Public Policy Update

The events of Sept. 11 have radically changed the context of the federal policy agenda on behalf of psychology. Congressional activity on annual appropriations bills, which usually reaches a fever pitch after Labor Day, has given way to discussions of national security. Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate, as well as high-ranking officials in federal agencies, are demonstrating unparalleled cooperation in trying to get the nation back on its feet.

Likewise, Public Policy Office (PPO) staff are trying to match this shift by bringing psychology to every human dimension of this national tragedy, as well as to a range of policy initiatives involving science, education and public interest.

Contributions of science policy

Beyond the obvious role of psychology in helping those who are grieving or otherwise traumatized, there is a critical, but perhaps less obvious, short-term role for psychology in restoring the security of the national aviation system. When Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta established two high-profile Rapid Response Teams to consider measures to ensure the security of airplanes and airports, APA sought to make connection with psychological science explicit. The Federal Aviation Administration has discussed a range of scientific issues in the form of the Research, Engineering and Development Advisory Committee, chaired by psychologist and APA member Deborah Boehm-Davis, PhD, of George Mason University.

As this issue of the Monitor went to press, Boehm-Davis and her committee were gearing up to review hundreds of proposals from science and technical advisers. Many have been mentioned in the popular press, including traditional engineering strategies--cockpit door "hardening" and the type of bullets to provide sky marshals--to social engineering strategies--changes in threat detection training and improved simulation exercises.

Others are traditional human factors issues, including how to establish the threshold for a flight-plan deviation and when to use advanced technology to allow a ground controller to assume control of an aircraft in distress. However, because of the sensitivity surrounding security issues, it is unlikely that many of the final decisions will be announced to the public. Therefore, we place our trust in Boehm-Davis and her committee to advise with the best that psychological science has to offer. Psychological science will of course have an enduring and expanding role in combating terrorism in the longer term (see article on page 54). An integration of that science base will be reported in future issues of the Monitor.

Contributions of public interest policy

In the wake of the attacks, the need to provide mental health services to aid individuals traumatized by these events has placed increasing demands on our nation's mental health system. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a press release outlining immediate and long-term steps being undertaken at the federal level to address the emotional and mental health consequences. Congress, in turn, approved emergency disaster relief funds for the delivery of mental health, substance abuse and related community support services in the affected areas.

APA's Public Interest Policy staff is actively working to obtain additional funding for these critically needed services and to respond to the aftermath of the crisis by advocating for legislation to:

  • Increase the availability of child mental health services. As a result of the attacks, thousands of children now face growing up without a father or a mother. As the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has stated, "There is clear evidence that exposure to violence...can disrupt normal development of both children and adolescents with profound effects on their mental, physical and emotional health." A new and unexpected situation is now before us, which will require increased support for programs aimed at assisting children who have experienced, or will experience, stress due to these violent events. Two of the key federal programs to meet this pressing need are the mental health services block grant, which provides funding to state mental health agencies, and a newly created grant program under the Children's Health Act of 2000. This latter program authorizes grants to address the problems of children and youth who experience violence-related stress. As the law states, "grants shall be provided for the purpose of developing programs focusing on the behavioral and biological aspects of psychological trauma response and for developing knowledge with regard to evidence-based practices for treating psychiatric disorders of children and youth resulting from witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event." PPO and other mental health advocates are requesting that Congress allocate the full authorization level for this program for fiscal year 2002 and to raise the ceiling for future years, along with a significant increase for the mental health services block grant.

  • Prevent hate crimes. Just two weeks after the terrorist attacks, the Council on American-Islamic Relations had received 625 reports of hate crimes directed against Arab Americans, including vandalism of personal property and mosques, as well as physical assaults and murder. Hate crimes are appropriately defined as "the violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or disability." There is overwhelming evidence that society can intervene to reduce or prevent hate-induced violence, especially among young people, which threatens and intimidates entire categories of people. The Surgeon General's recently released report, Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, states that racial hate crimes may place individuals at risk for emotional and behavioral problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. There is evidence that victims of hate crimes experience PTSD for a more prolonged period of time. This increased risk is most likely due to hate crimes being directed at who the person is, as compared with being the victim of a random crime. In an effort to reduce the incidence of hate crimes in this country, PPO will continue to advocate strongly for passage of the "Local Law Enforce-ment Enhancement Act of 2001" (H.R. 1343, S. 625).

  • Guard against racial profiling. When adverse actions are perpetrated against individuals and groups simply because of their membership in certain racial/ethnic groups, whether for national security reasons or otherwise, the result is discrimination. Research psychologists have contributed to the understanding of the effects of racial profiling on its victims, which include PTSD and other forms of stress-related disorders, perceptions of race-related threats and failure to use available community resources. In addition, the effects of racial or ethnic profiling on the broader society include racism, fear and financial costs. Accordingly, APA will continue to advocate in support of the "End Racial Profiling Act of 2001" (H.R. 2074, S. 989).

  • Prevent unemployment and poverty. Financial markets and many travel-related industries have suffered immensely following the terrorist attacks, leading to major increases in unemployment. Low-wage workers with few skills--including those who just left welfare--are likely to be the first to lose their jobs in a recession. Since passage of the 1996 welfare reform law, state caseloads have declined by 57 percent. Now, lawmakers acknowledge that the law's five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits could face its first true test. Moreover, as indicated by data from the National Institute of Mental Health, low-income individuals are two to five times more likely to suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder than those of the highest socioeconomic group. Not only is poverty detrimental to psychological well-being, but it also poses a significant obstacle to getting help for mental health problems. To address these pressing needs, PPO will continue to advocate for policies and programs that ensure that no one is left behind as we unite against adversity.

Contributions of education policy

The federal government reacted immediately in many predictably important ways in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the nation. Among them was quickly recognizing the need to give Americans information and resources to help them deal with the aftereffects and trauma. High on that agenda has been helping a nation deal with the psychological effects of terrorism in general.

The leadership at the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) was quick to realize that our nation's children, regardless of how young, were, and would continue to be, affected in one way or another by the events. As a result, DoE has taken a leadership role in providing information and assistance geared directly toward our nation's young people.

Almost immediately after the attacks, DoE posted a highly informative Web page with extensive links to additional resources titled, "Information on Helping Children Understand the Terrorist Attacks." This site includes suggestions developed by the Department of Education to assist adults and educators in talking to children about the tragedy. The goal in providing this information is to meet the extraordinary challenge of helping our nation's children feel safe and secure. Letters written by first lady Laura Bush to both elementary and secondary school students are also posted on the site. These letters urge young people to reach out to family, teachers and school counselors, as well as reinforce to children the importance of sharing and expressing their feelings and fears.

The DoE site also links to other organizations, including APA, in an effort to link families in need with expert assistance. APA's Web Site offers information to help teachers and parents identify possible reactions by kindergarten, elementary and secondary school-age children to trauma, as well as strategies for parents and educators in providing support to these young people. It has a comprehensive question-and-answer page that provides guidance for people coping with the aftermath of a disaster, as well as assistance in finding an appropriate therapist in one's local community for those who need mental health services.

In addition, DoE has instituted policy actions that will help ease the burden of communities and individuals directly affected by the attacks. These actions include providing grant aid to school districts in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Connecticut from Project SERV. DoE has also directed lenders who made or hold federal student loans to provide financial relief through Jan. 31 in the form of "mandatory administrative forbearance" from monthly payments to borrowers affected by the terrorist attacks.

Further Reading

For further information on these and other federal policy issues, please contact APA's Public Policy Office at (202) 336-6062, e-mail, or visit the APA Public Policy Web site