Psychologist O'Neal Walker, PhD, stepped up in June to oversee the country's only federal program devoted specifically to psychology education and training--the Graduate Psychology and Geropsychology Education (GPE) grant programs, administered by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). Walker's goal, and GPE's goal generally, is to grow the number of psychologists trained to work with underserved populations.
As chief of the Dentistry, Psychology and Special Projects Branch--an office that a year ago didn't include psychology in the name--Walker collaborates with other Department of Health and Human Services officials to expand primary-care training for psychologists, physicians and dentists and--in addition to GPE--offer grants for medical, dental and podiatric training.
The distribution of GPE grants supports students at graduate psychology and geropsychology training programs that emphasize integrated training with other health professions and collaborative work with underserved and underrepresented populations.
"The ultimate goal of the Graduate Psychology and Geropsychology Education Training Grant Programs is to give psychologists the experience and knowledge they need to practice in areas where there's additional need," Walker says.
Walker says HRSA officials intentionally moved psychology into the Division of Medicine and Dentistry to foster its integration with primary care, and then looked for a psychologist to head the branch. It was an ideal opportunity for him, he says, because of his previous experience in primary-care settings and his belief that people receive better care when treated by a team of interdisciplinary health professionals.
"It's a vision I share that basically says if we can get psychologists to work as part of a team with primary-care physicians, specialists, nurses and other professionals, and if we can bring that model into the community, it's going to be a better, more functional model, and we're going to have better outcomes," Walker explains. "We'll have providers working together, not competing with each other. It's an associational model."
First-hand collaborative experience
Practicing in a collaborative model is old hat to Walker, who spent eight years in the U.S. Army, first as a medic and later as a psychologist. While serving as the chief psychologist at the Fort McClellan Army base in Alabama, Walker worked with other health-care providers to care for soldiers and their families.
"It was appealing to me to have a specific group of people to work with, an ability to be very involved in a specific community," he says.
In collaboration with physicians and researchers at McClellan, Walker also investigated neuropsychological problems that occurred in soldiers returning from the Gulf War, an experience he found to be an "interesting opportunity to work with other professionals to solve a serious problem."
And more recently, as a member of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which assigns uniformed health professionals to public sector posts, Walker has worked in both administrative and clinical positions at the Office of the Surgeon General's Division of Commissioned Personnel and the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the Department of Justice.
Always a counselor
Among the bevy of talents Walker brings to HRSA are his abilities to mentor and lead, says Tanya Pagàn Raggio, MD, director of the Division of Medicine and Dentistry.
"His counseling skills are first-rate and have also benefited the administration of the division," Raggio says. "And as a behavioral health official, he helps us address mental health issues in relationship to one of our agency's major goals: the delivery of primary-care health care to America's underserved populations."
Those counseling skills developed early in Walker's education. After leaving his native Guyana in 1974, Walker studied theology at Jamaica Theological Seminary before moving to the United States to study psychology and eventually earning his doctorate from the California School of Professional Psychology, Los Angeles, in 1993.
"I started out looking curiously at philosophical problems I came across in theology," Walker says. "I found that psychology was imbedded in philosophy, and I wanted to study that connection--and how understanding it can lead to ways to help people overcome mental health problems."
His dedication to helping the underserved shined through last August, says Raggio, when, as a member of the U.S. Public Health Service's Commissioned Corps, Walker spent two weeks in Florida delivering mental health care in the wake of four serious hurricanes.