State Leadership Conference

A commitment to advocacy must be part of every psychologist’s identity, according to Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, APA’s executive director for professional practice.

Nordal addressed participants at the opening session of the 2010 State Leadership Conference, held March 6–9 in Washington, D.C.

“When we serve as advocates, we represent not only the interests of our profession but also the interests of patients and other consumers of psychological services,” said Nordal.

Advocacy is especially important in this era of health-care reform, she added. “We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and be marginalized as others shape the future of the health-care system,” she said.

Key advocacy components include legislative efforts, legal action, marketplace strategies and public education, Nordal added. APA’s Practice Directorate and the American Psychological Association Practice Organization have specific initiatives targeting particular audiences. The Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards program and Business of Practice Network educate the business community, for instance. The Federal Advocacy Network supports psychology’s legislative priorities on Capitol Hill. And the public education campaign brings information about psychology and psychological services, including the mind/body connection, to the general public.

Psychologists have had many advocacy wins over the past few decades, said Nordal, citing mental health parity, prescription privileges and licensing laws as examples.

But despite advocacy’s importance, too few psychologists are involved. “Most psychologists are indifferent or unengaged in advocacy and political activity,” said Nordal.

Nordal offered several suggestions for adding to the ranks of psychology’s advocates. She urged psychologists to get involved and become visible in their communities by serving on boards, joining the chamber of commerce, running for the school board or reaching out to the media. She recommended that psychologists familiarize themselves with social media tools, which facilitate dialogue and broaden audiences for messages. And she urged more established psychologists to help sustain advocacy’s future by inviting students and early career psychologists to participate on committees and in such events as legislative advocacy days.

At a town hall meeting following Nordal’s address, participants and a panel of experts shared their own advocacy experiences and emphasized a common theme: the importance of public education initiatives. Psychologists sometimes hesitate to get involved in such efforts, said Angela Londoño-McConnell, PhD, public education coordinator for the Georgia Psychological Association.

“They don’t want to take the time to create materials,” she said. “But the APA Help Center has already done that for you. You just need to find a venue for distributing the information.”

Londoño-McConnell used those materials herself at a mind/body fair the association sponsored at the state capitol. In addition to educating the public and the media, the event also educated legislators.

“It was amazing how often the people making decisions about what we do don’t know what we do,” she said.

Legislators at the fair and at an annual legislative breakfast the association sponsors were also surprised to learn the facts about the psychological issues affecting their constituents, said Londoño-McConnell, who distributed fact sheets about older people and depression, APA’s “Stress in America” survey and more.

Another key finding that emerged from the discussion was psychologists’ reluctance to engage in one-on-one advocacy. Participants said they were more likely to e-mail legislators than to call them or visit their offices, for instance.

“It seems that participation goes down as personal contact requirements go up,” said Paul C. Berman, PhD, director of professional affairs at the Maryland Psychological Association. “Psychologists do what we do well in offices, but it makes us nervous to meet with legislators.”

One way to overcome that anxiety is to remember that advocacy boils down to building relationships, said Michael O. Ranney, executive director of the Ohio Psychological Association. That might mean contacting legislators, donating to them, or delivering literature and canvassing neighborhoods during political campaigns.

Josephine Johnson, PhD, the Michigan Psychological Association’s federal advocacy coordinator, agreed.

“We have to help educate psychologists that politics is not a dirty word,” she said.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.