Running Commentary

I recently had an opportunity to meet in Atlanta with leading psychologists in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and I was reminded once again of what an important role the VA has played in the development of the profession of psychology and in the commitment of APA to psychology as a profession as well as a science.

Before World War II, the practice of psychology was poorly defined. There were no guidelines for training, and no clear career path for graduates. APA did not recognize or welcome clinicians with any enthusiasm, and the VA employed no doctoral-level psychologists at all.

World War II changed all of that. The enormous number of casualties with mental and emotional disorders demonstrated the need for personnel to provide psychotherapy and rehabilitation. In 1943, Col. William Menninger, a prominent psychiatrist, advocated for mental health teams of psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, and the role of clinical psychologists expanded throughout World War II.

Establishing new roles for psychologists

After World War II, APA reorganized itself to recognize psychology as a profession as well as a science and welcomed clinicians as members. The VA, faced with 17 million veterans, many of whom needed mental health services, established new roles and new positions for psychologists in its treatments and rehabilitation programs, and set about trying to recruit psychologists to fill those positions--a difficult task, since the VA quickly discovered that the available positions for psychologists in the VA exceeded the total of all qualified clinical psychologists in the country.

Recognizing the need for more psychologists to meet the needs of veterans, the VA asked APA to identify those psychology departments qualified to train clinicians at the doctoral level. APA identified 22 programs, and the VA provided 200 graduate stipends, which began an explosive expansion in the development of clinical training programs throughout the country. This process was repeated for counseling psychologists. APA's modest effort in 1946 to identify 22 programs qualified to train clinicians grew into an accreditation program that now accredits 351 doctoral programs, as well as 461 internship programs and nine postdoctoral programs.

By 1950, nearly half of all psychology interns were VA-trained and 700 students were being supported by VA stipends. The number of VA psychologists had more than doubled to 300. Today, the VA employs 1,200 psychologists, making it by far the largest employer of psychologists--a position it has maintained for decades. Despite pressures to lower standards, the VA was the first major employer to recognize and maintain the doctoral level for the employment of psychologists. Because of the size and prestige of the VA, that decision has had a profound impact on how the professions of clinical and counseling psychology were defined throughout the country.

Involvement with APA

VA psychologists have been highly active in the association. The section of Veterans' Affairs Psychologists is the largest section of APA's Div. 18 (Public Service). VA psychologists have served on many APA committees and on its Council of Representatives. Several have been nominated for APA president. APA has included VA psychologists on the APA Commission on Education and Training Leading to Licensure in Psychology. Each year, APA co-sponsors a conference with the Association of VA Psychologist Leaders (AVAPL) to bring together leaders of the two organizations. In addition, AVAPL officers meet each year in Washington to learn more about federal advocacy of interest to VA psychologists, and APA arranges meetings between VA leaders and congressional leaders on veterans' affairs.

The partnership between VA psychologists and APA has been mutually beneficial. APA has directly intervened at the local, regional and national levels on behalf of VA psychologists whenever psychology's role in the VA was threatened. The demand for clinical services by VA psychologists sometimes overwhelms the other important roles they can play, so APA has worked to help the VA in its efforts to establish more Mental Illness Research and Education Centers. APA has also lobbied for placing language in appropriations bills highlighting the need for the VA to designate more time for research for investigators, so that they get some protection from the high demand for clinical hours. Keeping psychology in the VA strong and healthy is a high priority for APA.

APA and VA psychologists share many common goals: helping psychologists provide the best services to their clients; promoting research on those services; advancing psychology through the promotion of psychologists to positions of influence; and supporting training for the next generation. This partnership has endured for more than five decades, and is likely to continue for many more.