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We Mental Health Professionals Ignore Our Public Responsibility In Today's World

Our professional responsibility is to help all of us move towards a healthy, mutually supportive society in the midst of changing, worldwide forces and needs. The latter will only increase, not vanish or return to an era that no longer exists.
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mental health issues / anxiety & paranoia.
mental health issues / anxiety & paranoia.

Those of us in the mental health professions are too silent and disengaged from an important responsibility we have to individual lives and society today. To explain, we live with increasing fears and insecurity, as we worry about what may lie ahead in this world: The increasing disruption and violence. Steady, unrelenting transition to a diverse and non-white majority U.S. culture. Continuing economic uncertainty. The impact of not dealing with climate change, and how it will alter the lives of future generations. And, especially, growing cynicism about the capacity of our social and governmental institutions to really understand or deal with any of these new realities of life.

In view of the above, we psychologists and psychiatrists should be playing a visible role in identifying what psychologically healthy living consists of, in the midst of today's world: What it looks like, in our ideas, our emotions, our behavior; and in our public policies. And, what supports the features of mental health in the face of today's challenges. I think we're abdicating this role. I plan to write more about this in the future, but want to sketch out some ideas here, for discussion.

Generally, we can describe health as whatever promotes positive, constructive adaptation to change; enhances flexibility and proactive behavior when dealing with changing or unexpected life circumstances; and a mental embrace of the reality that our internal wellbeing and outward success are interdependent with those of others. Overall, that means behaving in ways that promote the common good, publically and privately, because of that interdependence, much of which is fueled by globalization and the merger of technology and communication.

This perspective asks us mental health professionals to take some positions and voice them publically -- articulate and advocate those social, cultural and political issues that promote psychologically healthy lives and society, rather than undermine or impede them. To do so, we have a wealth of knowledge and information to draw on. It comes from clinical experience with a range of people who seek our help; and from extensive, published empirical research. The two sources converge. But too many of our mental health professionals don't connect the dots. Or they don't want to, perhaps in fear that voicing a position would erode their professional authority with their patients.

In fact, the themes that emerge from people's experiences in psychotherapy, as they grow beyond healing and managing old conflicts, coincide with themes from much empirical research. Both realms confirm the positive impact upon people's lives that results from cultivating empathy and compassion, and from engaging in finding a larger purpose to serve in one's life, beyond just self-interest.

This convergence is visible in personal relationships as well as in people's work and career experiences. For example, research shows that supporting mutual wellbeing and conveying caring emotions towards an intimate partner sustains one's relationship long-term. And studies find that that people who apply their career strengths to a purpose larger than just their personal reward -- beyond pay and promotion -- have more fulfilling, creative work lives. All of the above are qualities of the mind and heart. The impact of "growing" them, as research shows, is the same as what we see from clinical work with psychotherapy patients. There is extensive evidence of this in both realms that we haven't brought together to demonstrate their implications for psychological health.

In my view, we mental health professionals should acknowledge, promote and -- yes -- advocate for the evidence we have and its implications. We know what's needed for healthy functioning in today's world, at all levels. We should be key players; not disengaged or silent. Our role should include showing a path towards positive, adaptive ways people and policy makers can absorb and respond to today's difficult challenges. Our professional responsibility is to help all of us move towards a healthy, mutually supportive society in the midst of changing, worldwide forces and needs. The latter will only increase, not vanish or return to an era that no longer exists.

dlabier@CenterProgressive.org Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Progressive Development, and writes its blog, Progressive Impact. For more about him on The Huffington Post, click here.