Cover Story

More psychology programs should actively address graduate student impairment to conform with APA's Ethics Code, said Rebecca Schwartz, the 2006 APA Graduate Student Ethics Prize winner, at APA's 2006 Annual Convention in New Orleans.

Standards 2.03 and 2.06 of the code hold psychologists ethically responsible for maintaining professional competence, and APA accreditation criteria require programs to address student impairment, yet research suggests that only half have policies for handling it, said Schwartz, a third-year clinical and developmental doctoral student at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

That's a concern because impairment--due, for example, to substance abuse, burnout or exhaustion--can hurt students' careers, spur lawsuits and tarnish graduate programs' reputations, said Schwartz. Students are at risk for such impairment because they face the responsibility of maintaining competence while enduring constant evaluation and juggling multiple, conflicting demands, she said.

"In the morning, students might have a client, then they might meet with their research supervisor, then they might have class with their supervisor," said Schwartz. "Shifting between these roles, sometimes every hour, can be very difficult, especially if in one of these sessions they have a negative experience."

While students share responsibility with programs for recognizing impairment in themselves and others, their student status makes that a challenge. They may be too professionally naive to recognize their own impairment, said Schwartz, and studies suggest students rarely confront it in each other.

That's why students need their supervisors and graduate programs to take the lead on preventing and addressing student problems, said Schwartz. She suggested programs:

  • Create a culture open to discussion of impairment and its consequences.

  • Acknowledge the interplay between personal and professional issues.

  • Provide ongoing education on professional ethics.

  • Explain and encourage peer monitoring and support.

  • Model practices such as work-family balance to counteract problematic norms such as workaholism.

  • Urge stress reduction through such means as socializing and exercising.

  • Forge ties with community therapists who can work with graduate students.

  • Institute clear, formal policies for identifying impairment and remediation.

Sponsored by the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students and the APA Ethics Committee, the ethics prize provides a $1,000 stipend and roundtrip airfare to and three nights stay at APA's Annual Convention. Schwartz's paper will appear in the journal Ethics & Behavior in 2007.

-B. Murray Law

For application information for next year's award, see January's gradPSYCH.