Feature

Being politically active comes naturally to APA’s new president Melba J.T. Vasquez, PhD. She grew up in a family that was always involved in grassroots organizations and politics. In fact, her mother was the first Latina elected to the local school board in San Marcos, Texas.

"It’s my orientation in life to be involved," she says.

Vasquez has been involved with APA since graduate school in the counseling psychology program at the University of Texas at Austin. She was among the first to receive funding from APA’s Minority Fellowship Program. Soon after she earned her PhD, she was elected to APA’s Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychologists (now the APA Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest) and it gave her "the bug" for political action within APA.

Her presidential priorities reflect her personal experience as a Latina and the first in her family to go to college. In particular, she has created three task forces to address issues related to immigration, racism and educational disparities. She has also initiated two new business items at the Council of Representatives: a recommendation to establish a task force to develop guidelines for telepsychology and a resolution on psychotherapy effectiveness.

Past to present

Vasquez is humbled by how far she’s come. She started her career as a middle-school English and political science teacher aspiring to get her master’s degree in school counseling. When a professor suggested she get her doctorate, she never imagined all she would achieve.

"Up until that point, I saw myself working in the schools," she says. "With a doctorate in counseling psychology, a whole world of opportunities opened up."

Her first psychology job was at Colorado State University, where she worked as a staff psychologist and internship training director in the University Counseling Center and as an assistant professor in the department of counseling psychology. When her husband, Jim H. Miller, got a job in Texas, she moved back to the University of Texas at Austin as a senior psychologist in the Counseling & Mental Heath Center, where she served as internship training director and taught courses in the doctoral program.

After 13 years of university work, she transitioned into private practice in Austin where she and her spouse, a licensed clinical social worker, have worked together for the past 19 years. Through it all, she’s been involved in APA politics, including as a member of the Ethics Committee, a member of APA’s Council of Representatives serving Divs. 42 (Psychologists in Independent Practice), 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues) and 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology), president of Divs. 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women) and 17, and most recently as a member of APA’s Board of Directors.

Taking diversity to task

Vasquez believes psychological science can make real inroads on issues that affect minority groups. One reason she decided to study counseling psychology was to understand human behavior and the kind of racism and discrimination she experienced growing up. That interest has found a home in a task force she’s created on preventing discrimination and promoting diversity.

The task force, chaired by James Jones, PhD, will comb the social psychology literature on the causes of bias, prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination against all marginalized groups, and identify and promote interventions to counteract and prevent those behaviors. The task force will disseminate the information to APA members, the public and policymakers in the form of public education materials, briefing papers and a Web-based information clearinghouse.

Vasquez has also created a task force on immigration. As a lifelong Texan and the daughter of first- and second-generation Mexican-Americans, immigration has always been an issue near to her heart. But her interest in the topic "floated to the top" of her presidential priorities when problems started surfacing around Arizona’s new immigration law, she says. Her six-member task force, chaired by Carola Suarez-Orozco, PhD, will review the literature and develop a report that addresses the psychological factors related to the immigration experience, with particular attention to the mental and behavioral health needs of immigrants across the lifespan. It will also examine the effects of acculturation, prejudice, discrimination and immigration policy on individuals, families and society. Vasquez hopes the report will inform immigration policy at the state and federal levels.

Her third task force, on educational disparities, chaired by Steve Quintana, PhD, will use psychological science to develop strategies to reduce the achievement gap between minorities and whites in U.S. schools. As the first in her family to graduate from college, Vasquez knows personally what the statistics show: that Latinos and Latinas are less likely to graduate from high school than any other demographic group. The task force will look at the complex factors that put certain ethnic, racial and gender groups at a significant disadvantage in school.

"In just a few years, many of the groups that have traditionally underachieved in school will be in the majority," says Vasquez. "It will benefit everyone to make sure everyone is well educated."

Taking care of business

Vasquez has two other areas she has long been interested in that she sees as critical to the business of psychology. For one, she hopes to convince APA’s Council of Representatives to endorse a task force that will create guidelines for the practice of telepsychology. Surveys indicate that many psychologists are using telephone and e-mail in therapy, says Vasquez, but there are no national guidelines on the ethics and legal issues that apply to this type of practice. She is recommending that APA join with the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards to develop a set of guidelines.

"APA looked at this issue several years ago and concluded that there wasn’t enough research to formulate guidelines," says Vasquez. "There’s still not a ton of data, but I think we need to pull what’s there together because people are using the technology without much guidance."

She also wants to create a policy on the effectiveness of psychotherapy.

"APA doesn’t have a policy anywhere that states that psychotherapy is effective," says Vasquez.

A resolution that she and two other council members submitted last year to the Council of Representatives explains the strong efficacy of psychotherapy and lists the research that shows, in most cases, it’s more effective and longer lasting than treatment with medication. Vasquez believes that the resolution will make it easier for psychologists to advocate for patient services by providing a research-based rationale for using psychotherapy.

Vasquez believes that her initiatives bring together the best parts of psychology, harnessing the power of psychological science to support psychology practice and advocate for issues related to the public interest.

"The power of psychology lies in the strength of its science to inform its practice and its advocacy," says Vasquez. "And APA is uniquely set up to do that work."


Beth Azar is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.