Another important scientific and philosophical conceptual framework that emerged about the same time and related to, social psychiatry and psychodynamics, was general systems theory. The concepts grew up out of quantum physics and cybernetics but have profoundly influenced all substantial movements in science and ecology ever since.
A system can be defined as a set of interrelated elements that are interdependent so that changes in some elements or their relations produce changes in other parts of the system and that respond predictably, and where the nature of the interaction is consistent over time. The main premise is that every individual component of any system influences and is influenced by every other component. The result of these complex interactions is the emergence of behavior that can only be understood by comprehending these complex patterns. As a result, change at any one point will eventually have an impact on the total system and its component parts .
The hallmark of life is interrelatedness and interdependence and an understanding of these characteristics became known as “general systems theory”. General systems theory provided a theoretical underpinning for some of the observations that were central to the lessons of WWII. Psychiatry came to recognize that individuals could be understood and helped only in the context of understanding their family system, their cultural framework for constructing reality, and the larger systems within which they live including the workplace, school, home and friendship patterns – as well as the network of connections that comprise each individual's personal and cultural history . Family therapists like Virginia Satir , Salvador Minuchin , Jay Haley[6, 7], Murray Bowen , Carl Whitaker , and many others used systems theory to design and implement approaches to whole family systems and even extended networks .
A system is comprised of a set of components that work together for the overall objective of the whole which is exactly what your body is as is every organizational body. Systems theory influenced ideas about the connections between mind and body, a split known as the Cartesian Dichotomy, and gave birth to an entire field of psychosomatic medicine, recognizing that the mind and the body interact with and influence each other. This historical split is only now really beginning to be addressed on a practical level in modern medicine. In reality, our body is a system and a vital part of that system is your brain
The main differences between your body and the place where you work, from a systems perspective, are that your body has been perfected by nature over the course of billions of years; your body stays in one geographical and quite limited physical space and is interactively guided (mainly) by one brain. The system you work in is – at most – about a hundred years old, and in all likelihood much younger than that, may be geographically widely disseminated, and is interactively impacted if not guided by thousands or even millions of brains. Although systems are indispensable in a complex society, all systems that have not been shaped by Nature, but by humans, are notoriously difficult to manage, move, start, stop, or change. John Gall, author and retired pediatrician expressed it best in his work on “Systemantics”,
“Systems are seductive. They promise to do a hard job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself. But if you set up a system, you are likely to find your time and effort now being consumed in the care and feeding of the system itself. New problems are created by its very presence. Once set up, it won't go away, it grows and encroaches. It begins to do strange and wonderful things. Breaks down in ways you never thought possible. It kicks back, gets in the way, and opposes its own proper function. Your own perspective becomes distorted by being in the system. You become anxious and push on it to make it work. Eventually you come to believe that the misbegotten product it so grudgingly delivers is what you really wanted all the time. At that point encroachment has become complete... you have become absorbed... you are now a systems person!” (p.127-8) 
Unlike a machine - like your car, or your vacuum cleaner – your body and every environment that delivers human services are living systems – open, complex, and adaptive. Living systems are open systems because they accept input from their environment, they use this input to create output, and they then act on the environment. Living systems are adaptive because they can learn and based on that learning, they can adapt to changes in their environment in order to survive.
As a living system, the human service system and every component of that system has an identity, a memory, and has created its own processes that resist changes imposed from above, but will evolve and change naturally if the circumstances are conducive to change. The mental health system is complex because it is comprised of other complex adaptive systems: the staff, administrators, and boards, the clients, and their families. It is rooted within health, public health and social service systems of a county and state, and all are set within a country, a country that is embedded within a global civilization. And all these components are complexly interactive with each other.
The past history of any service program, like the histories of the individual clients and staff, and the systems they are embedded within, continue to determine present behavior and in every moment, present behavior is playing a role in determining the future. All of these components – individual, group, organization, local government, national government, global influences, past, present and future – all are interacting with and impacting on each other in complicated ways, all of the time – that’s what makes things so complex. It is this complexity that compels the usual oversimplification that occurs whenever an individual or a group of individuals encounters the apparently overwhelming complexity of changing systems.
At the heart of traumatic stress studies is the recognition that trauma occurs within social, economic, and political contexts. At its core, the study of traumatic stress is a study of systems. Dr. Judith Herman, one of the pioneers in the traumatic stress field has even stated that “The systematic study of psychological trauma depends on the support of a political movement” (p.9). Regardless of whether the focus has been on combat veterans, Holocaust survivors, victims of crime, disaster, or terrorism, or victims of family violence in all of its forms, it has been impossible to separate the external events that cause or precipitate the traumatic experience from the person who experiences the trauma. The concept of “trauma-organized systems” has been applied at individual, family, organizational and societal levels as a way of describing the complex and interactive impact of exposure to trauma and adversity over time.
1. Napier, R.W. and M.K. Gershenfeld, Groups: Theory and Experience, Seventh Edition. 2004, Boston: Houghton Mifflin
2. Von Bertalanffy, L., General systems theory and psychiatry, in American Handbook of Psychiatry, Volume One: The Foundations of Psychiatry, S. Arieti, Editor. 1974, Basic Books: New York.
3. Gray, W., F.J. Duhl, and N.D. Rizzo, General Systems Theory and Psychiatry. 1969, Boston: Little Brown.
4. Satir, V., Conjoint Family Therapy. 1983, Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.
5. Minuchin, S., Families and Family Therapy. 1974, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
6. Haley, J. and L. Hoffman, Techniques of Family Therapy: Five Leading Therapists Reveal Their Working Styles, Strategies, and Approaches. 1967, New York: Basic Books.
7. Haley, J., Uncommon Therapy: The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. 1973, New York: Ballantine Books.
8. Bowen, M., Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. 1978, Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.
9. Napier, A.Y. and C.A. Whitaker, The Family Crucible. 1978, New York: Harper and Row.
10. Speck, R.V. and C. Attneave, Family Networks. 1972, New York: Pantheon.
11. Gall, R., Systemantics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail. 1977, New York: Simon & Schuster.
12. Herman, J., Trauma and Recovery. 1992, New York: Basic Books.