Presidential Column

Clinical Psychology Meets Today’s Top Stories: Pursuing Our Work in the Fierce Urgency of Now

By Jonathan S. Comer, Ph.D.

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Throughout history, many of psychology’s greatest advances and contributions have sprung from strategic efforts to make sense of, and remedy, the most extraordinary and seemingly inconceivable world events of their time. For example, Stanley Milgram initiated his series of obedience experiments just a few months after the start of Adolf Eichmann’s war crimes trial. In order to understand the atrocities of the Holocaust and how they could have come to be, Milgram questioned whether it was too simplistic and naïve to adopt a “pure evil” causal explanation. Milgram, instead, wondered whether a more mundane and insidious explanation was at play—that Eichmann and millions of accomplices in the Holocaust might have just been following orders. The classic Milgram experiments went onto help clarify for the field, and for the world, the circumstances under which individuals can feel the most distance from their actions (no matter how heinous those actions may be) and the specific conditions that yield the most fertile ground for harmful coercion.

These days, we live in interesting times, to say the least. Strange days indeed. Recent years have witnessed rapid changes in public policy, societal norms, geopolitical alliances, and acceptable public discourse and rhetoric. Moreover, across the past decade, we’ve seen dramatic changes, fluctuations, and uncertainty in health care law, widening disparities in access to services and quality education, increasing rates of opioid use and opioid- related fatalities, broadening resource inequity, a worsening immigration crisis, vast disagreements about how to address climate change, an under- resourced veterans health system in need of improvement, expanding concerns about our privacy in the information age, rising rates of death by suicide, and a seeming uptick in mass casualty incidents. These are, of course, just a handful of the modern challenges affecting our world today, but suffice it to say, the problems of our time are heavy and they require the focused input and innovation of experts in human functioning, well-being, dysfunction, and resilience. Indeed, these times call upon us as clinical psychologists to meaningfully participate in cross-disciplinary efforts to address the very human causes and consequences of our transforming world.

Against this backdrop, we have seen a compelling flurry of very timely activity in clinical science, scholarship, practice, and activism focused on understanding and improving the human condition in these extraordinary times. I hope you will join us in Chicago this August for the Annual APA Convention, because, among other topics, our Division 12 Program is specifically showcasing leading activities that are leveraging clinical science and practice to address the psychological toll our modern challenges are taking, particularly on society’s most disadvantaged, marginalized, and disenfranchised. For example, Dr. Margaret Sheridan will be presenting a Division 12 invited keynote presentation on what psychological science can tell us about the impact of child separation on mental health, based on her research with Dr. Charles Nelson studying Romanian orphans placed in foster homes versus orphanages. This fascinating work on the placement of children in government institutions versus with families has been increasingly applied in many circles to inform our national conversation about immigration policy and child separations at the border. Other Division 12 invited keynotes at the convention will include Dr. Rosaura Orengo-Aguayo’s presentation on her trauma- focused work promoting psychological recovery in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and Dr. Marc Atkins’ presentation on his innovative work engaging with paraprofessionals to better support parenting in underserved communities. Moreover, digital health formats, passive sensors, and remote technologies have been championed as offering key opportunities to improve the reach and scope of mental health care, overcome barriers to service utilization and disparities in treatment access, and offer more ecologically valid assessment and treatment. Dr. David Mohr, a leader in the field of behavioral intervention technologies, will present this year’s final Division 12 invited keynote—a thoughtful presentation encouraging us to rethink our approach to digital mental health.

Beyond these four invited keynote presentations, the Division 12 Program at the APA Convention will include expert presentations on a range of other critical topics reflecting many of the unique challenges of our time—including symposium presentations on preventing suicide, moving from anxiety to action on climate issues, socio-contextual factors underlying mental health problems in ethnic, racial, and gender minority populations, improving the quality of mental health assessment in the Veterans Health Administration, recruiting and retaining a more diverse mental health workforce, and navigating difficult dilemmas in global mental health.

Although the seriousness of our modern challenges is daunting, our field’s most important developments and paradigm shifts have often arisen in efforts to remedy the significant challenges we face. This year’s Division 12 Program at the 2019 APA Convention suggests that our field—as it has in response to so many challenging times before—has already firmly positioned itself as an indispensable part of the solution. It’s certainly an extraordinary time to be a clinical psychologist.

I hope you can join us in Chicago this August!