Community psychology concerns the relationships of individuals to the local community and to society at large. It makes use of all different perspectives within the realm of psychology to understand and address the issues of communities, the relationships within them and the attitude of the people toward those issues.
Community psychologists aim to understand the quality of life of people, communities and societies. Their goal is to enhance the quality of life of individuals through research and action. The psychologist gleans from individuals or the community their needs and wants, and then formulates a plan for them to achieve their goals.
Community psychology is not a clearly defined science and often psychologists, practitioners and theorists differ on what the role of the community psychologist is.
Community psychology is a very broad field of psychology that examines all relationships between the individual and society. Research in the field usually touches on social and clinical psychology and political science. In many instances, the work of the community psychologist involves working on problems that could lead to community-wide mental health issues.
There are differing opinions as to exactly what category of psychology the field of community psychology falls. There is no doubt that the roots of community psychology are to be found in the mental health of the community. The dispute is if the sub-discipline is mental health or clinical psychology. Where should the emphasis of community psychology be placed -- on mental health or other types of community matters, such as feeling part of the community or social change?
In their book about community psychology, Nelson and Prilleltensky argue that "community psychology has focused more on personal and relational values, such as well being ... than on collective values such as social justice" (Critical Psychology: An Introduction, 1997).
The broad field of psychology has experienced positive and negative results. On the positive side, psychologists have done significant research and planned interventions on many social aspects. They have been instrumental in developing social programs in schools such as the Head Start program. However, some of their programs have given rise to theories and studies that "blame the victim," and treat social problems as though they are the fault of those affected by them.
As a result, at the 1977 annual American Psychological Association convention, a novel idea was introduced. It called upon psychologists to broaden their scope beyond the traditional office setting and go out into the community, to the core of the problem, the place where all the social problems begin. They were urged to go into the field, study and analyze the root of the problem and propose solutions to reduce race, class and gender disparities. This paved the way for the founding of community psychology. The emphasis was placed on moving into the community and trying to understand the needs of individuals and how they relate and interact with their community.
Most of the psychologists who pioneered community psychology had backgrounds in clinical psychology, and their first plan of action was to increase the number of mental health centers and hire more social workers. The opening of community mental health centers in the communities that most needed them was the first priority.
The federal government allocated money in the early 1960s to help increase the availability and quality of mental health centers, especially in ghettos in urban areas. These centers offered clinical treatment, crisis intervention, rehabilitation and aftercare services to their patients. They specialized in giving continuing care so that people who needed it would not "fall between the cracks." One of the most unique features of those centers was their community participation in the development and management of the centers.
Community involvement in programs of substance abuse and HIV/AIDS can significantly affect their success. Community involvement in violence-prevention programs, targeting such ills as violence against women, youth violence and child abuse, is of critical importance. Integrating community psychology into these community programs can have far-reaching results.