MARBLEHEAD CARES: What you should know about the Science of the Positive

A conversation among Joanne Miller co-chair Marblehead Mental Health Task Force, and Wendy Kent, member Marblehead Mental Health Task Force; Prevention and Treatment Professional and Michelle Abrams, editor and writer focusing on Health and Wellness.

The realities of addiction, overdose and the prevalence of fentanyl in America demand urgency around building successful prevention strategies. The Marblehead Mental Health Task Force sat down with our own Wendy Kent, a prevention and treatment professional, who recently attended a conference at the Montana Institute on the evidence-based Science of the Positive, where she had her first exposure to the framework surrounding the prevention process and sought to incorporate it into prevention work.

Positivity isn’t a word you often hear in discussions about current events, especially in the realm of health and safety. What is the Science of the Positive?

Before we talk about SOP we need to talk about how prevention works and the framework in which we operate. Prevention is a multi-step process. We can’t just limit it to an issue that we want resolved and automatically come up with a solution. Some of the factors that need to be considered include needs, resources, capacity and readiness, data and what’s been done in the past and how it’s worked. We currently operate under the Strategic Prevention Framework which focuses on needs and resources assessment, capacity building, planning, implementation, evaluation, sustainability and health equity. Prevention can be frustrating for people who are action-oriented rather than process-oriented. The Science of the Positive is a framework that mirrors many of the steps in the SPF, but shifts the focus. For example, in public health, you seek to decrease risks and increase protections, whereas in the Science of the Positive, you also reduce concerns, and increase hope. You also consider what might work best for individuals or communities given their own resources or resilience.

Let’s clarify: the Science of the Positive is not simply positive thinking, or a mind-over-matter approach, correct?

Science of the Positive is NOT about looking at the world with rose colored glasses and assuming that everything will ultimately be okay. It’s about understanding that focusing on needs and concerns alone is not conducive to engaging people. We have to be able to demonstrate that we do hear and understand concerns and we do hear and understand what is already being done to help address them.

Science of the Positive is about encouraging us to be very aware of peoples’ concerns and challenges while simultaneously considering how we can capitalize on and promote what is already in place to address those needs and concerns. It means taking a much deeper dive to discover what does exist within individuals, families, and communities and figure out how to frame those positives into addressing concerns.

I’ll share one very simple and concrete example. In a small community in Montana that has high rates of youth substance misuse, the perception was that youth were bored, they had little to do, and felt that the community had nothing to offer, and there was a lack of hope about the future due to a perceived lack of community resources. A prevention coalition worked with multiple local providers and resources to identify what community resources were already in place to support youth, and then created an online calendar of events with links to the available resources. People discovered that the community did have much more to offer than people realized and now there has been a great response to these youth and family-focused events. So what they did was shine a light on what the community had to offer, the already existing positives, and people began to make better use of what had actually been available all along.

Why is reversing the typical problem-centered framing crucial to improving the health and safety of communities?

People need to understand that they have a say in the process and that the strengths they bring to the table are valued. People want their beliefs, which have roots in their culture and experience, to be respected and supported. There’s not one single approach to raising a child correctly or managing a mental health issue.

For example, people need to feel respected for what works with them and discussions with a physician need to involve a mutual understanding and appreciation of what drives the decision and the choices people make. This means learning more about the positives in people’s lives that they draw from.

The Science of the Positive focuses on growing the healthy, positive, protective factors that already exist in our communities. And while the Science of the Positive is based on the core assumption that the positive exists in every community and culture, it recognizes that suffering, pain and harm are very real. This has been a cursory overview of the framework while it is important to understand that there are many layers to this framework. One of its principal outcomes is to reduce suffering in our families, our communities and ourselves.

Joanne Miller
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