We’ve heard the term “innovation” a lot lately. Boston’s Innovation District is booming. Life sciences and biotechnology companies throughout New England are creating innovative approaches to solve some of medicine’s most challenging problems. Companies across New England have “Chief Innovation Officers.”
The universities and colleges around New England are innovating daily. The tools, technology and research developed by these institutions will impact the world for generations to come. At the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (which is changing its name to William James College in May 2015) our faculty and staff also know of the importance of innovation. We practice a craft with more than 125 years of success, but our future will be bleak if we do not constantly think of new ways to prevent and treat mental illness.
Mental illness is a problem many people don’t want to discuss, yet it affects all of us. Today, one in four adults and one in five children have a diagnosable mental illness, and one of two Americans will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives. Suicide will claim one American every 13 minutes, and 12 times that number will make an attempt each day. When this problem strikes your family, and it is highly likely to, you might be among the 70% of parents in this country who cannot obtain care for your child.
These statistics are shocking, yet mental illness is a subject we talk about only after a terrible tragedy, or an act of violence. This should not be the case, as talking about and treating mental illness leads to tangible results. A good deal of research supports the efficacy of psychotherapy. Up to 80% of the time, people who avail themselves of treatment will improve. That’s why our students spend about half of their time at William James College working in the field, learning their discipline from experienced professionals and encouraging people to open up about something that society has subtly suggested they should not talk about. However, with 50% of Americans likely to develop a mental illness in their lifetimes, we need to do more to start this conversation.
Mental health professionals need to deliver information and care through electronic means. This involves embracing the latest tools and technologies available to them, and supplementing these technologies with the development of meaningful relationships with each patient. Technology alone cannot end the stigma associated with mental illness, but it can help to abate it. At the same time, psychologists cannot be the only ones addressing mental illness. They are part of a multifaceted system. Teachers, medical practitioners and attorneys whose work touches the psychosocial lives of their students, patients and clients need to be educated to both attend to and intervene properly around emotional and behavioral issues that they see. The future of mental health care is not just in educating mental health practitioners, but allied professionals to improve the quality of life of those affected by mental illness. These professionals are often the “first-responders” in a mental health emergency. If they spot signs of mental illness early on, they can help the person suffering from mental illness to address the problems they face before they get out of control.
Conversations about mental illness should also be sensitive to our increasingly multicultural world. Students must be culturally informed and sensitive. Our role as innovators involves thinking about ways to meet the prevention and treatment needs of diverse populations. At William James College, faculty lead immersion trips to Haiti, Costa Rica and Ecuador each year to help students understand the mores, culture and health care system of diverse people. To talk about mental illness effectively, it is imperative to keep the diversity of the target audience in mind at all times.
Embracing experiential learning, having constant conversations about mental illness, educating colleagues in other professions, engaging technology, and encouraging a diverse approach to psychology education are concepts that our field has been slow to embrace. As innovators, we must champion these ideas, while also activating them. I hope we can embrace the spirit of innovation and practical psychology that William James championed. William James was the founder of American psychology. He was an educator’s educator, one of the century’s greatest philosophers whose prolific writings and prodigious mentorship profoundly influenced the practice of applied psychology, experiential education, sociology and race relations in this country.
I think James would agree that psychology is about analyzing the past in order to look forward to a brighter future. If we all focus on innovating our field, our future conversations will revolve less around problems, and more on solutions.
Nicholas Covino is president of the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, which will be renamed William James College in May 2015.