Using Psychology to Address Social Problems

Dr. Wolff and Dr. Glassgold speak on psychology's problem solving ability.

Posted Oct 24, 2020

Joshua Wolff, used with permission
Source: Joshua Wolff, used with permission

Psychology affects every aspect of our lives. How can we use this on an individual, communal, and structural level to address social problems?

Joshua R. Wolff, Ph.D. (he/him) is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychology (Psy.D. Program) at Adler University in Chicago, IL. Dr. Wolff co-chairs the APA Division 44 (Society for the Psychology of Sexual Orientation & Gender Diversity) Subcommittee on Higher Education Accreditation & Policy. Dr. Wolff’s research and publications center on the experiences of LGBTQ+ students in religious university settings, higher education policy, and social determinants of health.

Judith Glassgold, used with permission
Source: Judith Glassgold, used with permission

Judith Glassgold, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist and an expert in applying psychology to problems of public policy, focused on mental health. She is a consultant to national civil rights organizations on legislative efforts to improve mental health at the federal, state, and local levels. She is a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology.

Jamie Aten: How would you personally define psychological training pathways?

Joshua Wolff and Judith Glassgold: Professional psychology spans multiple settings and serves very diverse groups of people. Thus, psychological training must also be diverse and give students the training they need for multiple career pathways. Professional psychology needs to expand opportunities for students to go beyond traditional health settings. This means that we need to think broadly about where our students get 'real world' experience — not just in traditional settings (e.g., hospitals, university research labs), but in settings and domains that haven’t been as well explored or may still be underutilized.

Examples that come to mind include forensic settings (jails, prisons), community non-profit organizations, government agencies, K-12 schools, workplace, military and veterans, and early childhood centers. Training also needs to span teaching our students how to communicate beyond academic and medical settings, but also with mainstream media, politicians, and the public.

JA: What are some ways these expanded opportunities can help us live more resiliently? 

JW and JG: Psychology affects every aspect of our lives — the ways we make decisions, our motivation, how we feel, how we connect to other people, what types of job responsibilities we enjoy, etc. Thus, psychologists can be useful and improve a person’s quality of life in almost any setting.

We need to think about this on an individual level (e.g., how do we help the person who comes to my office for mental health treatment?), on a community level (e.g., how do we encourage everyone in my city or state to prevent the spread of COVID-19?) and structural level (what policies encourage or reduce health and wellbeing?). This means that psychological research needs to think in innovative ways to address social problems that build resiliency in a broad range of settings.

We also need to be better at quickly sharing the results of our research so that the data is useful to the people and communities that might benefit from it the most.

JA: What are some ways people can influence psychological policy?

JW and JG: We find it exciting that there are lots of ways to influence policy! For example, this can be at the institutional level where you advocate for changes to your curriculum or learning. I have seen students get engaged by running for their Student Government Association and making a big impact in their college or graduate school program. This can also be at the systems and structural level — this might include sending an elected official an email about a topic you care about, attending a town hall, joining efforts within professional associations, meeting in person with elected officials or their staff, seeking employment in government or media, and running for office.

There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach – thus, advocacy is diverse, and everyone can engage in different ways. One tip though is ‘don’t go it alone’ (i.e., find other people who share your interests and want to influence policy together).

JA: Any advice for how we might use this knowledge to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation? 

JW and JG: There are several recent studies that demonstrate that many individuals are struggling, especially those grieving the loss of friends and families, individuals from ethnic minority communities, and essential workers, College and graduate students are experiencing a lot more stress and worry right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic as important life transitions are disrupted. This includes financial stress, worry about loved ones, and social isolation due to remote learning. Thus, I try to remind individuals that it is ‘normal’ to feel discouraged, down, or different right now. I want to keep reminding them that they are not alone in feeling this way because so many of us are in the same boat together.

One option is to stay connected through virtual resources that focus on wellness. Many health insurance companies, state and local governments, clinics, and non-profits are now offering free or low-cost mental health and substance use care for virtual, and telehealth sessions. Now is a great time to speak with a mental health professional to get extra support if that is something you have been thinking about or may need (though always check with your insurance first, since plans and coverage can vary widely!).

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

JW: I recently co-authored a report on the impact of COVID-19 on psychology training and education. We sampled a diverse group of leaders within Divisions, affiliates, and a committee of the American Psychological Association (APA). I’m really proud of the Report because people shared some very important concerns, and also identified ways that we can advocate and better support students. You can obtain a free copy of the Report here.

JG: My academic institution committed itself to focusing on social justice during the 2020-2021 academic year. I have made my course relevant to the stresses and issues that we are currently facing in society. For example, my mental health policy class includes material relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic and health equity. I focus on the important research on social determinants of health that can build resilience, slow the pandemic through proactive behavior change, reduce discrimination, and increase equitable policies. Graduate students seem engaged in making a positive difference in areas as diverse as increasing resources for people with neurodiversity, reducing institutional violence, support for immigrants, children’s mental health during the pandemic, and equitable school policies.


Glassgold, J.M. ,& Wolff, J.R (2020). Expanding Psychology Training Pathways for Public Policy Preparedness Across the Professional Lifespan. American Psychologist, 75(7), 933-944.