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A Voice at the Table: The Role of Psychologists in Public Policy

Monday, September 10, 2018

Whether advocating for changes in mental health legislation or bringing civility and respect to the legislative process, psychologists can play an important role in shaping public policy. That was the message during a symposium titled “Psychology's Voice at the Table: Psychologists as Advocates and Elected Officials” at the American Psychological Association Convention last month in San Francisco.

The panel included PAU alumnus and board trustee Jorge Wong, Ph.D. and psychologist and congressman, Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), who discussed their experience as psychologists who are also engaged in public policy. Topics also included how psychologists can contribute to society as advocates and elected officials, what psychological skills and knowledge contribute to their effectiveness in these roles, and what issues psychologists can have the greatest impact on.

“Advocacy can take place at the local, state and national levels,” said Wong, who is president and CEO of Richmond Area Multi-Services, Inc. (RAMS), past president of the California Psychological Association and president-elect of the Santa Clara County Psychological Association. “Or it can be as easy as sharing information at a neighborhood barbecue. We all have a responsibility to advocate for the health and well-being of our society,” he said.

Wong described his experience with the California legislature. His work includes expert testimony before the Senate Health & Safety Committee and the Assembly Committee on Public Safety for AB 1968, a bill that would prohibit ownership of a firearm to anyone who has been taken into involuntary custody for psychiatric evaluation, assessed, and admitted to a designated facility because he or she is a danger to himself, herself, or others. Wong is also advocating for passage of SB 906, a bill that would establish a statewide peer support specialist certification program, as part of the state’s comprehensive mental health and substance use disorder delivery system and the Medi-Cal program.

Fellow PAU alumnus Nicholas Grant, Ph.D., who also attended the APA convention, actively participates in the public policy process and encourages other psychologists to do the same.

"Psychologists are uniquely positioned to have a seat at the table when it comes to informing public policy due to their extensive training and understanding of both social issues and social science,” said Grant, a 2015 graduate of PAU’s Clinical Psychology program. Grant served as an APA Congressional Fellow in the Office of U.S. Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) from 2016-17.

“Working for Senator Gillibrand gave me first-hand experience in what psychologists can bring to the table with policy makers,” Grant said. “The highlight of what I learned that year is that utilizing a psychological lens in both developing and understanding policy sets psychologists apart and provides them with the unique opportunity to help shape the future through contributing to social justice in the policy arena."

 “PAU, is educating the next generation of psychologists with a strong commitment to social justice,” said Palo Alto University president Maureen O’Connor, Ph.D., J.D., who also attended the symposium.  Advocacy is incredibly important in our field and for the populations we serve. I am very proud of  alumni like Jorge and Nick, who exemplify the role we as psychologists must play in public policy.”

Psychologist and congressman Lowenthal was the featured speaker. He cited civility and professional respect as trademarks he has exemplified and important qualities psychologists can bring to the legislative branch. His collaborative efforts to work across political party lines reflect the best Congress can do on behalf of the American people even when political ideologies diverge.

The cover story of the March 2018 issue of the APA Monitor addresses” Eight Ways to Advocate for Psychology—Take a Stand for Causes that are Important to You and to the Field of Psychology.”  The article can be accessed here.

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