How do you react to these actual news stories? Many may want to take action and help. This seems like a natural human response when you read a scary headline. After all, it’s human instinct to make things better.
Psychology is one way to do that. In fact, studies show there are many ways a psychology degree can make a real difference to help with social issues like gun violence, teen pregnancy, and drug addiction.
“Shrinks” We Know & Love
Traditionally, we all know psychology helps people as individuals. Psychologists have stayed in business inspiring and guiding clients to change for the better. But now we’re also seeing growing evidence of change on a societal level from psychology. That’s because psychology isn’t what it used to be. Many of us have an age-old impression of therapy. We picture lying on a couch telling stories from childhood while a crony with a clipboard and elbow patches nods nearby.
However, psychology is a science that evolves with new technologies, methods and applications. These tools can help us all live better as a community, not just as individuals. In fact, it can help us live together in healthier harmony. Health isn’t just physical, after all. There are crucial emotional and mental aspects to overall health that can make a difference in our quality of life.
Psychology and Emotional Health
According to the latest mental health research, boosting our emotional health can lead to success in work, relationships and health. In the past, researchers believed that success made people happy. But newer research reveals that it’s more the other way around. Happy people are more likely to work toward goals, find the resources they need, and attract others with their energy and optimism — key building blocks of success.
Psychology can also help make our communal lives better as well by easing and even remedying social issues that affect us all. How did psychology gain such a broad-reaching impact? Well, let’s unpack what psychology really does.
How Psychology Works
Psychologists typically study human behavior and brain function through observation, interviews and surveys. That’s how they identify issues and disorders. This can lead to further psychological research that determines the emotional and behavioral patterns that either aid or harm people. It’s the harmful ones that psychologists call “disorders”. These investigations into patterns are useful because they help all of us better understand and predict behavior. That’s where the productive element of psychology really comes into play.
It’s because if this predictive nature of psychology that we have treatments for mental conditions and disorders. Thanks to the experiments psychologists do and the diagnoses they make, we can help people feel and behave better.
Let’s take a look at 3 social issues that plague society today.
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Social Issue #1: Drug Addiction & Overdose
The nature of the problem: More people are dying from opioids than from breast cancer these days. In fact, the nationwide numbers for opioid addiction are staggering. A late December 2017 report found that 63,600 people died from drug overdoses in the year 2016 and more than 42,000 of those were from opioids. Specifically, a thousand more than the 41,000 who die from breast cancer each year.
History of Drug Addiction
If we look at this historically, according to the CDC, in 2009, prescription narcotics were involved in 26% of all fatal drug overdoses. At that time heroin was involved in 9% of these deaths and synthetics were involved in just 8%. By comparison, in 2016, prescription drugs were involved in 23% of all deadly overdoses. But in 2017, heroin is plays in only about a quarter of all drug fatalities, while synthetic opioids have a role in nearly a third. These increases have shortened US life expectancy for the second year in a row.
This problem of addiction is not just chemical and physical reliance on a drug. In 2016, the CDC found that 1.1 billion people were living with mental health and substance use disorders. Indeed, their studies have shown a considerable overlap between mental health disorders and substance use disorders. People suffering from both types of disorders pose extra challenges because one problem can interfere with the treatment of the other. This can even be the case with what we as a society may consider a “lower grade” addiction. Let’s take an example we all know a bit about – cigarettes.
Addiction & Our Belief Systems
Some addictive behavior, like cigarette smoking, might on the surface seem less treacherous than psychoactive drugs. But smoking’s a killer addiction and social issue too. An interesting aspect of psychology is how it investigates false assumptions like these and how they can impact behavior. For example, a recent study on cigarette smokers gives us a vivid illustration.
Case Study: The Journal of Cognitive Psychology found that smokers compared to non-smokers look at risky behavior and tend to minimize health consequences. In fact, the study showed that smokers believe potential negative consequences would come much later than what non-smokers believed about the same behavior.
As a result of this study, it became clear that the “positive outlook” smokers have about risk-taking actually contributes to their hazardous behavior. Because they don’t foresee physical problems as a result of their smoking, they are thus less likely to take measures to quit. We can see from this example how parts of an addiction can be related to our (potentially misguided) belief system.
