Degree In Sight

As a predoctoral intern, Heather A. Flynn, PhD, worked at a facility for women with severe mental disorders, many of whom had been victims of violent sexual abuse. As is the case for many such patients, sometimes the women would act out-banging their heads against a wall or hitting others-and would need to be calmed. More than a few times, Flynn watched male staff physically restrain these women and was struck by the fact that there did not seem to be any standard consideration of a patient's abuse history when using physical restraints-a practice that the women often reported was further traumatizing.

As part of her internship, Flynn decided to investigate how other states regulated restraint use.

"Heather met with civil rights attorneys, mental health consumers, mental health hospitals and researchers to ask them what such codes should look like," says Richard B. Weinberg, PhD, who directed her internship at the University of South Florida's Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute (FMHI).

Flynn's curiosity and passion for change eventually led to a state policy that limits the use of physical restraints among sexually traumatized patients.

"Her work is a great illustration of how advocacy can benefit not just one person, but an entire population," says Weinberg.

These days, more psychology graduate students are gaining such firsthand public policy experience as training programs and others recognize that psychology needs a stronger cadre of advocates to fight on behalf of the public, as well as to push for psychology's interests in practice, education and research.

The National Council of Schools of Professional Psychology, for example, has included advocacy as a core competency in its education and training programs. Meanwhile, APA's Education Directorate created an advocacy curriculum to guide programs that want to include such coursework, and the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers offers an advocacy training template.

"There's a growing recognition that psychology does not exist in a vacuum," says Robert H. McPherson, PhD, executive associate dean of the University of Houston College of Education, which added a public policy course last semester. "There are political, economic and social factors that shape the profession, science and the services we provide. Too few psychologists understand these forces. Too few know how to work to reshape them."

Now that's beginning to change, not only through internships and enhanced coursework, but also through opportunities offered by APA, the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) and psychology's state and provincial associations.

A greater awareness

FMHI's predoctoral internship in public sector psychology offers intensive training in mental health policy research and teaches students how to use empirical data to advocate for policy change. Interns spend 80 percent of their time gaining traditional clinical experience and 20 percent investigating how policy changes could improve mental health service delivery. In addition to teaching students about the machinations of government, the internship trains them how to write policy briefs, use research data to press their causes with legislators, collaborate with grassroots groups and develop newspaper op-eds. Topics investigated by this year's interns include determining whether the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act helps children with special needs and exploring ways to ensure that the data federal researchers collect on Native Americans involves people from tribal communities and accurately reflects their beliefs.

"This internship has really helped me to develop an appreciation for how qualified we are as psychologists to advocate for change in the systems where we serve as well as in society as a whole," says FMHI intern Mason Goodloe Haber, a graduate student from Wayne State University.

A growing crop of graduate classes are giving students similar insights. A new course taught by the University of Houston's McPherson, for example, offers informal discussions with state legislators and coursework that explore such recent controversies as funding for stem-cell research and legislation on gay marriage. "Our goal is to enable new graduates to fly at 30,000 feet on policy issues that impact psychology," says McPherson.

A community psychology course at Georgia State University (GSU) gives students the chance to role-play with real legislators, allowing them to practice their pleas for, say, increased research funds for psychology, and get immediate feedback from the very people who make policy decisions. The course also requires students to pick a law passed by the Georgia General Assembly and determine whether it has been implemented-and if not, why.

"The experience is invaluable in helping students see how policy work fits into their professional identities and even changes their view of what they want to do in their careers," says GSU psychology professor Sarah L. Cook, PhD, who teaches the course.

At the state level

Many psychology departments are eager to offer advocacy training, but struggle to find time in already-packed curricula. Last year, psychology faculty at George Fox University in Oregon found a solution to that time crunch: Offer a one-day advocacy experience that trains students how to talk with legislators in the morning, then sends them to meet with their state representatives in the afternoon.

Fifty of the 67 students in the university's graduate clinical psychology program participated in the event, which was facilitated by the Oregon Psychological Association last March at the state capitol. The students' message centered on three issues: mental health parity, tax breaks for rural psychologists and prescription privileges.

George Fox student James Mours found speaking with his state representative empowering. "I realized that the information I was providing him was his first exposure to these mental health issues," he says.

A survey he and fellow students Tami Hoogestraat and Amanda Turlington conducted found that 75 percent of those who attended the training said it greatly increased their understanding of psychology's key issues. In addition, they found that first- and second-year graduate students were more interested in the program than third- or fourth-year students and therefore found the experience more valuable. "So it's best to catch students early with advocacy training before they get busy with other things," explains Hoogestraat.

The Illinois Psychological Association (IPA), the Ohio Psychological Association and a handful of other state and provincial psychological groups offer similar advocacy training and state capitol visits for students. "I've been amazed at how open the legislators have been to the students," says IPA Executive Officer Terrence Koller, PhD. "The legislators don't care that they are not licensed psychologists-they are interested in what students have to say because they are constituents."

Learn by doing

But you don't have to be enrolled in a formal program to gain advocacy skills. Many students are gleaning experience working with APAGS's Advocacy Coordinating Team (ACT). This national network of psychology graduate students disseminates policy information from APAGS and APA to students and brings students' concerns-from issues they need to discuss about graduate training to legislation they want changed-to APAGS and APA.

Among ACT's priorities this year has been shoring up support for the Graduate Psychology Education initiative-which secured $2 million in federal dollars for the training and education of psychology students in fiscal year 2006-and the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2004, which recently received $5 million for fiscal year 2006.

ACT makes it easy to for busy students to try on an advocate's hat. "Graduate students can feel overwhelmed and that they don't have the time to make their voices heard," says Nichole Wood-Barcalow, ACT chair and a graduate student at The Ohio State University. "But all of our voices are important, and it literally takes two minutes to call a legislator." For more information on ACT, go to the APA ACT Network.

Other students are exploring advocacy work by signing up for one of APA's "action alert" networks, which send e-mail updates to subscribers on key issues and prompt them to act when needed-such as calling congressional representatives when federal research is threatened. To sign up, visit the Public Policy Advocacy Network  or APA's Practice Directorate.

To stay current with science policy, sign up for Science Policy Insider News (now APA Science Policy News), a monthly e-mail newsletter.

No matter what route they chose, students who've gotten a dose of advocacy and public policy training say it has better prepared them for their careers.

"It helped me understand the big-picture mental health issues," says former FMHI intern Flynn, now an assistant psychiatry professor at the University of Michigan Medical School, who has continued her advocacy work on behalf of women. "Such training is critical, especially now when so much of our work is interdisciplinary."

Sara Martin is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Want more intense advocacy training?

APA facilitates the annual Congressional Fellowship Program—now in its 30th year—which offers early-career or seasoned psychologists the chance to work as special legislative assistants on the staff of a member of Congress or congressional committee. Fellows work in Washington, D.C., from September through August with financial support from APA. For more information, visit  APA PPO Fellows. To read about last year’s fellows, visit Monitor Jul-Aug 2005.