Tuesday, August 25, 2020

APA Traces History of Racism in Psychiatry and the Nation in Second Member Town Hall

Just a few days before the 57th anniversary of the civil rights March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream Speech,” APA hosted the second in a series of town hall meetings to address structural racism in psychiatry. A distinguished panel of Black psychiatrists spoke to approximately 425 APA members about how the Black Lives Matter movement is an outgrowth of the civil rights initiatives of the 1960s, what anti-racism is, and the impact of racial injustices within the organization, the profession, and the country.

APA President Jeffrey Geller, M.D., M.P.H., described how the actions and ideals put forth in the March on Washington are not only relevant, but necessary today.

“The tradition of advocacy and organizing continues because racial injustices are very much alive in the United States,” Geller said. “Beyond the appalling scenes of police brutality and the deaths of innocent Black people, the systemic impact of racism hits home in the house of medicine and psychiatry as health inequities and racism impact Black people, Latinos, indigenous people, Asian-Americans, and others.”

Geller called upon the APA Board of Trustees to address racism within APA and psychiatry. He noted that Board members are predominantly white and that they must take initiative and be proactive in confronting and dismantling structural racism.

“We cannot turn to the Black members of the Board to guide us. That would take them out of the role of being Board members with us,” Geller said. “It would signify our lack of understanding that racism is about us [whites].”

Aletha Maybank, M.D., M.P.H., the AMA’s chief health equity officer and group vice president, described how the harmful legacy of segregation is evident today in the housing, health, and economic status of many Black individuals. She also spoke of the importance of providing space in which young people may use their voices to propel societal change.

“I really don’t feel we would be here today if it weren’t for the young people of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Maybank said. “The young people who speak … continue with the tradition of the civil rights movement, but in their own way because they’re young [and] it’s a new time. I feel they are leading with great power, great purpose, and great authenticity and truth. … We, as we get older, need to step aside and allow them to have that place of leadership.”

Kevin M. Simon, M.D., the 2020-2021 Recognizing and Eliminating disparities in Addiction through Culturally informed Healthcare (REACH) scholar, described anti-racism as supporting anti-racist policy through action or the expression of anti-racist ideas.

“It has to be something that becomes part of your daily routine,” said Simon, who is completing a fellowship training in child and adolescent psychiatry and addiction medicine at the Boston Children's Hospital/Harvard Medical School. “Much like we ask patients to practice behavioral techniques, we have to practice being anti-racist.”

Former APA President Altha J. Stewart, M.D., discussed critical junctures in history when psychiatrists, as represented by APA and its precursor, the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, failed to address racism. These touch points in history include the years before, during, and after the Civil War, the years of the “separate but equal” doctrine, and the Jim Crow era.

“[Now] we have this very important moment in time where what we do will be looked back upon by generations in the future,” said Stewart, who is senior associate dean for community health engagement at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. “When they ask what did we do to move the needle, what did we do to improve the psychological well-being of [Black people] in this country, I’d like to say that we took the bull by the horns, addressed these issues head on, and did the hard work … that is emotional, that makes you vulnerable, that can be challenging, but that is not too difficult for psychiatrists.”

She added that psychiatrists are primed for doing the work of dismantling racism both in the profession and in society at large.

“Our wheelhouse is in the difficult place. We are the people that people bring their most private, chaotic thoughts, and we help sort that out,” she said. “We have to be on the front lines of doing that for psychiatry, for America, and for the American Psychiatric Association.”

The next town hall will be held Monday, November 16. APA’s town hall meetings on structural racism are archived for members at https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/meetings/addressing-structural-racism-town-hall.

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As chair of APA’s Nominating Committee, Immediate Past President Bruce Schwartz, M.D., is seeking to diversify the elected leadership of APA and invites all members to consider running for one of the open Board of Trustee offices in APA’s 2021 election: president-elect; secretary; early-career psychiatrist trustee-at-large; minority/underrepresented representative trustee; Area 1, 4, and 7 trustees; and resident-fellow member trustee-elect. You may nominate yourself or a colleague—the important point is that you get involved! The deadline is Tuesday, September 1.

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