survive long without belonging to a community or “tribe” of some sort.

This is so powerful that individuals are regularly willing to die for the sake of the group to which they belong. While this is logically inconsistent – a person is willing to die for the group because without the group he/she could not survive – it is an accurate representation of human behavior.

Over the span of a lifetime, an individual will probably affiliate with several groups (although he/she would not be willing to die for all of them). This occurs within the interactions between the values of the group and the values of the individual. It is likely to be an interdependent interaction, with the values of the group influencing the values of the individual while the values of the individual influence the amount of energy that individual will devote to group affiliation.

Implication: Cooperative actions are an important element of satisfying psychological health. In fact, attributes like compassion and the willingness to help others is a much more powerful determinant of happiness than the accumulation of wealth.

The significant effects of the “group” on human functioning suggests that cooperative behavior is likely to be as important (probably even more important) than competitive behavior. Competition is favored by American values as it fosters the belief in individual responsibility, high achievement, and hard work. Cooperation fosters compassion and care for others. It is the human ability to cooperate in highly complex ways, and even across generations, that is the key to human adaptability.

Competition certainly has its value. It fosters the efforts to excel in human performance, although a competition can be won by also diminishing or undercutting the performance of a competitor.

Cooperation requires the ability to blend with the actions of others. An individual’s actions are amplified when combined the the actions of others who are pursing similar goals. Team competition is a blend of cooperative and competitive behavior.

A potential downside of cooperation can be the tendency to require that the individual will be controlled by another. For example, there is a tension in parenting a child. The child need to feel a sense of belonging to the family, but at the same time must learn to submit to the parental rule over the family. In an ideal situation, the parent exercises authority in the best interest of the child. However, it is possible that that authority can be misused and the individual who has less power is forced to submit to expectations that further the interest on the person(s) in authority at the expense of those with less power.

This same dynamic has similar pros and cons in all teams, organizations, and governments. It is very often a mixture of helpful and harmful interactions, in the frame of cooperation, that have a major impact on human functioning.