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Interview with Thema S. Bryant

Thema S. Bryant is a tenured professor of psychology in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University (USA), where she directs the Culture and Trauma Research Laboratory. Thema was the 2023 president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and former APA representative to the United Nations. 

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First, I would like to thank you for accepting the invitation to conduct this interview and for giving a keynote presentation at the 16th International Congress of Clinical Psychology (ICCP). Indeed, the APA and the ICCP have had a robust institutional relationship for many years. I would also like to congratulate you on being elected president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Can you tell us about your journey to becoming APA’s 2023 president? What motivated you to pursue a leadership role in the organization?


TB: Thank you for inviting me to participate. As someone raised by parents who were community leaders, I grew up with a sense of responsibility and a desire to be a part of creating solutions wherever I am. Their example was the motivation for me assuming multiple leadership roles over the years locally and globally.  I was elected a member of my neighborhood council in Los Angeles where I currently live and I was appointed one of APA’s first six representatives to the United Nations over 20 years ago. As it relates to the presidency specifically, mentorship and the support of colleagues in the association led me to pursue the role.  Dr. Jessica Henderson Daniel, the first Black woman to be president of APA, was my mentor.  She and many other colleagues asked me to consider running for the position after my successful tenure as president of APA’s Division 35, the Society for the Psychology of Women.  Additionally I am a trauma psychologist, who focuses on multiple forms of trauma including the trauma of oppression.  The year I ran, the nation was being bombarded by the stress and trauma of the pandemic and racial injustice.  I was motivated to run at this time as I felt my experience and areas of expertise would be beneficial to the association’s aim of enhancing people’s lives.


The APA plays a crucial role in advocating for the mental health needs of various communities. This is particularly relevant considering that psychological support is still not affordable or accessible for many citizens around the globe. What initiatives or policies is the APA promoting under your leadership to democratize mental health, especially in underserved populations?


TB: The APA has a strong advocacy office which mobilized our over 130,000 members to advocate on the state level, as well as nationally and globally for access to quality mental health services, especially or underserved communities.  We provide training in advocacy in person and virtually to empower psychologists and psychology students to actively engage in the transformation of policy around mental health equity.


Your own research and clinical work focus on interpersonal trauma and the societal trauma of oppression. In a deeply inspiring TED talk in Nashville earlier this year entitled ‘Why we need to decolonize psychology’, you claim that a while a colonized psychology sees the individual as a ‘series of cognitions for us to diagnose, pathologize, control, transform, change, detect, research’, a decolonized psychology ‘recognizes that your social, political, economic environment, and systems affect your mental health (…) and recognizes that ‘justice is therapeutic, justice is healing’. The implications of the concept of decolonized psychology deeply shake every aspect of both clinical practice and research. Can you further explain to our readers what justice needs to be achieved and how far are we from truly decolonizing psychology? What advise do you have for practicing psychologists and researchers addressing trauma, grief, and oppression in individuals from diverse cultural and social backgrounds?   


TB: To decolonize psychology is to contextualize our psychology and to work to combat oppression in all forms while helping individuals and communities to work toward psychological health and liberation.  A decolonial framework attends to indigenous wisdom, as well as the impact and counter-action for the stress and trauma of oppression.  Practitioners, consultants, and researchers should acknowledge oppression, its effects, and the potential healing pathways to both eradicate oppression and heal its wounds. I recommend practitioners ask about experiences of oppression, discrimination, stereotype, and stigma during the intake process and to then incorporate it in the treatment plan for interventions that are more inclusive and ethical. Additional to decolonize our curriculum is to ensure that we are learning and teaching the richness of the field of psychology which has contributors of diverse identities.  Psychology researchers need to consider ecological frameworks so we can determine the ways various systems interact with our internal functioning.  Finally, it is important for psychologists consider ways to apply our psychological science to enhance people’s lives through advocacy and dissemination of knowledge beyond the academy.


In recent years, there has been a growing institutional emphasis on promoting representation, equity, and inclusion in both clinical and academic settings. In these settings, creating more inclusive and diverse environments is an ongoing challenge. Indeed, in the abovementioned talk, you share that only 4% of psychologists in the US are Black, 4-5% Asian, 5% Latinx, and 0.3% Native American. Why do you think this is worrying, particularly in the field of Psychology? What strategies do you believe are essential for overcoming the existing challenges and achieving representation and diversity at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels?


