March 1st, 2014

Psychologist’s work emphasizes community building

In a world so fixated on constant communication, be it texting, social media or 24-hour news channels, it can be shocking to find the one thing often missing in building a better community is, in fact, communication.

When Tom Wolff, Ph.D., president of Tom Wolff and Associates in Amherst, Mass., a private consulting firm, first got involved in working in coalition building and community development, he soon found that that most important piece of the puzzle was missing. Over the years, he has developed an expertise in the area of getting disparate groups, agencies and individuals together to solve issues. Combining his training as a clinical psychologist with a love of community mental health has resulted in a unique career path, one that has him working with people throughout the country. It’s provided him with an opportunity to “give back” on a larger scale by sharing his knowledge with organizations around the world.

Wolff has been brought in to help organizations and communities across the country including government agencies, foundations, and hospitals to use grassroots and collaborative techniques to address an array of issues. He has published several books, including “The Power of Collaborative Solutions – Six principles and effective tools for building healthy communities” and was granted an American Psychological Association career award in 1985 and its 1993 Henry V. McNeil Award for Innovation in Community Mental Health.

He spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about his work and the need for psychology to look beyond the individual.

Q: How do you explain what you do?

A: I basically respond to requests. The community defines what the issue is. I have a set of tools and I just keep applying them.

Q: How did you get started working in this field?

A: I was trained as a traditional clinical psychologist but community mental health was burgeoning and it was a political time and many of us were involved in political things. I was working in a college mental health center and negotiated that half my time be spent in community mental health on campus. Students would come in with all their various issues but then the other half of the time, I could address the issues they were talking about.

One issue was with the graduate students in the married student housing: there were something like 132 kids and no playground. We hooked them up with the early childhood program at the university and they started an infant toddler group and got the university to build a playground.

You could make all these wonderful things happen. I started to really see that connection and then continued with that into community mental health centers in the next stages of my career.

The most important part is to never do this work without the people most affected by the issue sitting prominently at the table.

Q: With what groups have you worked?

A: We started a community coalition in Athol, Mass., when they had a major plant closing. All of a sudden, people were homeless and hungry. I went up thinking I was working with their committee for the summer but then it looked like I would be working through the end of the year and then I did that for 18 years. They are still doing it on their own.

In the last five years, I have been doing some of the most exciting work of my career tackling the issue of racism and its effect on health in communities across New England.

Q: You talk a lot about the importance of communication in building collaborative communities.

A: So much of what we do in life relies on the systems around us and they are totally dysfunctional and don’t talk to each other. Part of my job is to get these systems to figure out ways to be talking to each other all the time, not just when I am there.

In my most recent book, I talk about how after 9/11, the police and fire departments couldn’t talk to each other because they were on different frequencies. That is just the perfect analogy for what happens in our communities around all kinds of issues.

Q: With your book, you are able to reach a wider audience than just those you can work with directly. Was that the goal?

A: I have been in the dissemination business for a very long time, because I believe that if you know something, you need to get it out there.

I have been a partner for 20 years with something called the Community Toolbox, which is a Web site with 7,000 pages of down-loadable material in English, Spanish and now Arabic that helps people around the world solve problems in their local communities. They have five million users per year.

Q: If someone is interested in doing this work, how would they?

A: Well, if you are interested in picking up more of the skills, go to the APA Division 27 site or my site (www.tomwolff.com) or to Community Toolbox. Another place where there are a lot of skills is in public health.

Q: You have been involved in the political arena as well. Any advice for working with politicians?

A: The work we did in Massachusetts on healthy communities was all majorly supported by the state legislators because they understand how this impacts their community. We have to be working together with legislators but mental health people and human service people don’t often do that.

I am a big advocate. I believe in the political world. I was for many years the chair of a town Democratic Committee and went to many of the state conventions because that is where world decisions get made. And psychologists stay away from that. We have to be less cautious of taking a stand because these are the things that really impact the mental health of this country.

It is not what this country needs from psychologists. We are trained to be cautious, to look at individuals not the environment, to look at deficits and remediation as opposed to the strengths of people and communities. We were trained to stay in our office. A lot of those things are unrealistic in light of the issues that are affecting the health and mental health in this country and everywhere else.

Social justice is a huge piece of this picture.

Q: Why is this important?

A: If you look at public health demographics they will tell you that only 15 percent of our health is determined by access to health care. The data on mental health is pretty parallel. Our mental health is determined by all kinds of variables – by social determinants. If you want to look at the mental health of a community we can engage in so many of these issues beyond just the emotional well-being of an individual or his or her family.

We spend all of our time debating Obamacare and access to care and we ignore all the factors around us that have a huge impact.

And I think all those things change the world.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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