When Salt Lake City psychologist Mark Owens, PhD, sees the improved relations among Utah Psychological Association (UPA) members, it's proof positive, he says, of how psychology can make a difference to people--even psychologists. Today, the group's members are communicating with each other better than ever, a change most UPA members never would have expected for the association, which just seven years ago hit a critical rift.

The difficulties began in 1998, when a controversy erupted at a local high school over a move by some students to form a gay and lesbian after-school club. It was a hot issue in the state, where most residents, including most students at the high school, are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or Mormons, a faith that condemns gay and lesbian behavior. As residents debated the front-page story, the UPA board was asked to issue a letter about whether the students should be allowed to establish the club. But UPA's board couldn't agree on a position--its members split evenly along religious lines. Most non-Mormon members supported the club's creation, while most Mormon members opposed it. The stalemate caused a flare-up, complete with hurt feelings, arguments and two board members' resignations.

The psychologists in UPA then did something they'd likely never advise a client to do: They simply dropped the issue, though grudges and lingering feelings remained.

It wasn't until five years later, when board members discussed ways to diversify their largely Caucasian and homogenous association, that Owens pointed out the elephant in the room.

"I said, 'We are diverse in one way--religion,'" Owens recalls of the 2003 meeting. "There was dead silence about the issue."

That's when UPA members decided to confront the association's unresolved issues.

In response to the religious tension that surrounds the association and the state at large, UPA is bridging the ideological gap among its own members as well as among the general public. Its first step was creating a religiously and politically diverse task force chaired by Owens, a non-Mormon, to heal wounds on both sides of the state's often unspoken but prominent religious chasm.

Through the task force's initiative, the Healing the Great Divide project--a collection of community outreach programs, educational events, charity work and ongoing public dialogues--UPA hopes to eliminate discrimination and improve relations among all members of the Utah community.

Psychologist, heal thyself

UPA's struggles are reflective of the cultural and religious differences in Utah at large. Nearly 90 percent of the state's 2.3 million residents are white, and roughly 70 percent are Mormon. However, the state is changing, especially in the metropolitan Salt Lake City area. For example, white students in the Salt Lake School District are now a minority.

Those demographics can foster tension among families, friends and colleagues of different faiths. Many non-Mormon Utahns feel that the majority religion dominates the state's political and cultural scene. Indeed, roughly 90 percent of the state legislature is LDS. Many Mormons, on the other hand, resent the dislike some non-Mormons exhibit toward their personal beliefs, which exclude, for example, consumption of alcohol.

Perhaps worst of all, says UPA Past-president Steve Morris, PhD, is that people rarely discuss that tension with anyone outside their own group, leading to mistrust, ill will and the occasional conflagration over divisive political issues, such as the high school club debate.

"In Salt Lake, what religion you are is a big deal," explains Morris, a Mormon. "Some Utah psychologists say UPA is too Mormon, and others say it is too non-Mormon."

With such polarized viewpoints, psychologists in the association, including Owens and Morris, realized that to help the community develop mutual respect and tolerance, they had to start with their own members. They felt the association could convalesce by doing what they would advise any client to do: meet to discuss their feelings in a safe, supportive environment.

"The struggle in therapy is how to bring painful material that people have repressed out into the light of day and learn how to deal with it and grow through it," Morris says. "It's the same with our group. We initially handled our pain by not dealing with it, just like a client might. Now we deal with it--we may get angry, but we work it through."

UPA organized several retreats for its members to discuss some of the touchier and tougher issues that divided them, such as how some UPA members were bothered when others would always share their personal views on faith or overtly express their religious affiliation or hostility to religion. People were able to openly discuss their frustrations with others while simultaneously acknowledging that they, too, contributed to the divide.

To ensure good spirits, Owens and Morris each held dinners at their homes before the retreats. UPA also used an APA special project grant to invite University of Oklahoma professor Howard Stein, PhD, to facilitate the meetings. A psychoanalytic anthropologist and psychologist, Stein has written books on topics such as xenophobia and is an expert in cultural conflict.

Morris says the conversations were more than just lip service. "The things people discussed on all sides were emotionally intense, moving and meaningful," he says. "It got us to a point...where we could start talking to each other again."

In his follow-up report, Stein agreed, writing that attendees began to acknowledge each other's complexity and that "slowly, members emerged as real persons and not as impenetrable blocks of granite." Stein will mediate another UPA retreat in June.

In fact, two UPA members even rejoined the association, and one who resigned from the board is running for an elected office in UPA, Morris says.

And the board now works more efficiently, Owens adds: "When we must deal with contentious issues, we are much better at comfortably holding that tension while we work through the issue. We aren't superficial, and we don't avoid the difficulties."

Communal convalescing

With their internal wounds on the mend, UPA has turned toward helping the broader community attempt to do the same.

The Healing the Great Divide project now offers monthly forums in Salt Lake City where people can discuss their perceptions of prejudice and diversity of all kinds in Utah, and where residents of the community can learn more about individual differences rather than seeing each other in monolithic groups, Morris says. So far, about 30 people attend each month from such groups as UPA, community organizations, academia, churches and local businesses. The first meeting included the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, an LDS general authority emeritus and members of Salt Lake's Islamic and Greek Orthodox religious communities, Morris says.

Owens says the public sees psychologists as neutral and genuinely interested in mending hearts, a perception that has helped UPA's efforts with the community.

"As psychologists, we have something to offer the community with our ability to help others articulate thoughts and feelings, our capacity to contain feelings of anxiety and our compassion." he says. "I think the psychologists involved in this, me included, have found we have a lot to offer if we take our knowledge into the community to help people."

UPA also has teamed up with several sponsors, including local universities, to sponsor an ongoing lecture and workshop series called Perspectives on Prejudice. Invited speakers include international scholars and local community leaders who represent different points of view on ethnic, gender, economic and religious community issues. The series blends theoretical approaches with community activism and has been well attended by the public.

And in December, Salt Lake City will host an international conference on prejudice. Co-sponsored by APA and UPA, the conference, organized by the International Journal and Association for Applied Psychoanalytic Studies and the International Psychotherapy Institute, is the first of its kind to address issues of discrimination and prejudice, says task force member Paula Swaner, PhD. Headline speakers include Jill Scharff, MD, David Scharff, MD, Peter Fonagy, PhD, Elizabeth Bruehl-Young, PhD, Stuart Twemlow, MD, and Carol Gilligan, PhD. A pre-conference session will involve community leaders and the public in dialogue.

UPA will fund the conference through a new nonprofit group it established in January called Chamade. The French word means a drum beat signaling a call for a discussion between enemies to seek a truce.

Swaner, an Episcopalian who came up with the name, hopes Chamade can continue its growth.

"It's surpassed my expectations," she says. "But it's just a drop in the bucket. We're all in this together, and we're all prejudiced in some respects. I hope this can at least build a foundation people can work from."

Indeed, UPA members agree that the problems, deeply rooted in the state's psyche, are by no means completely resolved. However, while people still have their disagreements, members say the biggest change is their refusal to bottle up the tensions and walk away.

"Some people are much more comfortable knowing who the good guys and bad guys are rather than living in messy reality," Owens says. "But I think the great majority of people want to learn about their neighbors. A lot of it is sitting face-to-face with another human being. It's pretty simple, and I think more people are now willing to do that."

Further Reading

For more information on UPA's Healing the Great Divide initiative, visit www.utahpsych.org/greatdivide.html.