As an academic dean at Simmons College, in Boston, and a part-time lecturer at Harvard University, Gerald P. Koocher, PhD, keeps a full schedule. But he still makes time to volunteer at Children's Hospital Boston, where he takes on a handful of cases, supervising interns and counseling the families of chronically ill children. He helps such families air their concerns and, all too often, deal with grief. It's emotionally taxing work, but Koocher treasures the opportunity to brighten the days of the siblings and parents of sick children.
"When you are working with families that are essentially healthy but are faced with overwhelming crises, you can do a lot in a short period of time," he says.
As APA's 2006 president, Koocher hopes to help policy-makers, too, learn how they can help families overcome challenges, such as caring for critically ill children or more everyday problems, including striking a work-family balance or handling divorce.
"A lot of politicians right now are saying healthy families are important," notes Koocher. "We have data that can speak to that-all we have to do is explain it to them."
Koocher is an excellent person to lead that charge, says Michael C. Roberts, PhD, who served as associate editor of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology under Koocher and now directs the clinical child psychology program at the University of Kansas.
"Gerry has been very dedicated to meeting children's and families' needs," says Roberts. "He wrote some of the classic materials still cited as helping us understand what children and families go through when they deal with cancer."
In addition to encouraging family-friendly federal policy, Koocher will promote diversity and strive to make APA responsive to the needs of early-career psychologists, he says.
Working with children and families has been a longtime focus for Koocher, who began his career in pediatric psychology as a graduate student, interning at Boston Children's Hospital. After Koocher received his doctorate from the University of Missouri, the hospital hired him on as a staff psychologist. During his 28 years as a full-time staff member at Boston Children's Hospital, Koocher served as staff psychologist, director of training and, finally, chief of psychology for the hospital.
"He bloomed where he was planted," says Roberts.
Koocher's engaging manner helps children feel comfortable confiding in him, says Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, director of training in psychology at Children's Hospital Boston, and a member of APA's Board of Directors.
With his dedication to children and families, some of Koocher's colleagues think of him as primarily a clinician, says Roberts. However, Koocher is an experienced researcher as well. In fact, he's published 77 articles in peer-reviewed journals, on topics ranging from children's grief to ethics in psychology. Perhaps his most important contribution to the literature has been his theories of how children cope with illness such as cancer, he says. Currently Koocher serves as editor of Ethics & Behavior, and he has edited three other journals as well: Pediatric Psychology, Psychology Bulletin and The Clinical Psychologist.
Koocher is also an experienced administrator. In 2001, he became dean of the Simmons College School for Health Studies. Koocher also honed his leadership abilities during his two terms as APA treasurer, and his time as president of the Massachusetts Psychological Association and several APA divisions, say his colleagues.
Koocher's experience in all of these areas have informed his presidential initiatives, including his goal to support America's families. Today's families face many challenges from divorce to illness to economic pressures, and psychologists can help them with therapy and research and by making policy-makers aware of their findings, says Koocher.
In the case of critically ill children, Koocher seeks to increase awareness of what he calls the ripple effect of major illness: Taking care of a sick child can keep a parent from their workplace and put stress on family relationships. Siblings of sick children may feel neglected by their parents and have academic or behavioral problems in school. Such problems can be alleviated if policy-makers are aware of ways in which psychologists can help-and if mental health services for siblings and parents of sick children are covered by insurance, Koocher notes.
Divorce is another area where researchers can inform policy, says Koocher, who has conducted child-custody evaluations for family courts.
"We know an awful lot about what helps kids cope when their parents' marriages break up," he says. "Let's make sure decisions are being made that are in the best interest of children."
To this end, Koocher will encourage psychologists to reach out to legislators through activities such as the APA Practice Organization's State Leadership Conference and explain the research on what makes for healthy families. Koocher also plans to offer APA Annual Convention programming on issues of family and child psychology, potentially including sessions on how to foster healthy blended families and new research on parent-child dynamics.
Targeting early-career psychologists
Koocher believes that new psychologists have much to contribute to APA. In fact, Koocher was just 25 when he joined his first APA committee-on ethics-and helped to rewrite the 1981 APA Ethics Code.
"It was a pretty powerful experience," says Koocher. "It became obvious to me that if you have good ideas and you stay involved, you can shape the profession."
Koocher hopes that today's early-career psychologists can have similar experiences within APA. He aims to attract them to the association by addressing issues important to them-such as the rising cost of education-and by developing resources targeted toward early-career psychologists. One such resource will take the form of a mentoring network. With the average APA member age 54, the association has a wealth of experienced psychologists who would like to help those early in their careers, says Koocher. In fact, when Koocher advertised the creation of the task force to develop the network, he received 80 nominees within two months.
The exact form of the mentoring network will be determined in future task-force meetings, says Koocher, but he expects that it will harness Internet technology to match early-career psychologists with senior psychologists who have similar areas of practice or research.
Koocher also hopes to address the rising cost of education.
"I went to school at the height of Vietnam; there was a lot of education funding at that time. I finished my graduate training with no student debt," says Koocher. "Today I see students finishing with enormous debt and a challenging employment environment, given managed care. They are facing some enormous challenges."
Promoting diversity in psychology
Koocher looks forward to encouraging diversity within APA by applying the recommendations set forth by the Diversity Task Force created by 2005 APA President Ronald F. Levant, EdD (see November Monitor.) In particular, he will work with the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students to reach out to ethnically-diverse students interested in psychology, says Koocher.
Koocher also hopes to promote diversity beyond APA. On Feb. 2, he will chair the APA Expert Summit on Immigration in San Antonio, where psychologists will discuss how to best help immigrants maintain their cultural identities after moving to the United States (see "Presidential initiative: immigration summit".)
"We want to help our mental health professionals to be prepared to understand the ethnic, cultural and religious differences of the people they will be treating," says Koocher.
Koocher will also work with Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology) to collect teaching materials on providing therapy and doing research with diverse populations. Eventually, the division may provide an online archive of such resources for college and high school psychology teachers.
"We are increasingly a multiethnic, diverse population, and we psychologists need to be leading the way in teaching people to be accommodating to individual differences," says Koocher.