By Phil Rich, EdD, MSW

Welcome to the Fall 2020, and the third, issue of The New Circle. For this issue, we’ve chosen the theme of context, not only as a thread common to each article, and a thread running throughout the magazine, but also as a way to recognize the importance of context, and its value in recognizing and working through problems and finding solutions that themselves are best understood in context.

The context of our world at the moment is the pandemic, continuing to wreak havoc upon the physical, emotional, and social health in the U.S. and around the world. The larger context, however, includes the significant social unrest that has gripped the country, driven in part by the pandemic itself and our responses to it, in part by the very real experience of and responses to social injustice felt by so many people, and in part by our pending election, itself shaped by both the pandemic and issues of social justice and the world in which people wish to live. It is, or course, impossible to fully understand problems and difficulties experienced by people at this time, and the behaviors of people and their collective organizations, without recognizing the context within which they exist, and which in large part gives rise to these very experiences and behaviors. Context is both background and an active driver; both historical and current. Thus, context doesn’t simply end where problems and difficulties begin; solutions to difficulties and problems are themselves contextual. Effective solutions take into account the contexts that lead to social and personal difficulties, and are in part effective because of the context in which they are applied. Solutions that are incompatible with the contexts that surround or drive them are ineffective or, worse, harmful. Our media, social media, and news recently have been referring to solutions and responses like these as “tone deaf.”

Each article in this issue addresses context and its importance in finding solutions. In his article, Russ Pratt points to an increase in the use of pornography by young people and also, importantly, reminds us of context in understanding and responding to this concern. Not just the obvious context of the pandemic, providing adults and young people alike with far more “down” time than is usually the case, but the context of adolescence itself, in which pornography has long been a draw for adolescents. In this context, curiosity about and the use of pornography by young people is not only no surprise, but, in itself, relatively normative behavior. Increases in its use are best understood, not by increases in immorality and lust among young people, but in the twin contexts of having more spare time and adolescence itself. Built on that contextual foundation, Russ proposes a way of approaching and addressing the use of pornography among young people that strengthens their judgments rather than attempting to instead substitute our judgments. Similarly, in discussing anxiety in young people at this time, Janet DiGiorgio-Miller highlights that increases in anxiety must not only be understood in the context of Covid-19, but also in the context of anxiety disorders being the most prevalent mental health issue for children and adolescents for decades. With this in mind, Janet offers examples of how she uses mindfulness-based techniques in her practice to address anxiety in children and adolescents, with the goal of building strengths that help young people manage anxiety and find ways to effectively cope with stress. Janet and Russ make the same essential points: that as we recognize behavioral, emotional, or social concerns in young people, we must also recognize the contexts in which these concerns arise Both authors remind us to “hold on” as we respond to these concerns, to understand the contextual basis of problems and difficulties, and work toward strengths-based models of intervention that help young people become more effective in their judgments and behaviors, and how they manage the contexts in which their lives are lived.

David Keith’s article on family psychiatry takes a different approach to context. in this case the family context that contributes to or even drives the behavioral difficulties of the high school-aged daughter, the problem presented by the family in seeking help. Dave provides a brief case example that illustrates the importance of understanding context in the development of difficulties (in this case, the presumed mental illness of daughter), but also the importance, and even the art, of understanding context in order to make sense of the current situation and work toward solutions. Picking up on where Stu Copans’ article took us in our Summer issue, Dr. Keith tells us there is no understanding the individual without understanding the context of that individual’s life, in this case the family context. 

David Prescott drills down more deeply into the larger social fabric to ask whether there are any young people not at risk at this time of high social stress and unrest. As a result, David argues that the very context of our work has changed, with the waves of the pandemic spreading throughout all strata of society. David describes context affecting the very way we think as providers and helpers, presenting new challenges that must be contextually understood and from which new and novel solutions will be generated. Katelen Fortunati stays with this very idea in her article, in which she writes that the entire profession of social work is built on and operates within context. She describes social work as depending upon and responding to the many different contexts in which it operates; not only is the work itself contextual, but so too are the problems it addresses. Katelen writes that context not only helps us understand the problem, but also helps us consider the solutions. To that end, she offers six pointers for improving our understanding of those contexts, each of which changes under individual conditions. Incidentally (but funnily), a Stu Copans cartoon helps us keep these six points in mind.

Apryl Alexander describes racial trauma as a form of trauma often unacknowledged or unrecognized in our conceptualizations of trauma. As a result, helpers may not only miss the impact of racial stress, but also fail to treat it. The even larger context recognizes racial trauma, not just at the individual level but also as multigenerational and historical, rippling down across generations and through time. With the further context of racial trauma as background, Apryl describes the greater health risks faced by racially marginalized groups when compared to their white counterparts. Context thus deepens our understanding. As with all our authors in this issue, Apryl reminds us of the importance of understanding social context, current and historical, in which problems and difficulties develop or occur. 

With context in mind, Mary Falcon interviews the two directors of Safer Society’s mentoring program for at-risk children. For this program, the child’s often poor social experiences represent the context in which their work is carried out, with the goal of building positive relationships and prosocial community connections, as well as broadening the general context in which at-risk children’s lives are lived. Remaining with the importance of connection, particularly so in rural and impoverished communities, Connie DelGiudice presents a trailer in this issue for a video documentary centered on the lives of children with an incarcerated parent.

The articles that make up this issue reflect upon and help us understand context and its many faces and effects. Without considering context, or, perhaps worse, not recognizing it, it is unlikely we will make effective judgments about the problems and challenges we tackle, and thus unlikely we will make well-informed decisions about what actions to take, if any. I hope these articles effectively make that point, while reflecting on those different faces of context. Understanding is built on recognizing and understanding context, and so too is finding solutions.

As always, in a world more recently become grimmer, we hope that Stu Copans’ wit and humor is welcome and itself helps relieves stress, and we thank Stu for his enjoyable cartoons. Indeed, we thank all of our authors and editors, and appreciate their contributions, as we appreciate yours.  

Phil Rich, EdD, MSW

Phil Rich, presents, trains, and consults nationally and internationally, specializing in work with children with sexual behavior problems and adolescents and young adults who have engaged in sexually abusive behavior. Phil holds a doctorate in applied behavioral and organizational studies and a master’s degree in social work. He has been the director of six residential or day treatment programs and has worked in outpatient and partial and inpatient hospital care and, in his early days, as a street outreach worker. Phil is the author of several books that address work with sexually abusive youth, as well as a number of books focused on general mental health.

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