Psychologists work to unpack these systems of belief and thus help people change the resultant behavior. It’s a complex and fascinating process. Many psychologists work with addicts in different therapeutic settings to work on issues like these. It’s not all happening in rehabilitation centers and hospitals but those are some of the standard places for this type of psychological work with addiction.
Addiction Solutions and Treatments
Addiction is complicated and there’s no one right way to treat it. Luckily, as addiction problems grow across the country, research and counseling efforts have also multiplied.
Counseling psychologists help patients deal with problems, including addiction. Through counseling, these psychologists work with patients to identify their strengths and resources they can use to manage challenges. Many of these therapists specialize in marriage and family issues, substance abuse, and behavioral disorders. i
Counseling Psychology focuses on teaching clients coping skills for dealing with adversity in healthy and productive ways. Thus, the patient struggling with addiction can find alternatives to the crutch they’ve created with their substance of choice. This gives those who may have felt emotionally crippled in the past a chance to prosper and grow into self-sustaining, happier people.
Research psychologists really can help make a difference in the field of psychology. Here’s an example for how researchers have assisted with addiction and behavior change specifically. Research psychologists Carlo DiClemente, PhD, and James O. Prochaska, PhD, studied grief and identified five stages for how people change their behavior. This became a cornerstone for their Transtheoretical Model of Change. They then used this model to help people who struggle with making better choices.
For instance, the model helped them create programs and interventions to assist smokers in stopping. They even helped prevent the further spread of HIV through encouraging condom use as a behavior change in one community. In other words, their research, which originally compared the five stages of grief to the process of behavior modification, helps change lives for the better in many social arenas.
Social Issue #2: Teen Pregnancy
The nature of the problem: Most teenagers aren’t great candidates for parenthood due to inexperience, and when a teen has a child it presents challenges not just to them but also the community as a whole. The good news is that teen births in the US have declined over the past ten years. Still, more than 273,000 infants were born to teens ages 15 to 19 in 2013. That’s a lot of babies and the consequences for all of us are costly.
At Risk: Health & Consequences
A high rate of adolescent childbearing can lead to serious health risks to both mother and infant as well as psychological problems and a greater likelihood of poverty. Our community pays the price for teen pregnancy as well. The US public will pay $13,902 in taxes over the next 20 years for each birth to a teenager since 1985.
THE NUMBERS HAVE IT
Mothers aged 15-17 years are 4.6 more likely to receive public assistance than those who give birth at 20-24 years of age.
In fact, teen childbearing costs U.S. taxpayers between $9.4 and $28 billion a year through public assistance payments, lost tax revenue, and greater expenditures for public health care, foster care, and criminal justice services.
Teen Pregnancy Solutions and Treatments
Some think they can stop teens from having sex but for those of us looking at the numbers, that seems unrealistic. The number of teens having sex has gone down significantly since the 1990s, about ten percent. But there are still 41% of high school students who reported having sexual intercourse in 2015. This is a decrease from 54% since 1991 but still a large percentage of teens.
Also contraceptive use has increased since the 1990s. While this is great news, it’s still a large number of teenagers having sex. Keep in mind that contraception among teens is mostly condoms and we all know they aren’t 100% effective – even when used as directed.
Luckily, many Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) Programs out there now are working to lower the percentage of teen pregnancies. Their success is largely because they presume teens are going to have sex. Dealing with that situation as a reality, rather than demanding abstinence has helped their efforts.
Psychology As Treatment
Psychologists play a crucial role in these programs and how effective they are. The Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) Program sets a strong example as a program that funds diverse organizations working to prevent teen pregnancy across the United States.
During the first five years of the OAH TPP Program (Fiscal Years 2010-2014), the program used 102 grantees to reach about half a million teens. They trained more than 6,800 psychology professionals, and established partnerships with over 3,800 community-based organizations across the U.S. At that time, the OAH TPP Program funded 41 psychological evaluations that make sure these programs stay effective.
Other solutions for the social issue of teen pregnancy include more traditional uses of psychology; such as in schools and clinical settings.
