One afternoon in the U.N. cafeteria, Deanna Chitayat, PhD, asked if she could share a lunch table with a group of people she did not know. Chitayat, a retired Hofstra University dean who is one of several psychologists who represent APA at the United Nations, quickly realized she was sitting next to H.E. Joel M. Nhelko, a U.N. ambassador and permanent representative of the Kingdom of Swaziland.

She mentioned she was co-chairing a nongovernmental organization subcommittee that sought to increase access to affordable medications for AIDS patients. In just a few minutes, her lunch mates invited her to help them test a program in their country.

Now, she is now working with them to train nurses to deliver HIV/AIDS education and treatment in Swaziland and to bring in psychologists to develop a program to reduce the stigma surrounding the virus.

“These things don’t always develop, but sometimes you make a few steps in the right direction,” Chitayat says.

Creating those types of synergies is one of the reasons psychologists have pushed for a strong presence at the United Nations. Increasing visibility for what psychology can bring to the United Nations is also one goal behind the third annual Psychology Day at the United Nations, held Feb. 4 in New York City.

The event, co-sponsored by APA and 10 other psychology organizations — including the International Council of Psychologists, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, the International Association of Applied Psychology and the International Union of Psychological Science — drew more than 150 behavioral and social scientists, U.N. officials, nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives and students.

The event’s goal was to show psychology’s relevance to global humanitarian issues at the United Nations. Harvey Langholtz, PhD, a fellow at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, provided a keynote address on the opportunities for a psychological perspective in U.N. humanitarian actions. Other speakers addressed topics such as negotiating humanitarian access in war and disaster, and discussed issues in diplomacy and negotiation. U.N. Ombudsman Johnston Barkat, for example, spoke about the importance of diplomacy in humanitarian relief efforts, and psychologist Daniel Shapiro, PhD, from the Harvard Negotiation Project (see page 76), engaged the audience with his guidance on how to form alliances in negotiations.

Over the last several years, thanks to the work of its appointed U.N. representatives, associates and interns, APA has helped identify issues, organize programs and press the importance of psychology to issues of global importance, including the status of women, HIV/AIDS, human rights, mental health, sustainable development and global climate change.

“So many issues that concern the United Nations can benefit from a research-based psychological perspective,” says Merry Bullock, PhD, senior director of APA’s Office of International Affairs. “APA’s U.N. psychologists ensure the association has a seat at the table as these issues are discussed.”

As an accredited NGO at the United Nations, APA and its members represent the association at meetings and international congresses at the U.N. headquarters in New York City. They also collaborate with APA and other groups to inform U.N. staff about psychological research on such topics as the effects of poverty, violence and war on women and children, and the role stigma may play in seeking treatment for HIV/AIDS. APA representatives have co-chaired the U.N. NGO Committee on Ageing International Day of Older People, coordinated events on the importance of forgiveness and helped get the word “psychologically” inserted twice into a talking-points document developed for staff members of U.N. missions attending the 2009 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December.

The goal of all these efforts is to raise awareness that psychology is relevant across the spectrum of U.N. issues, says Susan Nolan, PhD, a psychology professor at Seton Hall University and another of APA’s U.N. representatives. “The word ‘psychologically’ leads some to remember the important role that psychology can play in changing behaviors related to the environment and makes others ask why the word is included, a perfect opening for us,” she says.

APA’s representatives also line up psychologists to speak at U.N. events. In March, Chitayat facilitated an event for the 54th Commission on the Status of Women, which examined women’s health and mental health in times of crisis and included a presentation by Sri Lankan psychologist Champika Soysa, PhD, who, as a 2004 tsunami victim, brought an intimate knowledge of the Sri Lankan people and a deeper understanding of their needs.

“The hope is that our meetings and international conferences inform the populations of what’s happening, and that attendees go back to their own countries and take up the banner locally,” Chitayat says. n

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

2010 APA-NGO Representatives to the United Nations

  • Deanna Chitayat, PhD, Chair, Hofstra University

  • Sherry Dingman, PhD, Representative, Marist College

  • Susan Nolan, PhD, Representative, Seton Hall University

  • Janet Sigal, PhD, Representative, Fairleigh Dickinson University

  • Deborah Vietze, PhD, Representative, Graduate Center, City University of New York

  • Beatrice Krauss, PhD, Special Projects Associate, Hunter College

  • Neal Rubin, PhD, Special Projects Associate, Argosy University

  • Norma Simon, EdD, Special Projects Associate, Independent Practitioner

Student Interns

  • Jane Dewey, Seton Hall University

  • Nita Makhija, Seton Hall University

  • Cidna Valentin, City University of New York

  • Yuki Shigemoto, Pennsylvania State University