TB: The diversity of the population in the United States is growing and people are deserving of engaging with psychologists who reflect their various identities.  A lack of cultural representation in our programs and clinics can lead to greater misunderstanding, bias, and harm to underserved communities.  Marginalized community members are at increased risk for various stressors and sources of traumatic stress.  They deserve culturally informed care which is enhanced by a diverse psychological workforce.  To increase diverse representation in the field, we need early exposure to psychology in primary education, increased scholarships, institutions that are intentionally inclusive for recruitment and retention, direct efforts to address hostile, unwelcoming behaviors in our programs, and mentors who will advocate for underrepresented students.


On the topic of (collective) trauma, the COVID-19 pandemic, together with the growing political polarization, increase in hate crimes, accelerated climate change, and resurgence of armed conflicts worldwide is having a profound impact on individual mental health. Indeed, some have warned that the long-term effects these stressful and traumatic global events are difficult to predict and will undoubtedly have a severe impact in individuals and communities for years to come. Do you think that collectively we have done enough to address this collective trauma and learn from it? In this context, what is your advice to the readers to promote resilience and coping in the context of the current social and political climate? 


TB: We need to do more to address the various collective traumas we are facing.  We need to provide more psychoeducation on stress and traumatic stress, as well as healthy coping strategies.  We need more community-based programming and virtual programming to create space for the grief people are experiencing based on recognizing and unrecognized losses. We need to conduct and disseminate more research on changing behaviors from climate to discrimination. All of these efforts need to be implemented across the lifespan to attend to children and older adults.  Finally, we need to learn from decolonial scholars and population health scholars to determine ways to address structural inequities. 


You have recently published the book ‘Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole Authentic Self’. This book, inspired by your own personal journey, provides tools to reconnect with the neglected parts of ourselves and lead a more expansive life and healthier relationships in the context of a larger community. For you, what is the meaning of the title word ‘Homecoming’? Can you tell us more about the process of writing this book and who can benefit from reading it?


TB: Stress and trauma can cause us to disconnect from ourselves.  We may abandon and neglect ourselves in attempts to find safety, whether psychological or physical.  As we recover and heal, we can reclaim ourselves by being more self-aware and by defining ourselves more holistically instead of simply seeing ourselves through the eyes of those who harmed us.  I wrote the book during the pandemic as most psychologists had a wait list and so many people were feeling overwhelmed by the stress and trauma.  I wanted to create a resource that would be relevant and accessible.  Each chapter has a homework assignment which people can complete alone or with their therapist.  I’m grateful that I was also able to record an audio version of the book for people who prefer that format.  The workbook for Homecoming entitled Reclaim Yourself, will come out next year.


Following up on this topic, in everyday conversations and particularly among young social media users, I believe the word ‘trauma’ is often thrown around and overused. In this context, it is common to see teenagers claim in front of the camera that they are being ‘traumatized’ because Starbucks messed up their order, or that studying for a difficult exam ‘gives them trauma’. Is this hypothetical banalization and overuse of the term downplaying the suffering of victims of severe trauma such as sexual assault, domestic violence, sexism, or racism? In your opinion, does it make sense to differentiate ‘levels’ of trauma or stick to a clinical definition or do you think that to some extent everyone has dealt with traumatic or shameful experiences that prevent them from being their authentic selves?

TB: Misunderstanding of the concept of trauma and other words such as narcissism, bipolar disorder, and even depression, is an important reason for psychologists to engage with the public to share our expertise.  While it is beneficial that the public is more interested and engaged around mental health, there can also be a lot of misunderstanding when we are disengaged from the public discourse.  As it relates to trauma in particular, the area of trauma that has been most overlooked by trauma psychologists ourselves is the trauma of oppression, also referred to as societal trauma, intergenerational trauma, racial trauma, ancestral wounds, and historical trauma. It is important that trauma psychologists not dismiss these collective traumas which have short and long term consequences. 