School psychologists apply psychological principles and techniques to education. These psychologists often focus on learning and behavioral problems. They create performance plans or evaluations and counsel students and families. These psychologists also consult with other school-based professionals to suggest improvements for teaching, learning, and administrative strategies. This can help bring a more social/emotional element to a school environment. A forerunner in this kind of programming is the esteemed Child Mind Institute headquartered in New York City. They do groundbreaking work and research not only in schools but also with families nationwide. Check them out at Child Mind Institute.
Clinical psychologists assess, diagnose, and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Clinical psychologists help people manage problems ranging from short-term personal issues to severe, chronic conditions. They use a variety of approaches to find what works best for each individual.
Although strategies generally differ by specialty, clinical psychologists often interview patients, diagnose disorders, and provide therapy. They sometimes design behavior modification programs and then help patients put them into practice.
Social Issue #3: Gun Violence & Mortality Rates
The nature of the problem:The rate of gun deaths in the United States rose in 2016 to about 12 per 100,000 people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2017. This number was up from a rate of about 11 for every 100,000 people in 2015. This is the second consecutive year the mortality rate in that category rose in the United States.
Worldwide, gun deaths also climbed during the same period: In 2016, firearm suicide fatalities reached 67,500 and firearm assault casualties rose to 161,000, increases of 4.3% and 5.7%, respectively, from 2006.
Psychology & The Right to Bear Arms
It’s no surprise that these kinds of numbers in the news affect how we see each other as people. When we hear that violence is common, we are more likely to see each other as potentially violent. This can lead to feeling less safe and might possibly even contribute to gun sales. Half of Americans in a 2017 Pew Research Center poll said gun violence is “a very big problem” today, with 59 percent of non-gun-owners saying the same.
In fact, according to the FBI, there was also an alarming 32 percent increase in gun-related homicides from 2014 to 2016. The number of firearm robberies and aggravated assaults also increased by 17 percent over that time. Mass shooting casualties have also risen sharply in the past 12 years.i
Solutions and Treatments
There are several examples of how a psychology degree can help with solutions to violence. Psychology helps with prevention and education within the justice system as well as providing therapy to victims.
All of these areas fit into the category called Public Service Psychology and Forensics. Many such psychologists help police and other law enforcement officials solve crimes. Trained in investigative techniques, they approach a crime situation with a broader perspective than a traditional investigator.
If you’ve ever watched Law & Order, Silence of the Lambs, Dexter, or Mindhunter, you’ve seen law enforcement turn to forensic psychologists to get the bad guys. Granted, the depictions of these professionals are entertainment, but there is indeed a basis in reality.
Forensic and public service psychologists can help catch criminals based on psychological profiling and predictions. But they can also offer expertise beyond that.
In fact, they assist on many legal matters, including the mental state of criminal defendants in criminal cases. These psychologists may be called in to determine whether a defendant is incompetent to stand trial or should get a reduced sentence due to temporary insanity.
What Is Threat Assessment?
Some forensic psychologists even work in the area of threat assessment. That’s an emerging science and predicts who may be at risk of violence. This is where preventative measures come into play. These psychologists can even help select police officers and train first responders. Ultimately, their career helps forge the connection between psychology and the justice system to help keep us all safe
All these psychology careers guide and nurture communities to helps manage and sometimes even remedy social issues. But this is also an employment path that leads to personal earnings. Psychology isn’t just about the payoff we all get when we help others.
For instance, as you can see from the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart below, psychology jobs of all kinds have a median annual income far above the median for all occupations.
Image courtesy of U.S. BLSii
The Path to Becoming a Psychologist – How to Get There
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unless a psychologist works in a school or industrial organization (that means a workplace), they typically need a doctoral degree in psychology.iii In the case of psychologists working in schools and industrial organization positions, a master’s degree is often enough education. Of course, both school and industrial psychology careers include opportunities to help communities and individuals on many levels. Those studying to become school psychologists will likely do coursework specific to educational. While pursuing an industrial-organizational psychology degree would involve statistics and research as well as the standard psychology courses.
Pick a Program for Free
No matter what social issues matter most to you, a psychology degree may help you make a difference in the lives of others. Check out some psychology degree programs right here. We can match you with perfect programs for free.
[i] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-2 [ii] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-5 [iii] bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-4
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