From the CEO

In my last column, I addressed the issue of how much the public was being exposed to psychologists and psychological content in the media. Using a variety of data sources, I estimated that such exposure was substantial. But of course, exposure to psychology doesn't tell us anything about the public's understanding or attitudes about the field. In his review of public attitudes about psychology in the American Psychologist, Benjamin (1986, 41, 941-946) noted that "it was doubtful that the public ever had a reasonable understanding of the nature of the field."

During the mid-1990s, APA commissioned two national telephone surveys that, among other things, explored the public's attitudes and knowledge about psychology and psychologists as health providers. One survey, conducted by Porter/Novelli, was a national random sample of 1,200 adults ages 21 to 65 years who were the primary health-care decision-makers for the family. The second survey, conducted by Penn-Schoen Associates, was of a national random sample of 1,087 adults 18 years old and over. The surveys addressed a number of questions including the public's understanding of what psychologists do and how psychologists are trained, and broader questions about their attitudes about mental health treatment.

What do we do? In the Penn-Schoen survey, participants were asked the open-ended question, "What do psychologists do?" After coding the responses, it was found that 45 percent believed that psychologist helped people with their problems or provided counseling. Approximately 30 percent believed that we studied human behavior or analyzed people. Another 6 percent felt that we talked and listened to people.

Where do we work? In another open-ended question in which multiple responses were possible, over 80 percent of respondents said that psychologists "usually work"in private practice, 60 percent mentioned community clinics, and 50 percent mentioned hospitals. Only 5 percent mentioned schools or universities.

How are psychologists trained? About 33 percent said that a doctoral degree was required, although 31 percent said a master's degree was required. Interestingly (or regrettably), 17 percent said only a bachelor's degree was required, and 15 percent said a medial degree is the minimum educational requirement.

Seeking mental health assistance. A related but somewhat different question concerns the nature of the public's attitude toward mental illness and the receptivity of the public to mental health care. The good news is that people say that they are open to consulting with a mental health professional for a variety of problems. A majority reported that they were very likely or somewhat likely to seek mental health assistance for problems such as a serious mental illness (93 percent), suicidal feelings (87 percent), drug or alcohol problems (86 percent), eating disorder (83 percent), depression or anxiety (80 percent), children's problems (76 percent), coping with a chronic illness (66 percent), marital problems (62 percent), and child rearing issues (60 percent). Only 54 percent reported that they would seek assistance for stress or healthy lifestyle issues, and only 31 percent reported that they would seek such assistance for work-related problems.

Who can treat mental health problems? Compared with psychiatrists and social workers, the majority of respondents believed psychologists were viewed as the professionals "most likely" to treat problems such as stress, marital difficulties, children's problems, a death in the family, coping with a serious illness or problems at work. Psychiatrists were viewed as most likely to handle problems such as serious mental illness, suicidal feelings and depression or anxiety.

Barriers to treatment. Despite the respondents' openness to mental health treatment, they did perceive a number of barriers that they considered "very or somewhat important" to receiving such treatment. These included, among other things, lack of insurance coverage (mentioned by 84 percent), concerns about costs (84 percent), lack of confidence in outcome (76 percent), lack of knowledge about how to find the right professional for their needs (68 percent) and not knowing if it's really appropriate to seek help (66 percent).

Overall, based on the information in this and in my previous column, when it comes to the public's view of psychology and mental health issues, there is both good news and bad news. Although our presence in the media is strong, we don't have a good idea about the quality or accuracy of the information being provided. It also appears that the public does not have a broad view of what psychologists do, especially as scientists. The good news is that the public seems very willing to seek mental health care, which has not always been the case. Yet, significant barriers exist for them to gain access to this care. Clearly, we have much work to do to ensure that the public understands who we are and what we do. Our public education goals must include reducing the barriers to mental health care and expanding the public's understanding of psychologists' many work settings-from the laboratory to schools, to corporate suites and government.