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Presidents from Around the World Gather to Discuss Perspectives on Psychology

Presidents and representatives from eighteen psychological associations and two regional societies, gathered to share their views on the state of psychology in their countries and regions, exploring the present opportunities and challenges faced by psychologists and the people they serve.

By Amena Hassan

by Amena Hassan
APA Office of International Affairs

The attendees at this year’s convention had the unprecedented opportunity to attend a symposium with psychology’s international leaders. This event was part of APA President Sharon Brehm’s larger initiative to build bridges across nations and disciplines (read her recent interview here).

Presidents and representatives from eighteen psychological associations and two regional societies, gathered to share their views on the state of psychology in their countries and regions, exploring the present opportunities and challenges faced by psychologists and the people they serve. The session was begun by Dr. Sharon Brehm, APA President, who welcomed the audience and each participant.

“We’re so grateful to each and every one of our international guests for being with us,” she commented. “They have traveled to come visit us and of course we all look forward to traveling to come visit you. I’m absolutely thrilled with this kind of interaction.” She ended the introduction by asking Dr. Merry Bullock, Senior Director for the APA Office of International Affairs to moderate. The discussion began with a general question about the issues facing psychologists and psychology today.

“We think of psychology on different levels,” stated Dr. Manuel Berdullas of the Spanish Psychological Association. “There is the level of the city, the European Union level, and also the international level.” Berdullas noted that some of the largest challenges were also on the international stage. “I think we could be more cohesive in promoting the perception of psychology around the world,” he went on to say. “We need to build a positive perception of psychology. We need to think of ways beyond our international congresses.” Berdullas described some currently central themes for Spanish psychologists.

Coming from a nation of over 40 million people, with approximately 17% of the population over 65 years of age, ageing is a central focus for Spanish psychologists with a recent law passed on the topic. Another focus is research on issues surrounding recent terrorist attacks. Spanish psychologists are also working on organizational issues. “We want to modify the law in front of the Spanish parliament for psychology to be a health profession,” he added. “We need to gain funds and are working on gaining a diploma. We need to update our ethical code, while recognizing cultural differences.”

Ms. Amanda Gordon, President of the Australian Psychological Society discussed how her association was using the media to help promote the image of psychology. “In Australia psychology is becoming much more of a household word,” she said. “One of the things we’ve begun is National Psychology week.” During the second week in November, the media is usually on the lookout for ground-breaking research that is then shared with the general public. Gordon suggested that this example could be internationalized to raise psychology’s profile in the public perception. “Another opportunity is to take psychology to people who are isolated and don’t have access to health care, especially mental health care,” said Gordon. “There are many sectors where collaboration would be useful.”

Dr. Saths Cooper, President of the Psychological Society of South Africa agreed with a need to raise the perception of psychology. He noted that psychology’s usefulness has not always been apparent especially in areas of the world in which it is considered a “bourgeois” discipline, a perception that also eclipses psychology’s influence in policy making decisions. “There are a thousand flowers blooming and there are wonderful ways in which psychology expresses itself in different parts of the world,” he said.

Dr. Pam Maras, President of the British Psychological Society, an organization that recently celebrated its 106th anniversary, reported that psychology’s identity in Britain was well regarded. She noted the need for psychology to reach out to other professions. “We want to take psychology to society but we need to bring society back to psychology. I think our identity has actually become so strong that we need to bring what others are doing into what we’re doing. We need to listen, engage and communicate much more clearly and collectively.”

Other countries also shared their needs and opportunities as the discussion gained momentum. President Jaroslav Sturma, President of the Czech-Moravian Psychological Society noted that his country’s psychology had just emerged from many decades of totalitarian political rule. He stated that this led to unique requirements for psychologists in the Czech Republic to work directly to create “concrete meetings” with citizens. “The communists underestimated the family, because it was a private setting that couldn’t be controlled, and the individual was nothing,” Sturma remarked. This episode in history, he continued, developed a collective form of thinking within the society, giving psychologists the opportunity to observe the consequences of this type of “collective education”.

Psychology is a relatively new discipline in the Bahamas, maintained Dr. Ava Thompson, President of the Bahamas Psychological Association, who described some challenges for psychology in educating and helping the youth of her country. One of the examples she presented was ongoing work to build a program to develop more robust networks among the younger people in order to promote their general welfare and development.

Several of the representatives noted that the status of psychology as a recognized discipline raises a challenge. For example, Dr. Laura Hernandez-Guzman of the Mexican Psychological Society noted one of the challenges for Mexico was standardizing guidelines for psychologists. “We are worried about the kind of psychology people practice. We are working toward certification and an ethical code. Quality assurance is one of the big problems and redefining the competency of psychologists.”

