By Susan H. McDaniel, PhD • APA President
Representing APA internationally is one of the great privileges of being
president. Recently, I spoke at the Congress of the World Federation for
Mental Health in Cairo, Egypt, and the National Academy of Psychology
(NAOP) annual meeting in the holy city of Allahabad, India, where I signed
a memorandum of understanding between APA and NAOP.
Both these countries have some of the most advanced
civilizations in human history with philosophies that don’t
always fit with the tenets of Western psychology. In meeting
with these organizations, it became clear to me how much
American psychology can learn from them. I share a few of my
learnings in this column:
All psychology is cross-cultural. It can be challenging to
avoid projecting our own values and intentions in science and
practice. Traveling East, I found it was an advantage to know
that I don’t know, to be in a state of discovery, working to
understand commonalities and differences in human behavior.
At home, this same “not knowing” can allow us to reflect on the
automatic routines of daily life as well as our choices of what to
study, how to educate, how to raise children, resolve conflict and
manage impulses, love and work.
The commitment is clear to develop a psychology that
incorporates Western science and Eastern philosophies. In
Cairo, a North African psychiatrist spoke of incorporating
a cultural commitment to strong family relationships and
connection to other living things into the treatment of mental
illness, while also working to end female genital mutilation and
other forms of abuse. In Allahabad, psychologists repeatedly
spoke of the need for an Indian psychology that reflects that
country’s culture and history.
However, not everything important is verifiable through our
scientific methodology. The spiritual world came up in almost
every conversation I had, whether it was with a psychologist,
tour guide or waiter. We don’t have measures for karma, but
some of its principles are useful for promoting mental health,
such as accountability and focusing on the quality of one’s
behavior. One guide told me that it is important to accompany
any success by a good deed for the community.
Context matters. The challenges of treating mental illness
in the refugee camps are overwhelming the Middle East and
Europe. In India, new manifestations of centuries-old religious
conflicts have resulted in anxiety and disease for people on
all sides. How do we incorporate these experiences into our
approaches to science and practice?
Contradictions and paradox are inherent in life.
Presentations at both meetings discussed contradiction and
paradox as inevitable, opposites coexisting without always
needing resolution. When possible, the best resolution
transcends opposing positions and moves to some higher
common ground, rather than looking for “winners and losers.”
Presenters recommended focusing on healthy process rather
than any particular outcome, and accountability for one’s own
behavior rather than that of others.
Maintaining a rich cultural heritage is a challenge. In
Egypt and India, psychologists talked of maintaining their
cultural heritage while participating in a globalized world. This
is a challenge because some assumptions of Western models
(individual, mind-body separation, etc.) do not fit Eastern
Women’s health, education and welfare are critical to the
development of a country. One of the most concerning themes
at both conferences was the roles of women in society. The
rights of many women to determine the trajectory of their lives,
and that of their children, are limited. Some of that is due to
profound poverty and disruption from war and displacement,
but some is rooted in cultures that are profoundly patriarchal.
A united psychology is a powerful force in improving
human welfare. Both Egypt and India have more than one
organization representing psychology and psychologists,
with a need for stronger advocacy with the government for
psychological services, education and research. Watching
the organizations in India form a federation was inspiring,
a reminder of how our common cause is larger than our