Public service is so ingrained in this year's APA Congressional Fellows that, in addition to performing their typical duties of drafting legislation and coordinating congressional briefings, they're taking their public action a step further: During APA's 2000 Annual Convention, the four fellows are organizing a volunteer drive that will enable psychologists from around the country to help out in a variety of Washington, D.C.'s volunteer organizations, including soup kitchens, youth violence programs and homeless shelters.
"Psychologists have the opportunity to do something good in the cities we visit at convention beyond generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue," says fellow James Werth, PhD, who initiated the idea for the endeavor.
Inspiring that type of social action is just what APA's Congressional Fellowship program is designed to do. The fellowship places psychologists in the offices of members of Congress or congressional committees where they learn firsthand about policy-making and the political process. And, at the same time, the program exposes the nation's legislators to the contributions that psychologists can make to policy.
Helping children and families
Kathy HoganBruen, PhD, who is working for Sen. Christopher Dodd (DConn.) on the Subcommittee on Children and Families of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, began to integrate public policy into her psychology career in graduate school. While earning her PhD in clinical psychology at DePaul University, she also completed a master's degree in public policy at the University of Chicago.
"I was feeling frustrated seeing people in therapy because a lot of their issues were systemic problems such as poverty and homelessness--social issues that therapy was not going to solve," she says.
Her attraction to policy peaked during her psychology internship at Yale University, where she participated in the school's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy fellowship program. Through her internship, she lobbied at the state level, promoting legislation for financial subsidies for grandparents raising grandchildren in Connecticut, and, during a Bush Center field trip to Washington, D.C., she met legislators and lobbyists who discussed how they use social science research to develop policy.
With her interest in policy whetted, the APA Congressional Fellowship program was a natural next step, says HoganBruen.
These days, fine-tuning the language of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is her biggest task. She's examining issues in education that range from drug and violence prevention to family resource centers to after-school programs.
She's also involved in drafting legislation for Dodd to introduce, including a bill that would improve child safety in day-care settings and one that would improve ethical guidelines for the involvement of children in research.
Her next step? Possibly conducting policy-relevant child and family research at a Washington, D.C., think tank, she says.
"I want to have my hand in policy wherever I go next," HoganBruen says.
Catching the policy bug
Natacha Blain, JD, PhD, housed in the office of Sen. Richard Durbin (DIll.), also foresees a long-term career in public policy. She recently became one of the few African-American women to hold joint degrees in law and psychology.
"I got the public policy bug about four years ago while interning in APA's Public Policy Office," says Blain, who is teaching a course in psychology and public policy at the American School of Professional Psychology during her fellowship. "Here on the Hill, I cannot help but realize that I am part of something bigger than myself and making a real contribution to society and my community."
One source of excitement has been tackling a problem with global implications--the AIDS epidemic in Africa. The problem has been a priority for Durbin ever since he witnessed the disease's impact during a recent visit to South Africa and Uganda. Blain is examining the success of different types of vaccine initiatives and gathering information on aid from organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization. She also coordinated a series of talks on the Senate floor addressing the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
Blain divides her time between Durbin's office and the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring and the District of Columbia. Her other priorities include the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act, the largest federal program to provide assistance for people with AIDS, and drafting a bill that aims to reduce gun circulation through gun buy-back programs and other innovative solutions. She's working on another bill that will prohibit racial profiling or gender profiling by U.S. Customs Service inspectors and will require the agency to document reasons international travelers are searched.
Blain also participates in the Senate African-American Working Group--a forum where Senate staffers and representatives of African-American organizations meet to discuss legislative agendas and issues of concern to the African-American community--and the Senate Hispanic Working Group, which explores similar issues in the Hispanic community.
Ideas trickle up
Working in the office of Sen. Paul Wellstone (DMinn.), Connecticut practitioner Nina Rossomando, PhD, quickly had the opportunity to put her clinical skills to work in a new way: She facilitated the first-ever meeting of leaders from every national Parkinson's disease advocacy group to help prepare them for the first constituent meeting with National Institutes of Health (NIH) directors responsible for Parkinson's funding.
"In a multi-family group type meeting, these groups set aside long-standing differences in strategy and agreed to a unified agenda," says Rossomando. "And they did a fantastic job communicating their message at NIH."
Parkinson's disease is one of the many health-care issues Rossomando is tackling during her fellowship. She meets with patient groups, health-care providers and professional societies and reviews cutting-edge medical research to keep Wellstone--a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions--up to date on issues of health-care access, coverage, disparities and research.
Examining health care from a policy perspective has given her a new outlook about the role psychologists can play in that arena, she says.
"Tracking and developing legislation on coverage, access and quality of care in the public sector has convinced me that we are in the best position to contribute to problems such as patient compliance with medical regimens, reduction of the behavioral contributions to many diseases and a host of other health problems," she says.
Rossomando is also working on legislation with implications for psychologists, such as the reauthorization of the National Health Service Corps bill, which provides tuition loan repayment for providers to work in underserved areas, and she is working on the issue of privacy through a new task force Wellstone joined that is examining medical, financial and Internet privacy.
Wellstone's receptiveness to her psychology expertise and ideas has made the fellowship very rewarding, says Rossomando.
"Wellstone's philosophy is that ideas should trickle up," says Rossomando. "He really encourages creativity and values thinking outside the box."
To inspire students
James Werth, PhD, who was chosen as APA's William A. Bailey AIDS Policy Fellow for his long-time commitment to helping people with AIDS, hopes his excitement about advocacy and working in the office of Sen. Ron Wyden (DOre.) will trickle down to his psychology students when he begins teaching at The University of Akron at the end of August.
"Psychologists need to do a better job of getting mental health workers organized to advocate," says Werth. "I know now how I can be a player in the process back in Ohio--I want to pass what I have learned on to graduate students, so as they become professionals they can learn how to do it too."
He'll also use his new expertise in policy to advance AIDS research and programming.
In the meantime, his work for Wyden has stimulated interest in another area--aging. Wyden is a strong advocate for improving the lives of older Americans and humanizing end-of-life care, so Werth is working on legislation that could lead to improvements in hospice care, nursing homes and long-term care insurance. Werth is also helping Wyden bring psychosocial issues to the forefront of the end-of-life care debate.
"All the research out there says it's psychosocial issues that lead to people wanting to hasten their death," says Werth. "I am working on ways to improve end-of-life care so that people don't feel as if assisted suicide is their best option."
Werth helped Wyden submit an article for a special issue of Psychology, Public Policy and Law on "Hastened Death" to be published this month. In the article, Wyden outlines the steps Oregon has taken to improve care for the dying and describes his work to improve end-of-life care on a national level.
For more information on the congressional fellows' community service project for APA's 2000 Annual Convention, contact James Werth, PhD, at JamesWerth@aol.com. For more information on the APA Congressional Fellowship program, contact APA's Public Policy Office at (202) 336-6062 or visit their Web site at www.apa.org/ppo.