Positive Psychiatry: What Is It and Why We Need It

By Erick Messias, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H.

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A New Science of Human Strengths

Officially, two presidential addresses mark the start of this new direction and tradition. First, in 1998 when Martin Seligman, as president of the American Psychological Association, talked about a new science of human strengths”. In that address, an infrastructure for Positive Psychology was sketched with support from the John Templeton Foundation.

What is Positive Psychiatry?

Positive Psychiatry is conceived as applying positive psychology tools to help those with, or at risk for, mental disorders. It has been defined as the science and practice of psychiatry that seeks to understand and promote well-being through assessment and interventions aimed at enhancing behavioral and mental wellness. It includes enhancing positive psychosocial factors among people who have or are at risk of developing mental and physical illnesses.

The Deep Roots of Positive Psychiatry

It may be tempting to dismiss this positive movement, in psychology, psychotherapy, and psychiatry, as a new age fad or passing interest. In fact, religious texts that are foundational to several civilizations contain the seeds of positive psychological traits and ways to foster them.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

In the ten books composing the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle builds his theory of virtues around the doctrine of the mean. In it, virtues occupy the space between extremes of behavior in that courage stands between cowardice and recklessness, confidence between timidity and arrogance, generosity between miserliness and vulgarity and so on.

Why do we need Positive Psychiatry?

Clinical psychiatry has made tremendous progress over the last 150 years, from the Era of the Asylum, through the psychoanalytic heydays, to the age of Prozac. The table below contrasts it with the Positive Psychiatry perspective:

Developing Positive Interventions

Several Positive Psychology Interventions (PPI) have been developed and their application to those with mental disorders should be carefully titrated and studied. That is one of the ongoing tasks in the development and maturation of positive psychiatry. With that in mind, here is a short list of positive psychology approaches to give the reader an idea of its direction:

  • Forgiveness Interventions
  • Savoring interventions
  • Strengths interventions
  • Meaning-oriented interventions
  • Empathy-related interventions
  • Creativity interventions
  • Patience interventions
  • Courage interventions
  • Humor interventions
  • Engagement and Flow interventions
  • Mindfulness and Meditative Interventions

The Future of Positive Psychiatry

Implementing positive approaches in psychiatry is still in its infancy. Its growth will depend on psychiatrists opening our practices to use, adapt, and contribute to the field. There are many bridges to be built with our colleagues in positive psychology, positive psychotherapy, and even other fields like philosophy and executive coaching.

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