The 28th International Psychological Congress, held in Beijing, followed immediately after APA's own highly successful convention in beautiful Honolulu, and those of us fortunate enough to attend both events came away with new ideas, new perspectives on old ones, and new colleagues whose thinking may be conceptually close to our own, even if they are geographically distant.
Psychology is international--there is nothing about human or other animal behavior, thought or emotion that ends at the borders of any country. Yet, U.S. psychologists are often described as myopic, and too often this description is accurate: We can be U.S.-centric in what we teach, how we think about our discipline, and how little we know about developments in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, human and natural disasters, and the mental health crises they create, like all aspects of psychology, also know no borders.
On the first day of the International Congress, a mentally ill man in Beijing attacked a kindergarten class, killing one child, critically injuring three teachers and many other children, while other children watched in terror. As president of APA, I received an e-mail with the correspondence line labeled "URGENT HELP NEEDED." I will not go into the details of the attack; interested readers can find additional information by searching online newspapers. Officials at the Peking Institute National Center for Mental Health asked if I could help them get in contact with experts in children's (and their families') responses to disasters like this one. I immediately responded via e-mail that I would.
Imagine my next problem--I am in my hotel in Beijing having just promised to help with an immediate crisis. I know there are 6,000 psychologists at the meeting in the convention center and hotels in Beijing, some of whom have expertise in disaster response. How exactly do I find the best ones in a hurry?
I headed off to consult with a colleague who was about to present a paper at a symposium on cross-cultural assessment. I sat down at her session clutching the name and mobile-phone number of the person to call at the Peking Institute National Center for Mental Health when the person sitting next to me turned around to introduce himself. He was Gerard Jacobs, PhD. I knew Dr. Jacobs by name and reputation as a member of APA's advisory committee for our disaster response network and as a leading expert in this field. I told him about the critical situation with the children and their teachers. I then handed him the slip of paper with the phone number for the contact person at the Peking Institute National Center for Mental Health, and he left the room as soon as he understood what was needed.
In less than one hour, he and his colleague, Burcu Aydin, who works with earthquake victims in Turkey, were at the hospital in Beijing meeting with the psychiatrists. They had materials on responding to disasters on their computers that were downloaded and printed; they discussed models of disaster response that involved multidisciplinary teams including psychologists, and spent eight hours at the hospital. The next day I received a grateful response from the professional staff at the Center for Mental Health. Of course, Dr. Jacobs and Ms. Aydin did all the work, responding as soon as they understood the severity of the situation.
As a cognitive psychologist, I understand probabilities the way a cognitive psychologist should. Coincidences happen, and even rare events happen with some low probability. I know many people, travel to many places, so some random "running into someone, somewhere, sometime" is likely to happen. Sometimes, a disaster-response expert appears just when you need one, and it really is not so unusual to run into a leading pediatric disaster response expert at an international meeting of psychologists. But, it does not feel that way at all. Sometimes, there is a mismatch between what you know and what you feel, but that is probably another column, although a similar point was made by Daniel Kahneman, PhD, in his remarks at the opening ceremony for the International Congress.
I sincerely hope that the children in the Beijing kindergarten and their families will heal well and future disasters will be somewhat less painful because of this lucky meeting, regardless of how we explain it. Thank you to all psychologists who do the difficult work of responding to disasters and to all of you who are dedicated to international cooperation and sharing psychological knowledge.