Feature

APA's 2005 president, Ronald F. Levant, EdD, wants the world to know that psychology can help anybody--even psychologists. After all, it's helped him.

In the 1970s, Levant was responsible for instruction in family psychology at Boston University's counseling psychology program, even as he struggled with his own family relationships.

"I was considered an expert in parenting, yet I was a divorced, semicustodial father who felt inadequate as a parent of my preteen daughter," he says. Then he saw the 1979 movie "Kramer vs. Kramer," which portrayed a single man faced with child-care responsibilities.

When Levant saw the lead character struggling to raise a child as a single parent, he realized that he wasn't alone in his difficulties with his daughter. Perhaps single fathers who lacked parental skills were more common than he thought.

"It was a major epiphany, and I studied the literature and discovered most parent education studies didn't include fathers," Levant explains.

Levant's personal goal to be a better father for his daughter led to a shift in his professional goals as well--a move from parenting to fathering. Today, Levant is dean of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and an expert in the psychology of men and masculinity. Some of his work has focused on normative male alexithymia--a result of the process whereby social norms instruct boys and men to constrict their emotional lives.

He says his experience with fathering led him into his own therapy and then into psychoanalysis, which helped him become the father he wanted to be. It also taught him that psychology could improve many people's lives, not just those of people with diagnosed mental disorders.

As APA president, he wants to convey the value of psychology to the public. Levant believes now is a critical time to make psychological health as important as physical health because psychology stands at the brink of change, much like it has in past periods of reform, he says.

"We're at the same point that psychology was in the late 1940s, just before psychologists could do psychotherapy without supervision from psychiatrists," Levant says. "Right now we have tremendous opportunities to expand the scope of our practice, like we did back then, and stand at the front lines of health care."

He cites psychologists gaining prescriptive authority and integrating psychological services into overall health care as two ways that the scope of the profession's practice can expand. Accordingly, Levant's initiatives as APA president include advocating for integrating psychology as central part of comprehensive health-care services and supporting states adopting prescriptive authority legislation for psychologists.

"I'm optimistic about psychology," he says. "I fell in love with it as a young man and have never fallen out of love. I think psychology has a very bright future."

Extensive experience

Levant's interest in psychology first developed in medical school, where it drew him to psychopharmacology and ultimately to a second undergraduate degree, this time in psychology, at the University of California, Berkeley. He later attended Harvard University in a new graduate program in clinical psychology and public practice.

While in the program, he worked with John Shlien, PhD, who was interested in developing therapeutic schooling for delinquent teenagers, moving them from reformatories into community-based centers--special schools specifically designed for such teens.

Levant worked at one such school with 30 children, the Robert W. White School, and ultimately became its director and based his dissertation on an evaluation of the school's outcomes.

He later spent 13 years at Boston University's counseling psychology program, helping to guide it to APA accreditation. It was there that Levant did the bulk of his research on families, working to better understand how fathers relate to their children.

Also, since his first year in graduate school, Levant has had an interest in working with people suffering from serious mental illness (SMI). For seven years while in Boston, he supervised trainees who worked with SMI patients at Cambridge Hospital, also serving as an associate clinical professor at Harvard Medical School. But lured by the chance to head a school devoted to psychology, he left Boston for Nova Southeastern in 1997.

A unifying force

In addition to his academic background, Levant brings to the APA presidency more than 30 years of experience in association governance.

Most recently, Levant spent 10 years on APA's Board of Directors, six as recording secretary. He also chaired the board's finance subcommittee, various miniconventions and numerous task forces, such as a 2001 task force on psychology's response to terrorism. He has served as an editor, associate editor, guest editor or consulting editor for more than a dozen journals during the last 25 years and is a member or fellow of 21 APA divisions; notably, he co-founded and served as the first president of Div. 51 (Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity) in 1990.

Perhaps his most widely recognized accomplishment, says former APA president Pat DeLeon, JD, PhD, is his "wildcard plan," which restructured APA's Council of Representatives so that each division and state psychological association has at least one representative. Previously, small state associations had to team up and share representatives.

Levant's strong community-building skill on such tasks will help him this year, DeLeon says.