Two Presidents of regional societies also contributed their ideas. Dr. Andres Consoli, President of the Interamerican Psychological Society (SIP), summarized how professionals could meet the psychological needs of people living in poverty and those who are victims of disaster and political violence, eventually leading toward further transnational collaboration. Dr. Sarlito Sarwono, President of the Asian Psychological Association described how the distinctive cultural background of Asians required a more unique approach, followed by an invitation to attend one of the regional conferences in the area. “I realize more that psychology training does not always fit with the problem. Asians behave and feel differently. It is difficult when psychologists come without knowing the local psychology. We need you to understand us more,” he said.

Others commented on changes in psychology’s status. Lars Ahlin, President of the Swedish Psychological Association, commented that psychology in Sweden has increased in prestige. Psychologists are often called upon as experts. “When I came to San Francisco as a young psychologist, I was impressed by the status of psychologists in the United States. In Sweden it is now a dream profession and extremely popular. Confidence has been a problem before (for the field) in Sweden but now it is up and coming. I hope for more of a globalization as we are all winners in making changes. I think we need each other.”
The President of the Federation of German Psychological Associations, Dr. Carola Brücher-Albers, invited convention attendees to attend the 2008 International Congress of Psychology, in Berlin. “Germany is in a period of transition—economics, training, the work and lives of people. We need to raise the right questions to people, churches and politicians to reach a level of excellence. Our discipline should stand for excellence, but the conditions do not always allow this. I would say for the German psychologists that they need to find ways for restructuring psychology,” she said. Along with Germany’s domestic challenges Brücher-Albers pointed to finding the right balance in regulatory issues because much of the relevant legislation pertaining to psychologists is decided in Brussels at the EU level, rather than at a country level.

Dr. Alexander Grob, President of the Swiss Psychological Society stressed the importance of psychology’s empirical base. “Twenty or thirty years ago we were considered soft scientists dealing with problems of individuals. Now we have a different standing and we have to realize we are collaborators for psychology. Grob also noted that psychology in Switzerland is not a protected profession and agreed that, “we need to be identified as a profession that gives answers to social problems.”

Dr. Eva Bänninger-Huber, President of the Austrian Psychological Society raised an issue faced by many countries-finding sufficient resources for psychology education. “We don’t have enough resources at the universities,” she said and continued that  relationships between students and professors were challenged because of the large ratio of students to faculty and the lack of gender diversity in the university setting. “The challenge is that we have to restructure our studies and coordinate with our neighbors such as Switzerland and Germany.”

A country in a unique position, geographically and culturally is Turkey. Dr. Gonca Soygut, President of the Turkish Psychological Association pinpointed a variety of complex obstacles. “We have to regulate to protect psychology in our nation. The first challenge is to see that this is the time for Turkish psychologist to re-focus on more indigenous ideas. We’ve thrown this knowledge out and we study western psychology. Another challenging issue is one can see that there is rising nationalism, racism, and violence. We are the bridge between eastern and western society and it is necessary to use this diversity. Most people see this as a separating factor. “Some politicians and sociologists think that globalization brings ambiguity and anxiety and that it is a threat to national identity and then nationalism begins rising.” She added, “We want to change the perception and lack of tolerance toward minorities.” ”

Summarizing the discussion, Dr. J. Bruce Overmier, President of the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS), welcomed the occasion as a needed, continuing dialog among nations. He drew out common themes, such as a need for a strong, positive identity for psychology as a profession and in the public eye. “We need serious consideration of our educational programs, universal standards for training, but still keeping in mind cultural differences,” he said. “We need a better science foundation with attention to evidence based applications and a transnational exchange that is ‘bi-directional’. What is definitely clear is that psychology has much to do, much to offer, and we need to do it internationally,” he concluded.

Others who added to the discussion were Dr. Rubén Ardila, winner of the Distinguished Contributions to the International Advancement of Psychology award this year, representing the Colombian Psychological Society; Ms. Nhong Hema, representing the Cambodian Psychological Society (see past-President Norine Johnson’s article on Cambodia at; Dr. Mitchel Fleming, President of the Psychological Society of Ireland; Dr. Adam Niemczynski, President of the Polish Psychological Association; Dr. Maan A-Bari Qasem representing the Yemen Psychological Association; and Dr. Hrvoje Gligora, President of the Croatian Psychological Association. View additional photos of the presidents at convention. Ψ