In 1986, when Arthur C. Evans Jr. first walked through APA's doors as a public policy graduate student intern, the thought that he could someday be the association's chief executive officer was "the furthest thing from my mind," he says.
But the experience he gained in that position — witnessing how psychological research could inform policy to improve people's lives — was the catalyst that has driven his career ever since. "That's when the seed got planted," says Evans, who took APA's helm in March. "It dawned on me that even if I were a really great clinician, at most I might see 50 people a week. But as a policymaker I could have an impact on hundreds of thousands."
After his internship, Evans earned his doctorate in clinical/community psychology at the University of Maryland, then earned a master's degree in experimental psychology at Florida Atlantic University. Then he took his desire to improve people's lives to Connecticut as the state's deputy commissioner of mental health and addiction services. He then served as commissioner of Philadelphia's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, where he revamped treatment philosophies, service delivery models and fiscal policies to improve health outcomes and increase efficiency. His leadership there is credited with such far-reaching successes as securing homes and stability for more than 1,000 previously homeless people.
Now, Evans is bringing his experience and passion for change to APA, where he is showcasing the ways that psychologists' expertise can help solve some of the world's most intractable problems.
"There are a lot of problems out there for which there are no clear solutions," he says. "But there are others for which psychology can contribute to finding solutions, such as homelessness, substance abuse, worker stress, climate change and violence. It's a matter of us applying psychological science, theory and practice to those problems."
Why did you want to be APA's CEO?
I love psychology and I am very proud to be a psychologist. I have had the privilege of being a policymaker, a clinician in private practice, an administrator, a researcher and a faculty member training the next generation of psychologists. I've seen firsthand that what psychologists do affects every aspect of our society.
I was excited to take on this role because I want to raise the visibility of psychology. Most people, even many psychologists, have a very narrow view of the field of psychology. We are mental health practitioners, scientists, consultants, team builders, problem-solvers, researchers, experts in human behavior and much more. Because we impact society so broadly, I'd like to see us embrace a much broader role in society.
As one example, 40 percent of premature deaths in the United States are due to behavior. This is an area psychologists are expert in addressing. I want to reframe the thinking about the role of psychologists in health and health care. We need to ensure that not only does the world understand the role psychologists can play, but also that psychologists are equipped to engage in these opportunities. If all psychologists were to use the breadth of our training, we could accomplish so much more for our communities.
What are some of the ways you plan to raise psychology's visibility?
We are putting psychology's messages front and center, to ensure our input is weighed and has influence. We strive to reflect psychology's work in the media, where we speak out on headline news in outlets such as Time magazine and C-SPAN. We share our journal articles with key reporters, release statements on big issues and educate reporters, through opportunities such as the National Press Foundation media training sessions.
We work to ensure that the voice of psychology is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, where APA's amicus briefs educate legal decision-makers about psychological research that is highly relevant to some of today's most important issues, from false confessions to legal recognition of same-sex marriage. We educate legislators on Capitol Hill, regularly submitting letters to key policymakers weighing in with psychological science on matters ranging from violence prevention to transportation safety.
We work to elevate the conversation, through major releases such as our annual Stress in America report, which was covered by everyone from The New York Times to Stephen Colbert. And we work to raise awareness among specific stakeholders — like classroom teachers, through APA's "Top 20 Principles from Psychology for Pre-K to 12 Teaching and Learning," which are based on the best research from cognitive and educational psychology. Using these principles in the classroom can make a significant difference in the academic achievement of our children, so we should not rest until every single school district and every parent teacher association in America knows about them.
I believe that by promoting psychologists' involvement in areas like these, we can shatter the stereotypes about who psychologists are and what we do, and we can expand our roles to help more people.
And as we raise the visibility of psychology, our members will be better understood, better valued and better recognized as experts.
How can you get other groups to see the value of psychology?
I want to reach beyond our traditional partners to learn from each other and advance our work. For example, I want to reach out to human factors groups like the National Transportation Safety Board to enable psychology to play a much greater role in improving transportation safety. I'd like to have a much stronger relationship with Google and other companies that are advancing artificial intelligence. We will talk with the National League of Cities about the challenges that cities face and how psychology can help address those issues. We are partnering with the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association to improve the nation's health with psychological science.
Overall, we need to radically change our paradigms and be able to work effectively with these and other groups to help advance our goals. That's what we were able to do in Philadelphia. We got 1,000 people who were chronically homeless into housing by completely changing our approach and partnering to use psychological science. And that is really exciting.
What is the greatest challenge facing APA?
One of our greatest challenges is to spend more of our energy on the big societal issues people are grappling with. Most of us pursued a career in psychology because we wanted to have an impact on people's lives, so we should focus on the issues with the most impact.
How can you do that?
As CEO, part of my job is to inspire people to see beyond the mechanics of what we do, to think bigger about why we're here and why we do this work. I think our members know better than anyone how beneficial our training is, how beneficial our science is, and how through APA we can enable psychologists to do more to help society — and educate society about the value psychology brings.
I believe it is critical that APA explicitly help psychologists, regardless of their settings, to have the best possible careers and best possible futures. APA must help all psychologists develop the skills they will need in an ever-evolving world, create opportunities for the field through advocacy models and ensure that psychologists can work to the full reach of their training.
What keeps you up at night?
The idea that we won't be able to make changes quickly enough, or that we will be diverted away from the challenges that can have the biggest impact. My goal is to be sure that we always keep APA's mission in mind: to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.
What has been the most important lesson that you have learned in your career and how might that lesson apply to APA?
I've learned that it is critical to think big and create room for opportunity. I've found that when we remind people of why they spent a decade of their lives getting trained to be a psychologist and create significant opportunities for them, it is re-energizing and inspiring. If you want to accomplish great things, it's absolutely essential to remind people of that larger purpose so that we can get beyond the limitations we all set for ourselves. I believe we should all help each other to think in terms of the possibilities, not the limitations.
Beginning next month, Dr. Evans will have a monthly column in the Monitor.
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