Psychology at the UN

Psychology Day at the United Nations addresses human rights for vulnerable people

The 5th Annual Psychology Day focused on the sustainable development of mental health services, clinical care for refugees and poverty eradication for women and children

By Dana Townsend


The Fifth Annual Psychology Day at the United Nations took place in mid-April at the UN Church Center in New York City and carried the theme "Human Rights for Vulnerable People: Psychological Contributions and the United Nations Perspective."

Co-chaired by Janet Sigal, PhD (APA), and Martin Butler, PhD (IAAP), the event was well-attended by psychology students, scholars, and professionals looking to hear about innovative solutions for making human rights more accessible to vulnerable populations. The event began with a morning briefing, followed by three panel discussions on human rights in the contexts of "Mental Health and Sustainable Development," "Refugees and Psychosocial Well-being" and "Poverty Eradication in the Lives of Women and Children." To end the evening, attendees reconvened at a local restaurant for a reception and an opportunity to continue discussions from the afternoon.

Vijay Ganju, secretary general and CEO of the World Federation of Mental Health, opened the first panel with a presentation on the importance of recognizing mental health as a global priority. According to Ganju, most of the world has less than one psychology professional per 100,000 people, despite the growing prevalence of mental illness worldwide. In order to tackle this statistic, psychologists need to vocalize the long-term cost-effectiveness of improving global mental health care, to gain better consensus on model interventions and evidence-based solutions, and to engage in necessary "task-shifting" where there is a shortage of health workers. Priscilla Dass-Brailsford of Georgetown University followed with a presentation on the role of empowerment in overcoming trauma and HIV/AIDS, and Richard Dougherty of BasicNeeds US discussed mental health development and capacity building through the use of evidence-based processes and Participatory Action Research.

To begin the second panel, Grainne O’Hara of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) outlined the need for improved psychosocial support for refugee populations. As of 2011, the number of refugees of concern to UNHCR stood at 10.5 million, 7.2 million of which are in limbo with no opportunities for settlement. All of these refugees face three possible solutions: repatriation (returning home), local integration, or resettlement. The cultural adjustment and post-traumatic stress inherent to these solutions, in addition to the persistent societal demonization of asylum seekers, demand that psychologists become more involved with the provision of mental health services for refugee populations. Adeyinka Akinsulure-Smith of City University of New York, and Katherine Porterfield, a staff psychologist at Bellevue Hospital, are both affiliated with the New York University Program for Survivors of Torture (PSOT) and outlined specific approaches and competencies that need to be considered when providing care for refugee populations.

The final discussion of the day covered the structural changes and pragmatic actions necessary to alleviate poverty for women and children worldwide. Telma Viale of the U.N. International Labour Organization called for increased regulation and improved conditions for domestic workers. According to Viale, 83 percent of women in developing countries are domestic workers, and — of those registered with the International Trade Union — nearly 54 percent have suffered some form of abuse. Psychologists at the U.N. can play a role in working to improve living and working conditions for these women while still responding to the needs of those who employ them. Stuart Carr, a professor of Industrial and Organizational psychology from New Zealand, and Winifred Doherty, a social worker from Ireland and past chair of the NGO Committee on Social Development, each discussed potential strategies, structural changes, and pragmatic actions that psychologists could employ to reduce poverty. Some of the discussed strategies included the use of psychometric testing at banks to assess borrowers, using microcredit systems to develop entrepreneurial skills for young girls, and creating better awareness of ethics among corporate entities.

Psychology Day at the United Nations began in 2007 as a way to make U.N. Ambassadors, staff, and other NGO representatives more aware of what psychology has to offer when it comes to addressing issues of global concern. Past themes have all focused on issues in psychology as they pertain to the U.N. agenda. The event is a collaborative effort across several psychology organizations represented at the U.N. In addition to APA, these organizations include the International Association for Applied Psychology (IAAP), the International Council of Psychologists (ICP), the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS), Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), the Institute for Multicultural Counseling and Education Services (IMCES), and the Association for Trauma Outreach & Prevention (ATOP).