How Not to Suck: APA and torture

July 30, 2015

For every graduate student or professional there is a time to take important professional stands. As someone who enjoys being on Twitter my timeline is constantly bombarded with people in various stages of outrage over some social, professional, or political phenomenon. There is another group of people saying that we must, should, ought, or have to make some change in order to make the world a better place. I usually agree with their goals, but I am not entirely convinced that their suggested solutions adequately address the problem or will not lead to a worse situation than the current methods and practices. For example, I am strongly committed to having scholars with a diversity of backgrounds and experiences contribute to scientific practice. My belief is that a diversity of backgrounds and experiences leads to innovative thinking, creativity, and ultimately advancement of scientific practices and discovery. However, I’m not really a fan of bean-counting representation. When I create a symposium panel or editorial advisory board I do not count the number of Hispanic, female, or disabled scholars. I simply put together the best possible team. My experience is that the panels and advisory boards I select tend to be diverse, by any definition. It is clear to the scholars and to everyone else that the representatives of these panels or boards are there because of their skill and talent and not due to demographic characteristics. My job is to support and mentor the people of diverse backgrounds and experiences to have the confidence, skills, and CVs to be the best possible contributors to such boards and panels. So while I agree with many of my colleagues on the goals, I often diverge when it comes to the process. Choosing to make a professional stand is important, but the methods are most effective when then they are pragmatic.

The independent Hoffman report on torture and APA was a difficult document to read. When I first heard of possible APA involvement in the Guantánamo Bay torture activities, I experienced an incredible emotional outrage. However, I wanted to wait for the formal and independent report before making any decisions with potential professional ramifications. I spent the week going over the Hoffman report and considering how to address this issue in a professional and pragmatic, yet principled manner. All organizations engage in some behaviours that we may find distasteful from time to time. Quite often there can be work within the system to improve the process to ensure that such behaviours do not occur again and improve future functioning. Many of my colleagues will use the APA 2015 convention as a platform to protest and press for organizational change. This is an option chosen by the majority of the colleagues that I know. For me, my decision is to resign from APA after being a member for 23 years.

I respect all of those people choosing to stay with APA and trying to create change from within. APA has been a strong association that advocates for mental health services, improves training, and provides outstanding products for both scholars and clinicians. APA has been a strong part of my professional training, development, and identity. There is no question in my mind that APA will become a better, more open, and more responsive organization after going through this difficult situation. A change in leadership personnel and revisiting ethical guidelines are excellent steps for reconciliation and improvement.

My primary decision making criteria involved which aspects that led to APA’s cooperation in torture can be fixed and what cannot be fixed. The APA decision to change the ethics from a general tenor of protecting the public to that of protecting the psychologist is highly problematic, but can and is being changed. My decision is based on a few aspects of the Hoffman report, my experiences working with program accreditation and APA, and basic history of psychology. One part of the Hoffman report that caught my attention was that APA sought to curry favour and be as cooperative as possible with the US government. APA has a long history of advocating and partnering with the US government to improve funding for research and mental health services, providing improved mental health access, and improving training. If we go back to the history of psychology, then at one time school and clinical psychology were the same profession. The provision of mental health services was almost entirely conducted in schools. After World War II and the massive mental health needs of returning serviceman, the Veterans Administration was created and served as a major training ground for developing and preparing mental health service providers. As part of this movement to support servicemen, the profession of clinical psychology broke away from the child-centered school services to provide mental health service delivery to adults. The Veterans Administration remains a major training site for clinical psychology. Because clinical psychology drives most APA decision-making and has a strong historical tie to the military, APA working with military in the context of behavior change and gaining information from captives seems a logical progression. Moreover, McGill’s school psychology program has been accredited since 1998. However, over the last several years, it became clear that APA standards for accreditation were moving further from our training process. Most concerning was that APA standards became a reflection of the need to enforce United States federal laws. Being a Canadian program, there were frequent conflicts. For example, we were asked to provide figures on the number of African-American (i.e., African-Canadian), Hispanic, and Asian students in our program. In Québec there is a law against gathering and using such demographic information. Preparing students to enforce American laws such as the Americans with Disability Act, HIPAA, and other federal laws seemed more important than training effective psychologist for practice and service delivery to the public. I was pleased and relieved that APA would no longer accredit Canadian psychology training programs or internships as of September 1, 2015. Overall, these components lead me to believe that APA is more interested in working with and enforcing American laws and processes than training mental health professionals or advocating for our clients. Practicing within the limits of relevant law is required, being an enforcement arm of the US government is not. The lack of independence of APA from the US government is a core issue that is unlikely to change.

I am not an anti-government, anti-military, or anti-American extremist. I understand that large professional associations must and should cooperate and collaborate with government, especially the most well-funded aspect of the government; which is the US military. I also understand that to have influence and to be an effective advocate, APA must have a seat at the table were governmental decisions are made. There is a fine line between having a seat at the decision making table and actually being a part of the government decision-making apparatus. My view is that APA is a de facto part, or at least a partner, of the US government. As such, cooperation with all aspects of government behavior, including extreme acts such as torture is not terribly surprising. Therefore, I do not see the torture issue as solely the unfortunate acts of a few members, failed leadership, or lack of openness; but rather the logical consequence of a too close relationship between the professional organization and the US government. When the decision between human rights and protecting the well-being of the public came into conflict with the need to support a government decision, the wrong decision was made. Ethical guidelines were changed to justify this decision. I do not believe that any reform will address the close ties with the US government that influence APA’s ability to make public protection its top priority. Giving up the influence and power that comes from having such a close relationship with the government is extremely difficult for any organization.

APA will improve, but may always be known as the only major professional association that did not condemn torture. The loss of any moral standing to make important professional decisions on behalf of psychologists is not a small factor in my professional decision. Add this to the close and permanent ties to the US government, APA leaving Canadian psychology, and focus on clinical psychology as factors in my leaving. I am not convinced that any of these critical factors will change.  I am choosing to have my professional identity continue to develop apart from APA.

In the interest of full disclosure: my decision is not solely a principled one. It is pragmatic. Another factor is that I am now dual citizen, resident of Canada, and an educator of future psychologists who will mainly practice in Canada. APA remains driven mostly by American clinical psychology and US law. As an academic and school psychologist, APA is well removed from my work. The goals of the US government and APA are not directly relevant to my current work. I do not think of resigning from APA as a protest or any larger statement. It is simply that our interests have diverged and they no longer effectively support my identity as a psychologist.

I wish APA and its members all success. I hope that the changes will result in a responsible and more independent association that improves training, representation of members, advocacy for mental health, and protection of the public.

Links to the Hoffman report and Ken Pope’s commentary:

SR Shaw



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