"He's a consensus builder, rather than someone who gets frustrated," DeLeon says. "Some people initially said that smaller states shouldn't get a vote, yet by the end everybody agreed. People had fundamentally dug themselves in on their positions, and Ron got them to work together. APA is a large family with many viewpoints, but Ron makes sure all sides of the family get heard."

Presidential initiatives

Such experience in APA governance, coupled with input from APA staff, helped shape Levant's presidential initiatives. They are:

  • Making psychology a household word. The idea for Levant's broadest initiative blossomed during APA's 2003 Annual Convention, when he overheard two women discussing someone they knew.

"One woman said, 'He's so weird, he should see one of those psychologists walking around town,'" Levant recalls. "Then it hit me: That's the problem. People think you have to be weird to see a psychologist."

Levant wants to change that perception by heightening the public's awareness of psychology's value. "I want people to know that psychologists, informed by science, are the people they go to see when they have stress, when their lives are out of kilter, for a psychological check-up," he explains. Levant envisions the psychological check-up as potentially one session, designed principally for reassurance or more concrete help. But the visit could warrant further sessions depending on each person's situation--much like if a dentist discovers that you have a cavity and requires you to return to fix it, he says.

He believes this way of presenting psychology as an everyday resource will help illustrate psychology's potential to transform people's personal lives, as it did his.

"Psychology is a helpful resource that is much broader than treating mental illness, and we should be seen in the same light as physicians," he says.

One potential option is using the news media to educate the public about the psychological check-up. For example, in 2004, APA aired a radio news feature in Florida that reached 1 million homes and encouraged listeners to get psychological check-ups.

  • Promoting health care for the whole person. "Our health-care system is in crisis, with problems in cost, access and quality," Levant explains. "Of the many proposals to reform the system, none have looked at its fundamental flaw: that psychological health is separate from physical health."

In response, Levant will pull together a coalition of professional health-care organizations to draft and sign a statement that the U.S. health-care system must integrate psychological and physical care to better serve the public. He says his initiative is similar to former APA president Dorothy Cantor's 1996 initiative, in which APA and eight other mental health organizations crafted a patient's bill of rights.

Levant and other psychologists, including Margy Heldring, PhD, the initiative's chair, already have met with representatives of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Levant hopes to release the statement at APA's 2005 Annual Convention in August.

  • Enhancing diversity within APA. Levant applauds APA's efforts to attract diverse psychologists, notably through its Commission on Ethnic Minority Recruitment, Retention and Training. Nevertheless, "APA does not look like America," he says. "We aren't doing everything we can to make this a comfortable place for minority psychologists."

A former board of directors liaison to APA's Public Interest Directorate, Levant has teamed with former APA President Richard Suinn, PhD, to pull together a panel of APA members with expertise in a number of dimensions of diversity: ethnicity, race, disability status, sexual orientation, aging and gender. Levant has set as an agenda finding ways to make APA more welcoming to marginalized minority groups. The panel, chaired by Suinn, intends to meet early this year.

  • Developing an APA position on evidence-based psychology practice. The quest to determine what works in psychotherapy is a critical one, Levant says. Building consensus on the definition of evidence, and ensuring that evidence-based practice recognizes the best science as well as the clinician's experience and judgment and the patient's values, is important to the future of the profession and quality patient care, Levant says.

Some psychologists believe that psychological interventions should be based solely on randomized clinical trials, while others claim that other forms of evidence have their value. Some APA divisions have, or are developing, their own policy statements on evidence-based practice, but Levant wants APA to "speak with one voice on the issue" to avoid potential confusion among members, the public, media, legislators, state health officials and third-party payers.

To encourage discussion among people with different viewpoints, he has created a diverse, 21-person task force. He hopes the group will draft a statement that acknowledges the valid points of both sides and proposes a middle ground involving three pillars: research evidence, clinician expertise and patient values.

Levant will co-chair the initiative with APA Treasurer Carol Goodheart, EdD. They aim to submit a proposed policy to APA's boards and committees in March.

"If we expand our view on everything psychological science and practice can offer society, we have no reason to feel our profession is limited," he says. "Our future is as bright as we dare dream it to be."