Fixing what’s wrong by starting with what’s right

By 
  • October 12, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - If you’ve ever wondered what’s wrong with you, don’t ask Dr. Wayne Hammond. A clinical psychologist with a master of divinity degree, he probably knows — but he won’t tell you.

Twenty years into the practice of psychology in hospitals and social service agencies, Hammond came to the conclusion that his profession has it wrong. Since he first studied psychology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has grown from about 40 categories of mental disease to more than 400. The medical model which concentrates on how people have deviated from normal, and finding ways of eliminating the deviation, simply isn’t working, Hammond told a room full of hospital chaplains and counsellors who had gathered for a day-long seminar at Toronto’s Villa Colombo Oct. 3.

The day for mostly lay ministers attracted 81 chaplains, counsellors and parish ministry team leaders. There were 22 parishes represented, plus high school chaplaincy services, hospital chaplains and others.

The promise of psychological science, that professionals can talk people out of doing and thinking things that are bad for them, simply isn’t supported by the results, Hammond said. In his home province of Alberta 65 per cent of the people who wind up in the justice system go through it more than once, and $600-per-day drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs have a 10-per-cent success rate, he said.

The flaw is the starting point of most counselling, whether it’s pastoral or psychological counselling, Hammond said. The process begins by labelling people with their flaws and failures.

“Many people will live up to the labels we place on them,” he said.

Working with at-risk youth, Hammond came to the conclusion that starting with the kids’ failings and disruptive behaviour gave him nothing to build upon.

“Nobody is looking at the capacity of those kids and their strengths and resiliency,” he said.

Hammond now practises psychology backwards, starting off with what’s right with his clients and finding ways of building on those strengths. It’s called resiliency theory. As the vice president and executive director of Resiliency Canada, Hammond is both a researcher and an advocate for the approach.

“It’s not about what’s wrong,” Hammond said. “There’s this natural capacity people have that if built upon can get people further down the road.”

That may not sound very revolutionary, but it challenges a whole set of assumptions in both medicine and the church. We divide the world into the sick and the well, the normal and the disturbed, the lost and the saved. And those categories prevent us from hearing the stories that make each person an individual. Instead, we see them as representatives of a category, a diagnosis or a problem, said Hammond.

“We don’t believe everybody is created in the image of God. We don’t regard people as good,” he told the chaplains.

Resiliency theory in practice requires intense listening, attention to the individual story and a deep commitment to the individual.

“If you’re going to invite people to change, you have to be prepared to go the distance,” he said.

This is more than a clinical approach, said Michael Ballard, president of Resiliency for Life. Ballard speaks to groups across the country promoting resiliency theory as a way of reorienting how people work and live.

“You have to practise to be resilient,” Ballard said.

The assumption that we are the sum of our flaws affects everyone who watches television or surfs the Internet, according to Ballard.

“Media images are there to create deficiencies,” he said.

A life of faith has a different view of the human person, he said.

By paying so much attention to story, resiliency theory gives pastoral workers a model of what it means to be human that is both rational and scientific but unlikely to reduce down to a merely mechanical set of assumptions about cause and effect, said Fr. Bob O’Brien, director of the archdiocese of Toronto Office of Lay Ministry, Chaplaincy and Parish Social Ministry.

“There’s still room for faith in this approach,” O’Brien said.

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