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Jonathan Raskin on Constructivism and Ethical Meaning-Making

On the future of mental health

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Jonathan Raskin

EM: You are interested in what is called “constructivism.” Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?

JR: Constructivist psychology theories see people as meaning makers. They emphasize how people make up (i.e., construct) understandings of themselves, their relationships, and the wider world and then use these understandings to guide their lives. While the constructions people develop need to be useful and allow people to account for events and function effectively, they inevitably reflect a particular perspective or point of view and can always be subject to revision or replacement.

EM: How can a person in emotional or mental distress make use of the ideas of constructivism?

JR: Sometimes people mistake their constructions for the world itself and get locked into construing things in a manner that is no longer very helpful. When this happens, people forget that their constructions are simply ways of understanding that they themselves invented. Psychotherapy can help people reflect on and revise existing constructions or devise new ways of understanding that open new possibilities for comprehending self, relationships, and world.

EM: Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by “ethical meaning-making”?

JR: Ethical meaning-making refers to meaning-making that focuses on ethics—what people construe to be right or wrong. Constructivist approaches see ethics as emerging from the meanings people construct. Depending on how someone construes the world, different things “go” or “don’t go” as ethical. Some worry that this leads to an “anything goes” ethical relativism, but constructivists argue that ethics are an ever-evolving human creation and that people must work together to arrive at shared systems of ethics that allow them to live together effectively. For those hungry for more on ethical meaning-making, this online chapter provides a lot more detail.

EM: What are your thoughts on the current, dominant paradigm of “diagnosing and treating mental disorders” and the use of so-called “psychiatric medication” to “treat mental disorders” in children, teens and adults?

JR: The scare quotes you use here suggest you’ve got your own ideas about this topic. As I argued back in Constructions of Disorder, an American Psychological Association volume that I co-edited with Bob Neimeyer, the dominant paradigm is simply one way—not the only way—of construing human distress. From my constructivist perspective, the biggest problem with dominant approaches to diagnosis and use of drugs to manage emotional distress is that they are often presented as the only ways to think about human distress.

People are surely entitled to take drugs and to see their problems as disorders, but they aren’t required to do so and, in some cases, they may find doing so quite limiting. In such cases, people may find it preferable to construe their difficulties as due to psychological conflicts or sociocultural factors such as racism, sexism, or other forms of social oppression and unfairness.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

JR: I would talk to the person about what he or she is looking for when it comes to receiving help. People often have their own thoughts on the subject and professionals don’t always listen carefully to these thoughts, which does clients a disservice. If asked, I might share my take on what different perspectives—psychological, biological, and sociocultural—have to offer in helping alleviate emotional distress. It would then be up to the person what kind of approach(es) he or she wanted to pursue.


Jonathan D. Raskin is a professor of psychology and counseling at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His research focuses on constructivism in psychology and counseling, especially its applications to understanding abnormality and psychotherapy. For more info about Dr. Raskin and his work, see his website:


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

To see the complete roster of 100 interview guests, please visit here:

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