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San Diego professor elected new president of American Psychological Association

 October 25, 2023 at 4:42 PM PDT

S1: Welcome back to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Andrew Bracken in for Jade Heinemann. The American Psychological Association has chosen its new president. Deborah Kawahara is an associate dean and professor at Alliant University's California School of Professional Psychology. She will be the first Asian American and Japanese American woman to assume the role , and she'll lead as president elect in 2024 before taking over officially on January 1st , 2025. She spoke with Kpbs Metro reporter Andrew Bohn about her priorities as president and how to tackle our ongoing mental health crisis. Here's that conversation.

S2: I think many of our listeners have probably heard of the American Psychological Association , but they may not know much about what this organization does. So tell us about the APA and what interested you in this job as APA president.

S3: So the American Psychological Association is the professional psychology membership organization for all psychologists across the United States. And so this organization brings together all the psychologists with the mission of advancing psychology to benefit society and improve the lives of individuals and communities. And so what interests me in doing this is that I think my belief is that psychology can help everyone throughout society and help in all spheres of life , and really wanting psychology's science and practices to be infused in everyday life so that people's lives are are improved and their well-being and health are at their optimal.

S2: Deborah , you're also the first Asian American woman to serve as president of this organization , which is more than 130 years old.

S3: As you may know , I will be the 100th and 34th president of the association. And at the time of the pandemic , we know that Asian hate and violence was at an all time high. Mean it had been happening prior to the pandemic , but it got exacerbated during the pandemic. And we saw the really the outbreak of hate and violence being targeted towards Asian communities and particularly older adults and children. And the issue around representation and visibility really was voiced by the Asian community that oftentimes we are left out of the conversation of race and racism and discrimination , and that we need to be at the table when these issues are occurring , so that we can also voice the issues of discrimination and prejudice that Asian communities are facing. And so , in terms of that , it really prompted me to run for the office , since there has never been an Asian American female nor Japanese American that has served in this role. And we do know in terms of research how just the visibility of someone can have a huge impact. I mean , I had graduate students , I had early career psychologists come up to me and say , just seeing you run has made me feel like this is possible for me to be able to be in an office like this. And so we know that the role modeling is so , so very important and powerful.

S2: I want to talk about your own personal journey.

S3: And maybe it was my idealistic young adulthood that really thought , how can I make things better ? And so when I was in college , I looked to psychology as a way of doing that , that I could do it both by combining psychology and also my interest in social justice , particularly for Asian and Asian American communities , and be able to integrate Asian American psychology with kind of my psychological background. And so I really kind of felt like this was an avenue that I could really make a difference. And the nice thing about psychology is so robust that you could do so many different things , which I have found myself doing , such as practice , research , consulting and advocating.

S2: It feels like we talk a lot about mental health these days.

S3: I also believe that there's still a lot of stigma around mental health and people going to get help for mental health. You know , one of the interesting things is that recently the surgeon general's think seven of them met and they actually believe that it's a democracy crisis in terms of us addressing the mental health crisis in the United States , that currently we don't have the mental health infrastructure to actually provide the services for mental health care , both in the number of providers as well as with the insurance companies giving the care that people need in order to get that help , and having the providers be paid equitably and parity so that they will provide the services through the insurance companies. So think it's a larger issue than what we had really , really addressed at this point.

S2: What do we tend to get wrong when we talk about mental health ? And can you talk about any misconceptions that people have about the field of psychology ? Yeah.


S3: Guess what comes to mind right away are some of the most accurate reporting that often gets done in terms of mental health. So for instance , you know , when people talk about people that have chronic mental illness such as schizophrenia and there's , for instance , gun violence , they will oftentimes conflate the mental disorder with the violent crime. And when they've actually looked at statistics with those with chronic mental illness , they aren't violent. But the perception that is given to the public is that those two are very much related. And so those misconceptions then get inaccurately portrayed in the media. And so with our psychological science , we're wanting to combat those misperceptions that are given to the public.

S2: We talk a lot about a mental health crisis in this country , rising rates of anxiety , especially among young people.

S3: I think we all know across the board from children all the way to older adults , the pandemic has really increased the mental health needs significantly. And so I think what we're needing is to actually provide those services in order to address those kinds of issues that we're seeing. So hopefully with the services being provided , we can see a reduction in the depression and the anxiety and the other mental health issues that we are seeing.

S2: California has passed some new laws that try and make it easier to impose involuntary treatment on people with severe mental illness or psychosis , and there are some folks in the field that are concerned about those laws and their potential impact on civil liberties. I'm wondering if you share those concerns or what your thoughts are on these laws.

S3: You know , I think it's always difficult situation when you're trying to give care , but also wanting to give the individual the freedom to decide what care that they get. I think this is where having very informed people come up with the criteria in which , you know , currently we have the 5150 , which is an involuntary hospitalization , and that generally has a criteria in which the individual needs to meet in order to then be involuntarily hospitalized. And I believe as as we go forward with this , that we need to have a clear criteria in which that involuntary or that that person. No longer makes the decision on their own. So I would say that's where you need really professionals in doing the assessment to be able to determine that.

