Building on Strength: The Influence of Humanism

Posted on July 3, 2012
John Beard facilitating a Fountain House community meeting. John Beard facilitating a Fountain House community meeting. In addition to the settlement house movement and milieu therapy, John Beard – the innovative social worker and former executive director who developed the Fountain House strength-based treatment approach - may have been influenced by his contemporaries, the Humanist psychologists of the 1950s.

How did therapeutic communities also influence Fountain House?

In the ten years I worked closely with John, I never heard him mention Maslow, Rogers, Fromm, Horney, or Jung, or for that matter, any ideas he labeled as humanistic; nevertheless he believed that staff must be genuine and offer members basic acceptance and a significant relationship - beliefs consistent with Rogers’s client-centered therapy.  John also felt strongly that all people need relationships, a feeling of rootedness, the opportunity to be creative, a sense of identity and a frame of orientation: the list of necessary human needs proposed by the famous Humanist Erich Fromm and prominently represented in the Fountain House community.

Read more about the strength-based approach at Fountain House.

In general, Humanism in the 20th century was a reaction to the pessimism and lack of human choice embedded in both psychoanalytic and behaviorist theory. It optimistically speaks to our inherent potential as human beings. The concept dates back to Aristotle who stated 1) the individual is constantly trying to realize positive values from a core of human nature that moves from simple to complex 2) relationships should be concerned with sharing, giving, and taking care of each other and 3) people act from both self-benefiting and other-benefiting virtues. (Peterson and Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, 2004, pp. 22-25).

Nevertheless, as Rogers explained, there are negative events which can thwart a person’s natural upward movement and create pathology. As a result, this deep yearning for positive fulfillment can become weak and difficult to hear, but it can be stimulated to an increasingly noisy level by a social environment that supports it by focusing on people’s strengths. This idea of belonging to a social environment that supports self fulfillment is echoed by Maslow, who believed that belonging is a prerequisite to the development of a person’s self-esteem and self actualization.

In Karen Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth, the client has a built-in propensity for self- realization. This hopeful notion is also consistent with Carl Roger’s Organistic Valuing Process, (1959), Abraham Maslow’s Self-Actualization (1968), Jung’s Concept of Individualization, as well as John Beard’s "need to be needed " conceptualization. The real need for member assistance in the Fountain House community creates a focus on  members' strengths, as opposed to a focus on their pathology, an operational necessity. Other strength-based approaches utilize verbal analysis and social persuasion to build confidence but we believe, like Bandura, that talk alone cannot achieve the consistent changes in human behavior that build self-efficacy and esteem. Also this need for member participation in all of the activities of the Fountain House community destroys the traditional hierarchical relationship between staff and members and paves the way for significant, authentic relationships.

While observing the treatment of the physically disabled at the Rusk Institute in New York City, Beard became interested in the use of supports, like prosthetic devices and ramps, to create a hopeful reality for the disabled. This is manifest in his concept of “invisible social ramps” - the invisible supports built into programs and practices in the Fountain House community that make the larger community more accessible to members.

John Beard never formally identified himself as a Humanist, but these humanistic principles formed the basis of the treatment approach he developed at Fountain House:
  • an optimistic belief in human potential
  • the importance of relationships and belonging to a supportive community as prerequisite to self actualization
  • his two groundbreaking contributions to social theory and practice: his conceptualizations of his "need to be needed "and "invisible social ramps."

Had he been prone to writing, I believe John would be recognized as one of the leading
humanistic practitioners of the 20th century.

Finally, the ideas of the Humanist psychologists, which include an optimism about the capacity of people and hopeful expectations for their future prospects, come to life in the Fountain House community, because as John Beard taught, our function is to help facilitate a member’s movement toward self-actualization by strengthening and building upon his or her existing strengths.

The next and final element in this series looks at today's strength-based treatment theories, which provide frameworks for the ideas we share and predate.
Julius Lanoil
Education and Wellness Consultant, Fountain House


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