Presidential Voice – Spring 2017

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Trauma Psychology in Times of Great Change

By: Elizabeth Carll, PhD

The global community is experiencing unprecedented changes in recent times, most notably in 2017.  On the global level, the United Nations (UN) elected a new Secretary General, Antonio Guterres to lead the 187 member nations of the UN.  He succeeded Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who had served for the previous decade.  Mr. Guterres had previously served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for a decade during some of the most serious world-wide forced displacement crises in many years.  His experience will serve him well given the migration crisis of our times.

The World Health Organization will be electing a new Director General in May of this year.  Currently, Dr. Margaret Chan has led the WHO for the past decade and her second term comes to an end.  The U.S. elected a new president, Donald Trump, in one of the most contentious and close presidential races in recent times.  He follows former President Obama who served for eight years.  The changes occurring in the previously long established leadership of these three powerful offices may potentially define the focus of the next decade on a global level.

On the local level, APA has a new CEO, Dr. Arthur C. Evans, as well as new staff members, following one of the most difficult times in the history of APA.  Change is all around us.  Our colleagues and our patients are coping with these unprecedented changes, especially the enormous changes occurring this year

How can psychologists help the public cope with these major global events?

The refugee and migration crisis was the impetus to undertake as my presidential initiative, the development of the Refugee Mental Health Resource Network as an opportunity for psychologists to contribute to help ameliorate the trauma occurring on a global scale and also impacting the US. The inspiration for this project was similar to the development of the Disaster/Crisis Response Network that I established within the New York State Psychological Association in 1990. That was a time of community trauma with school shootings, local and national disasters that began being reported in the media.  The few of us who were working with our local Red Cross chapters at that time, recognized the need for mental health services not only for the Red Cross volunteers, but the public as well, much like the small group of psychologists who are currently doing asylum evaluations and support with local refugee agencies.  However, these efforts were few and fragmented and depended on the interests of those who had been volunteering with local Red Cross chapters as well as the interests of the staff of the Red Cross chapters.

Some background and parallels

In 1990, there was little interest by organized psychology to develop statewide and national trauma intervention projects as many did not think there was a need to do so and whether resources should be used in that way.  However, as I was president of our county psychological association at the time, I was able to be included on the agenda to discuss the possibility with NYSPA.

While there was some interest, the vote for a statewide disaster response task force, did not pass.  As I was leaving the meeting, one of the members of the executive council followed me out and stated that a group thought it was an excellent idea and if I would be willing to return again to discuss the proposal, she would work behind the scenes with colleagues to have it pass on a second vote.  I returned and learned how influential Dr. Ruth Ochroch was, as what she said came about and I was appointed the chair of NYSPA’s volunteer Disaster/Crisis Response Network.  In the years following that serendipitous meeting, I observed how effective she was in getting things done in New York as we worked together on various initiatives. Dr. Ochroch has since passed away, but her accomplishments live on.  NYSPA became the first state psychological association to develop a truly statewide network of volunteer psychologists in 1990 with 9 regional coordinators covering the state, each with a response team. Within a couple of months the first Persian Gulf Crisis broke out and we were barely organized and we were off and running working with the ARC and local hospitals.  Responding to the first World Trade Center bombing, Long Island Railroad shootings and the Oklahoma City bombing, which were first of a kind types of violence that shocked communities and the precursors of what was to be the all too common violence occurring today.

In 1991, after discussions with the APA Practice Directorate, it was decided to create a National Disaster Response Task Force, with five of us participating from different regions of the country.  Little did we know we would end up serving for 7 years, just as I had never imagined chairing New York’s DRN for 10 years.  In 1992, the APA became the first mental health organization to signed an MOU with the American Red Cross to provide volunteer mental health services for their staff and to develop a mental health module for volunteers.  Over the years, a number of us were invited to conduct training internationally and this ongoing evolution contributed to the recognition of trauma psychology as a specialty within psychology.

There are similar parallels with developing a Refugee Mental Health Network and database of volunteers to work with refugee organizations to provide mental health services. While the interest was limited as we began discussing the need in 2015 for psychologists to work with refugees, it has been growing and has been fueled by the unprecedented numbers of forced migration and internal displacement of people worldwide. Working with refugees and migration will likely become another specialty area within psychology with programs eventually offered at universities.

Migration for all reasons including economic and environmental/climate factors is a global phenomenon with approximately 244 million international migrants in 2014 according to the UN Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs. This large scale global migration is anticipated to continue for many years. This number does not reflect the many internally displaced individuals within their own countries.

Mental health/psychosocial response are increasingly important components of programs for crisis affected migrants seeking asylum and refugee resettlement.  There is a great need for these services and often the demand far exceeds the supply of mental health professionals.  This prompted the development of a Refugee Mental Health Resource Network to develop a database of volunteer psychologists, within the US and globally.    The APA interdivisional grant which includes Divisions 56, 35, 52, and 55 supports the development of the database and provided the seed funds to launch this initiative.

It takes a village

All this would not be possible without the committed efforts of the group of people who comprise the Steering Committee.  These include Drs. Carl Auerbach and Betsy Gard, who also serve as vice-chairs of the Refugee Mental Health Resource Network, as well as Drs. Brigitte Khoury, Elaine LeVine, and George Rhoades, who is also the Division 56 Webinar and CE Committee chair, and will be coordinating both the regular Division 56 webinars and the Refugee Mental Health Resource Network webinars, which will continue as a separate track.

Also appreciation to members with new positions within the Division including our Membership Committee co-chairs, Drs. Ilene Serlin and Lesia Ruglass who will be focusing on increasing our international membership, as well as Drs. Jessica Punzo, 2017 Convention Program chair, Robyn Gobin, Suite Program coordinator, Vincenzo Teran, co-chair of the International Committee, Kathy Kendall Tackett and Sandra Mattar serving as co-chairs of the Awards Committee, and newly elected to the executive committee, Divya Kannan, member-at-large .  In addition, appreciation to the ongoing members of the executive committee and the many chairs and co-chairs who are continuing their positions from last year, and your presidential trio which includes Drs. Diane Castillo, president-elect and Joan Cook, past president. We look forward to continuing our work on behalf of the Division.