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The man who kept kids from starving / the theory of positive deviance

Posted Nov 14 2011 4:29am

One of my favorite stories is the story of Jerry Sternin.  He came to Vietnam in 1990 to try to come up with a way to address the issue of malnutrition especially that of child nutrition.  Without any great theory of  malnutrition or any great resources he found a solution and in the process showed the amazing power of a theory of human change called the theory of positive deviance.  His idea was real simple.  Even in the worst of situations he assumed there were people who were successful.  Not all kids were dying of malnutrition.  His idea was find the people who were doing things differently, who were successful and teach others to do the same thing.  Find out what works and do more of it.  And not only did it work it worked spectacularly.  A description of his story can be found in many places but this link in Wikipedia is a good place to start .

Recently in the New York Times a similar story has emerged.  They have done found people who have done well and in fact prospered with mental illness and have endeavored to tell their stories.  Much mental health theory and effort is put into analyzing and cataloguing the ways things go wrong and little has been spent on success.  The research by people like Courtney Harding tells a similar story.  Recovery is possible and even likely for people that the orthodox theories say have no chance.  It would seem the key is to find and amplify the structure of success.  Get people to do what works.  Get them to do it more often.  Get more people to do it.

None of that will come from the medical model.  Much of what has been written about the recovery model and things like peer support do support ideas like positive deviance.  Find what works.  Share what works.  The resources that you need are yours as a human being.  Story after story shows the success of this.

The structure of solutions need have little to do with the structure of problems.  In Vietnam it didnt matter what caused malnutrition.  What mattered is how people, even in the worst of conditions, were able to feed their children and teaching others to do what worked.  In recovery it matters more what causes people to be stronger, more resilient, more successful people than it does what causes mental illness.

Find the positive deviants in your life.  If you are one find a way to share your positive deviance with others.  No one has to “starve” from mental illness.  Recovery is there.  For me… For you… For all of us…..  We just have to know where to “be fed.”


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