APA at the United Nations

APA Bids Farewell to its Main Representative at the UN

An interview with Florence Denmark

Florence Denmark, Committee on AgeingFlorence Denmark, PhD, served as a representative from APA to the United Nations for 9 years – as representative (2001-2004) and then as Main Representative (2005-2009). A pioneer in the psychology of women, her long service to the discipline and to APA includes a term as APA’s fifth female president (1980-1981), founding member and president of Division 35, and president of Division 1. She is the recipient of countless APA awards, citations and honors, including the APA Award for Distinguished Contributions to the International Advancement of Psychology (1996), the American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in Psychology in the Public Interest (2004), and the Raymond Fowler Award for Outstanding Service to APA (2007). Dr. Denmark continues active involvement as Professor and mentor at Pace University.

In this interview, Merry Bullock, PhD, APA Office of International Affairs, and Florence Denmark discuss her tenure as one of APA’s ambassadors to the UN. In December 2009, Denmark ends her tenure as APA’s Main Representative to the UN.

OIA: How have you seen APA’s presence at the UN change over the years?

Denmark: APA’s representation has evolved into real teamwork. When I first started, each representative would work on those issues he or she felt drawn to, under an APA umbrella. This has evolved over the years so that the group works more cohesively as a team.

One outcome of that increased cohesiveness that has spilled over to all the psychologists at the UN is Psychology Day, where we all present psychology to the UN community.

OIA: Tell us about Psychology Day.

Denmark: Psychology Day is an annual event - the next one is February 4, 2010 – that introduces UN perspectives and issues to the psychology community and that introduces the UN community of staff, diplomats and NGOs to the role that psychology plays in central UN concerns. This has been a successful venture. It is put together by a planning group from all the psychology or psychology-related groups at the UN that meet together. We have established friendships and collegial relationships among the psychologists at the UN.

OIA: What do you think has been the best accomplishment in your time at the UN?

Denmark: Without a doubt that APA’s representatives have moved forward to leadership positions in NGO committees, gaining respect for psychology and APA within the UN community.

This was not there when I came to the UN. But now we have leadership positions across many UN committees – Ageing, Mental Health, Family, HIV/AIDS. And APA was elected to the executive board of the organization that oversees NGO actions – the Council on NGOs or CoNGO.

OIA: What does being an NGO at the United Nations bring to psychology, and to APA?

Denmark: It brings firsthand awareness of the activities and issues at the UN and information for us to share with psychologists. There is so much going on at the UN and in the world stage that is not in the news. We do a lot of work on human rights – not in terms of individual cases, but in working for basic rights for children, women, mental health, aging, and the like. Also, psychology is becoming better known as a discipline through our work on Psychology Day and in committees.

People respect psychology, and ask for and use psychological expertise in those areas that touch on mental health, sustainable development, human behavior. Of course it is like anywhere – they don’t run to us, knowing they need a psychologist – we need to be proactive to get heard. But when we are, there are listeners.

And it brings information and expertise to APA as well. We learn so much in the UN context and encourage a two-way communication with APA offices – mostly public interest offices – that map onto UN concerns. We disseminate APA information and we tell APA offices about questions and concerns on the UN level.

OIA: What advice would you give to APA as you end your tenure?

Denmark: More of the same! And continue the policy of engaging UN representatives for APA with a diverse set of interests to broaden our outreach. This has changed in my time – at the start we were mostly interested in women’s issues and mental health; today we cover a broad range of committees that reflect the broad scope of the team’s interests – still women and mental health of course, but also human rights, sustainable development, indigenous peoples, habitats, family, children, HIV/AIDS, and more.

I would also encourage APA to encourage more of its members to get involved. We encourage psychologists to come to the UN – for Psychology Day, or just for a visit (and if you come on a Thursday you could accompany a team member).

OIA: Dr. Denmark, You have been such a marvelous diplomat and catalyst for APA’s activities at the UN. Under your tenure APA’s scope and influence at the UN has grown, and you have also mentored new representatives as they have come on. You have also instituted mentoring for the next generation through the internship program. Is there anything you would like to add?

Denmark: Yes, it has been a great 9 years, and I have had the privilege of working with great colleagues. In addition to the professional satisfaction, I have gained immensely in social networks – contrary to the usual trend of decreasing social contacts with age, since coming to the UN I have more friends, more social invitations, and a longer greeting card list every year! It is an amazing way to meet so many people from so many different walks of life.

I thank APA for giving me this opportunity. I also want to thank (and be sure to put this in) Dr. Merry Bullock and the Office of International Affairs for its facilitation and organization. Together we have made a terrific team.

OIA: Thank you very much.

Note: The APA UN representatives will present a symposium at the 2010 Convention on “Health, Mental Health, and Human Rights ina  Global Perspective" and Dr. Denmark will be the discussant.