Equity, diversity issues should be at forefront of psychologists’ work

By Catherine Robertson Souter
March 8th, 2021
Anita Davis, Ph.D., is the vice president for DEI at Trinity College.
Anita Davis, Ph.D., is the vice president for DEI at Trinity College.

There may be some positive to come out of the tumult. In a year when America was forced to slow down and, for many of us, begin to question what really matters, the conversation around racism and what can be done to address issues of equality has taken center stage. We have all begun to ask, when faced with these questions, “But, what can I do about it?”

The call has gone up throughout the country for the creation of more diverse, equitable and inclusive (DEI) workplaces, schools and public services. DEI is an area where psychologists should have valuable input both in their own work environments and in society as a whole.

“Psychologists have skills we embody,” said Wendy Simmons, Ph.D., the Connecticut Psychological Association diversity representative. “They don’t come in a bag, you carry them wherever you go. So, the opportunities are there to serve on boards, to volunteer in the community, and to think about how to fill that need.”

In 2020, CPA instituted a multi-pronged approach to supporting DEI within the organization and the larger community that includes offering trainings and opportunities for conversation to members, recruiting diverse psychologists to leadership programs and expanding its ethnic diversity taskforce.

“I would like to think that we have always been working on these issues but after all of the events of last June, it became very clear that CPA needed to not just take a stand but to do more,” said Anne Klee, Ph.D., CPA past president.

How does a psychologist have greater input? It may start with advocating to incorporate DEI into the very fabric of therapy. From graduate school onward, seeing people in relation to their culture and background should be part of how treatment is done, explained Anita Davis, Ph.D., vice president for DEI at Trinity College.

“During my training,” she said, “I frequently felt that diversity, equity, and inclusion were considered as an afterthought. After you think about a diagnosis or a course of action in terms of treatment, then you might think about ‘how do these cultural factors play into it?’ We always need to be thinking about clients in terms of culture and how they intersect with what we are doing.”

Davis, who stepped into her role at Trinity in 2018, has spearheaded DEI programs and initiatives at the school including a task force on campus climate (with an initial focus on racial justice) and a student fund that provides support for emergency and academic needs and opportunities for students in need.

The school has worked to increase diversity both in the student population and among faculty and staff and create a more equitable and inclusive atmosphere. For her, the terminology of DEI really does encapsulate what she does.

“Diversity is representation,” she said. “How can you improve practices that will increase diversity and representation? Equity is once that representation happens, do we have in place things where members of our community will not just survive but thrive at this institution? Inclusion is about feeling a sense of belonging.”

A framework of DEI can help clinicians create a more effective practice. The goal is to work towards seeing the client as a whole, rather than treating them as a set of symptoms that may not fit into a traditional therapeutic model.

“We know that [therapy] is not a one-size-fits-all,” said Simmons, “and if people are not able to relate to a therapist or have a sense that their therapist understands their experiences and point of view, then those interventions, whatever they are, are not efficacious.”

Using continuing education courses would be a perfect place to start with addressing DEI concerns. Another option, suggested Davis, would be to self-educate.

“APA has over 50 divisions, many of them focus on the experiences of people from different backgrounds,” she said. “Maybe make a practice of at least once a month reading something from what is posted. Imagine if each year you had 12 new experiences that have helped you think differently or more deeply about a topic you didn’t know about. That is huge.”

Simmons pointed out that educating oneself should be an on-going effort.

“Our understanding of how to support communities that have been marginalized is evolving,” she said. “Make a commitment to continuing education and reading and becoming more aware of the impact of being disenfranchised.”

Increasing your understanding of the populations you work with is one thing, but what if those people are not showing up at your door?

“If you want to serve everyone and find out if there is need in your community but they are not choosing to seek your services, you have to figure out a way to reach them,” said Simmons.

It may take some research; suggestions include contacting schools, religious groups or businesses, and support groups for LGBTQ, ethnic groups, or for people with disabilities.

The next step is to make sure that your business looks welcoming, starting with using inclusive language on intake forms and websites.

“If someone from outside came in and audited our practices, our forms and websites, how we talk to each other and what we do, would they affirm the environment as one that gets inclusion and diversity?” asked Davis.

Consider joining or starting a group aimed at tackling some of these questions and working through the answers you might give if, for instance, someone asked about your personal take on recent events, politics, religious beliefs, or ethics.

“Psychologists need to realize it may be out of our comfort zone,” said Davis, “and our task is to find a way to be comfortable inside that discomfort and still practice in a way that maintains the integrity of what we want to do.”

Mainly, it is important to take these steps, to not refuse to act, Davis added.

“More and more people are saying they are committed to racial and social justice and they spend time talking about it but they don’t take action,” said Davis. “If you don’t act on it, there is no demonstrated commitment and that is really significant to acknowledge. There is this disconnect that exists, as if saying ‘I am committed’ is enough and when asked to take action, there is this resistance to doing things differently.”

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