Showcasing the ways psychological science can address social concerns is one of the many roles of APA's leaders — and it's a task that already comes naturally to APA's 2013 President Donald N. Bersoff, PhD, JD.
In 1979, when the school psychologist-turned-lawyer took on the role of APA's first general counsel, he underscored the value of social science research by writing 50 amicus briefs to the Supreme Court, lower federal courts and state courts on cases involving such topics as women's reproductive rights and sex-stereotyping in the workplace. APA had filed only two amicus briefs in its history before Bersoff came on board.
"He has a clear sense of psychology's role in the larger scheme of things, what the profession can accomplish and what levers it can use to increase its influence," says Robert I. Field, PhD, JD, of the Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law, where Bersoff directed the psychology and law program until last year. "He has seen APA from the inside, and that will be invaluable to guiding it further."
His varied experience will also inform his leadership, particularly in connecting with members, say colleagues. Throughout his 50-year career, Bersoff has held almost every type of psychology position, including as a private practitioner, director of a college counseling center, school psychologist, hospital psychologist for the Air Force, faculty member and a researcher. He is also the first former APA staff member to be president. He retired from Drexel to focus entirely on leading the association and advancing psychology.
"His career has been about what he can contribute to others," says Kirk Heilbrun, PhD, a professor of psychology at Drexel. "Don is an interesting combination of very bright, passionate and committed, but also very funny, self-effacing and humble. APA is in good hands."
The Monitor asked Bersoff what he wants to accomplish this year.
What are your goals for this year?
One is to make sure that psychologists are in the forefront of providing services to military veterans, families and soldiers who have been sexually harassed in the service. I want to focus on people who are doing innovative work with veterans, families and people who have been harassed. There is a lot that APA is doing and already connected to, such as Give an Hour and the White House's Joining Forces Initiative, but I want to make sure that we present psychology as one of the main components of services to the military. It fits into our strategic plan.
Why did you choose to highlight services to the military?
I am a child of a veteran; my father was a combat engineer in World War II. He came home in 1946 and if there had been a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder at the time, he would have fit it. He was quiet, and he never talked about the war. He never went to a war movie and he never bought anything made in Japan or Germany again. So, I chose it partly because of that experience, and partly because I served as an Air Force psychologist in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. I saw firsthand the effect that war had on our military and on families. When I was thinking about what I could promote, this made sense.
What are your other priorities?
I am also concerned about keeping career scientists within APA, as well as our early career psychologists, because many tend to leave within the first couple of years that they join. I am devoting a day at the Board of Directors retreat in April to this issue. I have invited two past APA presidents, a senior scientist, two early career scientists and a student to come and brainstorm this with the board. I want the board to really hear from our scientists and early career members.
Why do you think those members are leaving?
I'm not sure. When you are a part of governance, you can see everything that APA does. When you learn what APA is doing, you are amazed by all the services and the advocacy on behalf of psychologists. We publicize these things well, but there is still this myth that APA is not oriented to scientists. Professional issues are important, but it's science that leads to the best practices. Without the science, we don't have good practice.
You're also concerned about diversity in psychology's education pipeline. Why do you want to focus on that?
We don't have enough culturally diverse students in our doctoral programs. By 2040, non-Hispanic whites will be the minority [in the United States] and I think there will be a cultural disconnect between the people we are serving and the people we are studying. A few years ago, I talked to the Iranian Psychological Association of America out in California, where there is a very large Iranian population. While I was there, they told me a story about an elderly Iranian woman who saw a Caucasian psychologist. The woman told the psychologist that all she wanted to do was lie on her bed and die. The psychologist had her hospitalized, and the woman's family was in shock and embarrassed. Then they brought in an Iranian-born psychologist to the hospital and the woman said the same thing to him. And he said, "My grandmother says this to me all the time." It was a cultural difference the first psychologist didn't really understand. The woman was released, and is still alive and bemoaning her fate. But it's an example of why we need more diversity in psychology. I want to recognize innovative programs that are training culturally diverse students who want to practice in the United States, and I want to encourage more programs to follow their lead.
Who has inspired you most during your career?
My former law partner, who also became my best friend, Bruce J. Ennis, inspired me. He was the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union before he joined our firm. He argued the first patients' mental health rights case to the Supreme Court, and he went on to argue 14 more. Probably the greatest legal mind I knew, and he taught me how to marshal legal arguments and how to use social science evidence to support them. That was very important to my career, particularly the work I did as APA's general counsel.
Why did you run for president?
There's a narcissistic part of it, and a doing good part. As far as the doing good part, the military issue is what I am most happy that I can promote. The current wars are winding down, but the sequelae of the wars are not winding down. I think psychologists are in the best position to provide these services veterans need. So, the presidency is an incredible opportunity to promote this initiative. The narcissistic part is, to take part in a profession for 50 years and then finally have the opportunity to lead it is a great honor.
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