You are the host of Homecoming, an acclaimed podcast with more than 180 episodes aimed at ‘facilitating our journey home to ourselves by providing weekly inspiration and health tips’. Throughout the years, the podcast has had exceptional guests and covered such diverse and important topics as exposing oppression, self-sabotage, sexual health, coping with depression and anxiety, or grief. Could you please tell us more about this experience, what motivated it and what have you learned from it so far? Do you believe that alternative communications channels like podcasts bring psychological science to people and ultimately promote well-being and mental health?


TB: A component of liberation psychology and African-centered psychology is an emphasis on dissemination of knowledge as a way of removing barriers to access to underserved communities.  There are still financial and cultural barriers to accessing quality, culturally informed care.  I engage on social media, starting my podcast, and have published a popular book as a way of sharing psychological knowledge.  The APA also has a very successful podcast which covers a range of topics based on the latest psychological science.  I have been heartened by the response to the podcast not only nationally but globally.  A large component of my audience is outside of the United States and many are in nations with a small number of psychologists.  I’m grateful for this medium to be able to share and learn with a global community.


Social media, popular science books, podcasts… these are indeed effective channels to reach the general public. However, another crucial goal of practicing psychologists, researchers, and associations such as the APA is to have a broader impact in society by bridging the gap between psychology and public policy. From your recent experience and also as former APA representative to the United Nations, what can be done to improve the influence of psychology on policymakers and promote evidence-based policy decisions worldwide?

TB: I encourage psychology researchers to include policy implication in their discussion of the their findings when relevant. Psychological associations can then utilize those fndings and implications to inform policy makers and to advocate for policies that will enhance people’s lives.  The biggest points of wisdom I gained from psychology advocacy locally, nationally, and globally are that (1) do not assume the general public is aware of our scientific findings as often they are not and (2) we can get more accomplished by collaborating with other organizations than we can achieve alone.

On a more personal level, I am aware that you are an ordained minister. How do your faith and personal values shape your teaching, leadership, and therapeutic approach? Many scientists (including psychologists) find that science and religion/spiritual practices mutually exclusive. Do you think Western, contemporary psychology is lacking or can benefit from a spiritual, more holistic component?

TB: My faith and values cause me to center compassion, liberation, wholeness, and collaboration as an educator, leader, practitioner, and researcher.  Traditionally many leaders in the field of psychology were people who endorsed a faith belief.  Later in our field’s history people began to pathologize or simply ignore faith, spirituality, and religion.  Given that the majority of the nation and global community endorse spirituality and/or religion, it is important for psychologists to adopt a more holistic approach which acknowledges that for some faith communities have been a source of harm and for others it has been a source of resilience.  It’s important for us to explore the meaning and impact of faith on people’s lives as a growing number of researchers and practitioners are doing.  I’m the second minister in APA’s history to become president and we have a very active division, Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, which continues to make strong contributions in this area of study.

You have also identified yourself as a ‘sacred artist’. What role does art play in your clinical practice? Do we have scientific evidence that art can help suffering and recovering individuals with specific pathologies heal and thrive?

TB: The expressive arts are especially helpful with trauma survivors and any person who has experiences that are difficult to name due to shame or neurodiversity.  Researchers have found expressive arts an effective tool for child trauma survivors to share their trauma narratives in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.  Additionally various art mediums from music to dance have been found effective in affect recognition, self-expression, improving mood, and enhancing communication and relationships.

Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring psychologists and students who are looking to contribute to the field and potentially assume leadership positions in the future?

TB: I would tell aspiring psychologists that the field is in need of your presence and contribution.  You have something to offer and this is an exciting time to become a part of the field as we are seeing innovation in every area of psychology.  While there is great suffering all around us, there is also a growing recognition in society that psychologists are a part of the solution.  As you enter the field, I encourage three things.  The first is a care ethic, not only for those you may serve but also for yourself.  The second point of advice is to embrace the richness of your culture as an important aspect of your identity.  You do not need to erase your identity to be professional.  There is a wealth of knowledge from your culture that you can utilize to enrich your teaching, practice, research, and consultation.   Finally I would encourage you to become active with a psychology organization.  There are great mentors, projects, and initiatives that can nourish you professionally and give you a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose as we can make more impact when we work together.

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