As a psychology student in the wake of the Vietnam War, Atlanta clinician Avrum Weiss, PhD, landed his psychology internship at the Seattle VA. He soon became deeply involved with the returning troops-young men like himself except they had been profoundly scarred by the war.
"It was a powerful experience for me," he remembers. "The Vietnam War had always been a political issue to me, something I read about and watched on the evening news. I had never seen the human side of war, or come face-to-face with the men who fought in my place."
When Weiss returned to Atlanta after his internship to establish his practice, he continued his unexpected calling on a pro bono basis, consulting with mental health staff at the Atlanta Veterans Center and counseling combat veterans.
The work, which he has continued since, still grips him today.
"Psychodynamically, the current veterans are exactly like those who came back from war 30 years ago," he says. "It's a lesson in the staying power of trauma."
Weiss is one of many psychologists who are positively affecting their communities through such volunteer efforts. Others are reaching out by conducting free screenings for depression, anxiety and eating disorders; training teachers on children's mental health issues; and offering forums on resilience at senior centers. In the process, they're reaping benefits far greater than the time and resources invested, they say.
"Community work refreshes you and reminds you that your services are needed and valued," observes veteran community volunteer Jana Martin, PhD, former president of the California Psychological Association (CPA) and now public education coordinator for CPA. "It reconnects you with why you became a psychologist in the first place: to help other people find their way."
Indeed, community service is an integral part of psychologists' professional identity, adds Steven Behnke, JD, PhD, director of APA's Ethics Office. Several parts of the APA Ethics Code-in the preamble and Principles A, B and D (see APA Ethics for more details)-"include statements that orient psychologists to the broader society and to their community," he says.
Pro bono's alchemy
Although community service can help fill unmet needs in the community and give psychologists a fresh perspective on their practices, some are skeptical about adding extra work to their already busy lives. But it's important to understand the range of benefits pro bono outreach can provide, volunteers emphasize.
For one, it can stretch your outlook in important ways, maintains Summit, N.J., clinician Roz Dorlen, PsyD, past-president of the New Jersey Psychological Association, chair of the Council on Psychological Health in New Jersey and member of APA's Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice.
"We always talk about thinking outside the box," Dorlen says, "but sometimes our offices are our boxes and we need to look outside of them and become a part of the communities where we live and serve."
Los Angeles practitioner and CPA President-elect Richard Sherman, PhD, is a case in point. While volunteering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he met people he otherwise would not have, including community residents who pitched in to help when their own resources were low and evacuees who had lost everything but their hope and sense of humor.
In one shelter that housed about 400 evacuees, Sherman listened to people's concerns and offered emotional support.
"I was so impressed by the people who survived the hurricane," says Sherman. "You can't get involved with something like this without appreciating what you have."
Pro bono work also fosters your capacity to deliver services in creative ways, says Michael Ritz, PhD, psychology training director at Kaiser Permanente Medical Program in Orange County, Calif., and co-director of CPA's public education campaign.
Drawing on his belief that pro bono work is an essential part of practice, Ritz has his psychology interns work with medical residents to conduct free initial observations and evaluations in the schools for Kaiser-insured youngsters at risk for behavioral and social problems. Then, the children and their families receive a clinical evaluation at Kaiser, and the school and Kaiser medical staff work together to provide the youngsters with integrated care.
"Everyone is excited about this level of care, because it allows the family, the health-care system and the school to work together toward the best interests of the child," says Ritz. "And my interns learn the value of pro bono work."
Another benefit? Volunteering helps you escape the isolation of private practice, says Chicago clinician Nancy Molitor, PhD, the Illinois Psychological Association's public education campaign coordinator and former president of the association.
"Public education is, by definition, collaborative," she says. "You have information to impart to your community, to your fellow psychologists and fellow professionals, and they have information to give back to you. It's a very interactive process where you get a lot back."
Such work also naturally helps build your practice, Dorlen adds. "When people get to know you, they're likely to say, 'We've gotten to know and like this person, and we'd like to make a referral to him or her.'"
Perhaps the most important reason to volunteer, though, is that the current need is so great, Molitor notes.
"People have such high anxiety right now-about their health, the economy, environmental issues, war and terrorism," she says. "We need to be especially active about giving psychology away."
Guidance for volunteers
Despite the pluses, volunteering can be intimidating for some, who, for example, fear public speaking or feel ill-equipped to handle the trauma of disaster-relief work.
A few basic strategies can help, says Helen Mitternight, the APA Practice Directorate's assistant executive director for public relations.
For one, strong mechanisms are already in place for getting involved-so you don't need to reinvent the wheel, she says.
On the disaster-relief side, you can plug into the Disaster Response Network (DRN) , a joint effort between APA and the American Red Cross that quickly deploys psychologists to disaster sites to help after crises. Started in 1991 and including more than 2,000 psychologists nationwide, the DRN has a coordinator in each state, so contacting your state psychological association is the best way to sign up, Mitternight says.
On the public education side, the "public education campaign" section of the APA Practice Organization Web site provides downloadable information on a range of public education toolkits "that provide the soup to nuts of doing an event-everything you need to promote, plan and produce an event," Mitternight says. The kits focus on community-relevant, wellness-oriented topics-such as resilience and mind-body health-that can be tailored to different audiences.
A happy ending
As many volunteer psychologists have experienced, pro bono work offers instant gratification-but other rewards come when you least expect them, says Martin.
When Martin recently visited her doctor's office, a woman behind the receptionist's desk recognized her as the psychologist who ran a pro bono early-intervention program attended by the woman's troubled daughter.
The girl, now 11-whom Martin remembers as "withdrawn, noncompliant and very unhappy"-was singing in the church choir, acing her classes and enjoying an active social life, the mother reported.
"Sometimes community involvement is like a seed that's planted and nurtured by other happenings," Martin observes. "Together, those events can dramatically change someone's life."Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.
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