Government Relations Update

The steady growth and influence of Congress’s ethnic-minority caucuses continues to lead to important opportunities for APA. This year, APA was asked to discuss key ethnic-minority mental health issues at the annual conferences of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus.

“The fact that our nation’s policymakers are continuing to look toward APA to weigh in on some of the most critical issues facing ethnic-minority communities speaks to the tremendous work that our members are doing,” said Gwendolyn P. Keita, PhD, executive director of APA’s Public Interest Directorate. “Psychology can and should play an important role in educating policymakers about psychological research and clinical knowledge to help inform sound public policy.”

Erasing stigma: The Congressional Hispanic Caucus

Founded in December 1976, the 24-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus functions as a forum for Congress’s Hispanic members to unite around a collective legislative agenda. Notably, the caucus has championed the causes of health disparities and immigration reform, among other issues affecting Latinos in the United States.

At this year’s conference, held Sept. 12–14, APA President-elect Melba Vasquez, PhD, moderated the conference’s Mental Health Summit, titled “Mental Health in the Latino Community: Erasing the Stigma, Breaking the Silence, and Healing the Mind for Better Tomorrows.” The forum, hosted by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, centered on suicide and mental health disparities within Latino communities.

“Mental health has long been ignored, and we have to continue de-stigmatizing the issue and pushing it forward,” said Napolitano. “Mental health does not discriminate: It affects all of us regardless of race, class or gender, and Latinos are no exception.” Vasquez’s remarks touched on APA’s past and ongoing work on issues affecting Latino communities and her upcoming presidential task force initiatives on the issues of immigration, discrimination and disparities in education. “Mental disorders, when left untreated, can lead to serious and sometimes tragic outcomes, as evidenced by the alarming suicide rates among certain subgroups of the Latino population,” said Vasquez. “I commend Congresswoman Napolitano for bringing these difficult issues to the forefront of our national debate.”

Other panelists at the Mental Health Summit included Pamela Hyde, administrator for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA); Henry Acosta, executive director of the National Resource Center for Hispanic Mental Health and chair of the Alliance for Latino Behavioral Health Workforce Development; and MaJosé Carrasco, director of the Multicultural Action Center at the National Alliance on Mental Illness and secretary of the National Latino Behavioral Health Association.

A focus on military families: The Congressional Black Caucus

The Congressional Black Caucus, founded in 1971, has grown to become the largest ethnic-minority caucus in Congress, with 42 members. Its mission stems from its founders’ vision to “promote the public welfare through legislation designed to meet the needs of millions of neglected citizens.” The caucus has championed measures to achieve greater equity for African-Americans and disadvantaged communities.

On Sept. 17, Ernestine Briggs-King, PhD, from Duke University and the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, represented APA at the caucus’s Veterans Braintrust forum, a special track of veteran-focused events. Briggs-King was joined on the panel by former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, among other notable leaders in the civil rights, military and veterans, and business communities.

Briggs-King emphasized the work that she and her colleagues at the SAMHSA-funded National Child Traumatic Stress Network are doing to promote mental health, resilience and well-being among military families at military installations nationwide. In particular, she expressed the value of prevention and early intervention efforts for military children and families. She highlighted some of APA’s work related to this population, including legislative and regulatory initiatives to address the needs of dual military couples with dependents and family caregivers of veterans, and the recruitment and retention of military and VA psychologists.

Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), who co-chaired the event with Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) underscored the importance of such work. “The challenges that our veterans face, especially those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, are truly daunting,” he said. “Multiple deployments, frequent transfers and the anxiety that comes with having a loved one in harm’s way are just a few of the trials that military families have to cope with. Our work is to ensure that substantial resources are allocated toward military mental health care and medical facilities, among others.”

The event also highlighted the work of one of APA’s advocacy partners, the Sesame Workshop, which has developed a series of educational resources to help children in military families cope with deployment, homecoming, and grief and loss. Lynn Chwatsky, assistant vice president for outreach initiatives and partners at Sesame Workshop, discussed the powerful impact that such resources can have in helping children and families cope with some of these challenges.

“When Elmo tells military children that he’s scared because his dad is going away for a long time, a three-and-half-year-old can relate. And maybe that three-and-half-year-old can tell his daddy that he’s scared when he is about to go away,” said Chwatsky.

Diane L. Elmore, PhD, MPH, is associate executive director of APA’s Public Interest Government Relations Office. Benjamin D. Vonachen is senior legislative assistant in APA’s Public Interest Government Relations Office.