Bringing Systems Theory to the Forefront of Mental Health Agencies

Sign up for our 2017 MAMFT In-Home Therapy Symposium on October 20 in Holyoke, which supports therapists at in-home therapy agencies, including Nieshia Whittingham, IHT therapist at South Bay in Dorchester.

Systems theory is an essential part of understanding relational concepts. As an aspiring LMFT and Sex Therapist, I was fortunate enough to have it integrated into my graduate curriculum and discipline, which prepared me for the demands within the field.

Systems theory is one of the few approaches that can be applied to all disciplines and therapeutic formats. But the dominant narrative and notion of systems theory appear to be viewed within the broader the mental health field as a specialized training, and not the paramount infrastructure for wraparound care or therapy in general.

In other words, the lack of knowledge about what systems theory is and why it should be taught to all clinicians may be a reason why it’s underutilized outside of the MFT-realm. In the state of Massachusetts, the history behind vendorship for MFTs and the impact of our training on the clinical work we do mirrors the isomorphic process that systems-trained clinicians are likely to encounter within our respective fields.

The demand for systems theory/relational training appeared to be obvious during my short pre-and post-graduate clinical experiences. During this time, there were different approaches I observed agencies use to fulfill the consumer needs. On one occasion, I had been approached about what words came to mind or what I searched for when researching MFT-inclusive jobs. For the first time, I realized that many job descriptions did not use terms synonymous with the wraparound services they expected the clinicians to provide such as systems, relational, and family therapy. On the one hand, this would require clinicians to have certain training that isn’t provided in most programs and/or agencies. On the other hand, certain standards of knowledge and expectations are important to hold all clinicians to within the field. So how are the new hires to meet this demand without the proper training? What position does this put agencies in?

Staff development is one of the most crucial steps to invest in mental health treatment. Staff training shows the commitment to improve consumer care and the sustainable quality of care given. Through these trainings, an appreciation and understanding for systems theory is developed and provides all clinicians with tools that they are able to utilize for the longevity of their careers. Furthermore, it can be the catalyst for implementing the approach as an agency-wide model versus just another training.

So what does this mean for new MFTs and how one can utilizing systems theory in an agency that is not knowledgeable about systems work. Here are my tips:

Stay Connected
Staying connected to your cohort, professors, and other systems-informed professionals you meet when networking will prove valuable. Since MFT is one of the youngest disciplines within the mental health field, the network is small but close. Keeping these contacts will enable you to get mentoring and/or supervision to process things from a systemic lens, which may or may not be available at your workplace. A bonus is being able to connect with likeminded clinicians to advocate or discuss things related to the field. There’s power in numbers!

Stay Informed…..and then Inform
Continue to pursue training or education within the MFT field to increase your knowledge and expertise. Combine what you’ve learned in a training and offer to do a presentation at your agency. If doing a presentation is not your preference, bringing back information to distribute can also get the job done and lead to something greater, like a formalized staff training. Reach one, teach one!

In closing, systems theory is always evolving. This requires ongoing learning and training, which poses challenges for how clinician and agencies will meet this societal demand going forward. So gear up because the mental health field is waiting for and in need of reconstruction!

Nieshia Whittingham is a New York native, UMass Boston Alum and proud MFT.

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