Feature

Psychologists' research has led to remarkable strides forward in social justice, helping us investigate and understand societal challenges, such as human and civil rights violations, effects of national disasters, terrorism and the importance of a sustainable environment, said APA President Melba J.T. Vasquez, PhD.

Among its many accomplishments, psychologists' research has led to the development of amicus briefs contributing to a decision prohibiting life without parole sentences for juveniles in non-capital criminal cases. It persuaded Florida to strike down a state law that prohibited gay and lesbian people from adopting children. It has convinced state and federal courts that overcrowding in state prisons was undermining inmates' mental health.

"These activities directly affect people's lives," Vasquez said.

Psychologists are continuing their work to promote social justice for all Americans by promoting health-care reform and working to ensure that the greater access to mental health services gained in recent years is preserved and more, she said.

"We know that not all members of our society have access to our services ... and that leads us to work in the future to make sure that those aspects of health care do not get undone," she said in her presidential address during APA's 2011 Annual Convention. "We hope you will help us with those efforts."

Now, as the nation struggles in tough economic times, APA must continue its longstanding commitment to social justice and responsibility, she said. Working for social justice is, after all, part of APA's mission and vision, as articulated in APA's strategic plan. Throughout APA's history, Vasquez said, its leaders have stepped forward to address social justice concerns. Among the most memorable examples of such leadership was the work by APA President Kenneth B. Clark, PhD, and Mamie Phipps Clark, PhD, which contributed to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that racial segregation in public education was unconstitutional.

Today's need for advocacy on social justice issues runs just as deep, said Vasquez, pointing out:

  • One in five American children lives in poverty and half a million are homeless, according to a 2008 report from the Foundation of Child Development.

  • The income gap among whites, blacks and Hispanics significantly widened between 2005 and 2009, according to a Pew Research Center report. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households, and 18 times that of Hispanic households, the report found.

  • The United States lacks a national strategy to address how social and environmental factors result in shorter lifespans and chronic illness, according to the Institute of Medicine and National Academies of Science.

"We're living in a very challenging time," she said, calling on psychologists to be "proactive in addressing critical social problems, especially those to which our research speaks."

While describing how psychology research can further social justice, Vasquez conceded that APA's members don't always agree on whether, or how, the association should speak out on controversial issues. For example, some members have contested several APA reports, such as the findings on abortion and mental health, sexual orientation change efforts and same-sex marriage and parenting, she said. Heated debates also have broken out over APA's stance on the role of psychologists in the interrogation of terrorism detainees, proposed changes to the APA Model Licensing Act and the proposed seating of the four ethnic-minority psychological associations as voting members on the Council of Representatives, Vasquez said.

And while open, public debate is healthy for APA, Vasquez appealed for civility, too. "We can all work to turn down the temperature on outrage, and we can disagree passionately, but with respect and care," she said.