S2: I think these laws bring up the topic of deinstitutionalization. So while in the 50s and 60s , it was a lot easier to confine someone to a psychiatric hospital , there was a lot of mistreatment , abuse , some scandals , and people who were committed to those hospitals unjustly who shouldn't have been there. And the response was to try and treat people in more community based settings. But then those services were never really given adequate funding. And today we have we can see the results on , on our streets of many people with who are very ill and in pain , but are not getting the treatment that they need.

S3: You know , I think where kind of the the key is , is that we need to figure out what kind of services the person needs , depending on the continuum of , of their functioning , right , depending on their functioning and then figuring out what's the most optimal support and services that they need in order to be a functioning citizen in society. And that part I don't think we've figured out well.

S1: Coming up on Midday Edition , we continue our conversation with Deborah Kawahara with her thoughts on the importance of diversity in mental health care.

S3: We need to have a diversified field of psychology , a diversified workforce that actually is culturally responsive , particularly for communities of color , for communities that historically been marginalized.

S1: That's coming up after the break. Welcome back. You're listening to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Andrew Bracken , filling in for Jade Heineman. We're continuing the conversation with Deborah Kawahara , the American Psychological Association's new president elect , about mental health care for communities that aren't always served by the current system.

S2: Deborah , there are many people who feel unseen by the current mental health care system , especially in communities of color.

S3: I think we need to have a diversified field of psychology , a diversified workforce that actually is culturally responsive , particularly for communities of color , for communities that historically been marginalized so that they can actually go and work and be effective in those communities. And so part of my initiative that I'm hoping to implement is where we go out to high schools and community colleges and expose them to psychology and kind of psychologists of color in the work that they're doing , so that they actually consider going into the field and being able to do the science , being able to do the best practices for those communities.

S2: Your work focuses on intersectionality and women of color , particularly Asian American women.

S3: Much of the research is based on their experience ences and how they can be successful. But one of the things that I like to emphasize in the research is the contextual factors or the environment , the work environment in which they're needing to lead. Often times when they are the only one there , there are particular dynamics such as stereotypes that get imposed on them , such as being quiet or being docile. And when they don't meet those stereotypes , they will often be attributed to being a dragon lady or snake or whatever. And so it becomes more difficult for them to negotiate being a leader in those organizations. So I oftentimes will say it's not only at the individual level where they work on leadership skills , but also that the organization has to be in alignment with their leadership as well.

S2: I want to talk briefly about the mental health issues in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Traditional talk therapy is falling short for many Asian Americans. There was a 2011 study that found at least one third of Asian Americans drop out of therapy before an intake session starts.

S3: Now as people acculturated to the Western culture , of course , they're going to be more exposed to counseling and psychotherapy. But as you know , the Asian communities , many have immigrants coming to the United States. And so they may not actually know what psychotherapy or counseling is. And the stigma around mental illness has such a negative connotation because of its reflection on the family , as though you know , that taints the family name. And so one of the things for Asian communities and those that are providing services in the Asian communities is that they need to overcome the stigma , and oftentimes they may need to reframe from mental illness or mental disorder to then moving it to outreach in a positive way that we're trying to improve , you know , academic achievement for your kids or making the family function better so that there isn't that resistance towards mental health services.

S2: You've also researched the use of early Buddhism in psychotherapy. What do you think about incorporating more of these ? Cultural and spiritual traditions into the clinical setting.

S3: Well , as you know , mindfulness and meditative practices have been infused in therapy pretty readily at this point and has shown to be evidence based , meaning that research has shown its effectiveness. What we are trying to do now is to to actually go back to its cultural roots and have therapists understand the theoretical and conceptual foundation of Buddhism so that they can actually utilize these techniques even in a more sophisticated way , thereby kind of being able to adjust these mindfulness and meditative practices in a way that fits with the client more readily.

S2: You are an educator and a mentor , and you talked about it briefly.

S3: You know , so we see a lot of the psychologists going out there and doing kind of podcasts , doing short videos on YouTube about mental health. And I think that actually reaches a broader audience and will permeate psychology even more so than what we've been able to do traditionally. And so I'm very excited about that. In terms of the the next generation being able to kind of permeate psychology , permeate society with psychology , and that it just becomes part of the fabric of society.

S1: And that was Kpbs Metro reporter Andrew Bowen speaking with Deborah Kawahara. The new president elect of the American Psychological Association.

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Debra Kawahara is pictured in this undated photo.
Alliant International University
The American Psychological Association (APA) has announced the election of Debra Kawahara, Ph.D., as its next President. She is Associate Dean and Distinguished Professor at Alliant University's California School of Professional Psychology seen in this undated headshot photo.

The American Psychological Association chose its new President. Debra Kawahara is an Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and a Distinguished Professor of the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University. She will also be the first Asian American woman and Japanese American to assume the role.

Kawahara joined Midday Edition to talk about her priorities as president, the ongoing mental health crisis and how to best serve the mental health needs of all communities.


Debra Kawahara, president-elect of the American Psychological Association