Feature

For years, Carol Kerr, PhD, chief psychologist of the graduate clinical training program at Marin County Health and Human Services in California, watched highly qualified students interview for internships at the innovative community mental health site, only to rank it below other sites because it was unaccredited by APA. Students who did train at Marin County faced obstacles in finding national public service jobs, despite the program's curriculum focused on serious and persistent mental illness.

"The Veterans Administration is one of the biggest national employers of psychologists, but they wouldn't even consider our students because they weren't coming from an APA-accredited program," she says. "And the bilingual, bicultural candidates we seek to draw to our community mental health workforce were also prioritizing accredited sites."

That's changing this year, thanks to a boost from APA's internship stimulus package, a $3 million, three-year initiative that helped the Marin County site invest in key changes that were needed to meet APA's accreditation standards.

The program succeeded in obtaining accreditation by the APA Commission on Accreditation last February, and this year Marin County is training six interns. "It's great that APA is recognizing the problem small public systems have in becoming accredited and is trying to provide some help," Kerr says. "Becoming accredited has meant our applicant pool this year increased by a third, and our number of bilingual applicants tripled."

The grant program is just one component of a multifaceted effort across the profession and APA to address the significant imbalance in supply and demand for accredited internships and to promote quality training for professional practice.

Since the first round of funding in December 2012, 64 programs have received up to $20,000 to help with application and site visit fees, program consultation, administrative and supervisor support, intern stipends and benefits, and other costs of seeking accreditation. In addition to the two programs that have received accreditation, six more have completed the self-study process and are under review for it. APA's hope is that all unaccredited psychology internship programs will achieve accreditation by 2019.

That's welcome news for the field. In the 2013 internship match, 19 percent of 4,114 psychology doctoral students were not matched at all, and 18 percent were matched in unaccredited internships, according to statistics from the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers. Many institutions, including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, among other federal agencies, will not hire students who have completed internships that aren't APA-accredited. This often leads high-quality students like the ones Kerr interviewed to forgo a non-accredited internship in favor of one at an accredited site that may not offer a program that's in line with their interests.

Cynthia D. Belar, PhD, executive director of APA's Education Directorate, says she's heartened to see the grants beginning to have their desired effect.

"Professional psychology is best served by a workforce trained by programs that meet the standards of the profession," Belar says. "Our hope is that, over time, this stimulus program makes a solid contribution toward righting the internship imbalance, potentially adding as many as 150 programs and 520 new positions to the pool of accredited internships."

Ensuring high-quality training

In addition to widening the pool of accredited internship programs, the APA internship stimulus initiative has also helped non-accredited sites improve their programs to ensure high-quality training. Many grantees note that simply going through the self-study process — which requires programs to systematically review, describe and evaluate their education and training model and outcomes — encouraged staff to collaborate on their training goals, strengthen their didactics and improve their program's comprehensiveness.

"It's a grueling process, but I understand why it's required now because it really has resulted in an improvement in our program," says Jody Pahlavan, PsyD, director of the Rogers Center for Research and Training at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Milwaukee. The hospital received an internship stimulus grant in December 2012 and began the self-study process last January. The program's site visit is scheduled for this month.

The self-study process also involves collecting data and gathering feedback about how the program may be improved, says Kristy Sakai, PsyD, director of training at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center Psychology Internship Program, in Waianae, Hawaii, which received APA accreditation in August — and is now training five interns. Through the review process, Sakai and her team gathered feedback from current and former interns about how the program helped and what they wish had been different. Sakai and colleagues used that information to restructure several of their teaching methods.

"The quality of the training has already improved as a result of this process," she says.

Other programs that have received an APA internship stimulus grant and have applied for accreditation include:

  • George Fox University Behavioral Health Clinic, Newberg, Ore.
  • Heart of America Psychology Training Consortium, Central Region, Springfield, Mo.
  • MCCHC-IU Health Consortium of East Central Indiana, Madison County Community Health Centers Inc., Madison County, Ind.
  • PCOM Center for Brief Therapy, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Philadelphia.
  • University of San Francisco Counseling and Psychological Services, San Francisco.
  • Venture Psychology Internship Consortium, Summit Pointe, Battle Creek, Mich.
Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

To apply for the next round of internship grants, visit APA Grants for Internship Programs.