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Psychologists, Make Your Voice Heard Beyond the Ballot Box

Close-up Of A Young Woman Shouting Through Megaphone Against Blue Sky

By Walter R. Boot, PhD, & William E. Haley, PhD (APA Committee on Aging)

The midterm elections are just a few days away, and we all know that voting is a vital means to make our voices heard. But it’s not the only way. Psychologists have the expertise, skills, and opportunity to engage in needed and productive advocacy to advance the issues that are important to us, both locally and nationally.

This advocacy includes meeting with elected representatives to express concerns and support for initiatives. Meeting with your representatives may seem like a daunting and intimidating task if you’ve never done it before, but APA offers useful online advocacy training, tools, and a variety of resources to help you prepare for your meetings (e.g., APA Science Advocacy Toolkit; APA Older Adult Health Advocacy Page).

Recently, after receiving training from the staff of the APA Public Interest Government Relations Office, members of the APA Committee on Aging (CONA) and their graduate students engaged in grassroots advocacy efforts related to an issue important to them.

Specifically, they advocated for $2 million in funding for the Department of Justice to support Kevin and Avonte’s Law. The bill’s primary purpose is to help keep individuals who wander safe, and is particularly relevant to older adults with dementia, as well as individuals living with disabilities (most notably autism). It is named for two children with autism who tragically died after instances of wandering.

The bill helps to reduce the risk of injury and death related to wandering by funding education and resources to law enforcement agencies, schools, and clinicians who might encounter wandering and who can learn effective ways to intervene. Such education may also help safeguard well-being of impaired or disabled people during interactions with law enforcement. Funds can also be used to pay for tracking devices for individuals with developmental disabilities or dementia for whom these could be helpful. While this important legislation became law in March of this year, it had no funding.

Graduate students working with CONA members recently had in-district meetings with their representatives to advocate for funding for Kevin and Avonte’s Law, and we asked them about their experiences, and why they thought it was important for psychologists to become advocates.

Graduate student Erin R. Harrell from Florida State University’s Cognitive Psychology Ph.D. program, said:

“I think it’s important for psychologists, specifically, to have a voice in legislative issues because their backgrounds provide them with knowledge about, and first-hand experience with, the populations being impacted by legislation. Moreover, as psychological scientists, we can make evidence-based arguments and can help guide lawmakers to important information resources based on science and empirical fact.”

During the grassroots effort, Erin visited the offices of Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Neal Dunn in Tallahassee, Florida.

We also asked if Erin had advice for anyone who is thinking about participating in grassroots advocacy for the first time, and she said

“Do your homework. Some representatives may be familiar with the issue that you are advocating for, but others may have more questions. In order to make the greatest impact, be ready with the facts and prepare in advance a compelling case for why what you are saying is important to their constituents. It’s natural for you to be nervous about the process because this is probably not something you do on a regular basis. If that’s the case, do a practice talk with a friend prior to speaking with your representative.”

We also spoke to Hannah Michalak, a graduate student in Georgia State University’s Clinical Neuropsychology Ph.D. program. Hannah met with a representative from Senator Johnny Isakson’s office, and the state policy director for Senator David Perdue. In response to what she would tell someone who might be hesitant to engage with their lawmakers, she responded:

“I would tell them that the job of a representative is to listen to the people that they represent, and so representatives actually welcome these visits as a way to stay in touch with what their constituents care about.”

Hannah said that Kevin and Avonte’s law was especially meaningful to her:

“I work with older adults and often see the vulnerability of patients with dementia. It is extremely important to me that law enforcement officers, as well as community members in general, become more educated about how to respond appropriately to instances of wandering. Funding projects that help locate these individuals more quickly is money well spent.”

We also spoke with Victoria R. Marino, a PhD student in the Aging Studies program at the University of South Florida. Victoria said,

“Like others in this field, I’m motivated by the collective goal of making a positive impact. Sometimes our research efforts take a long time to loop back to benefit the populations we study, but this was an opportunity to help affect positive change in a direct way.” In terms of important lessons she took away from advocacy training, she responded “I learned about techniques for building relationships with legislators and framing issues in a way that can garner support. I also learned that people who work in public service are equally invested in making a positive impact in their community, will welcome collaboration, and may even offer support for future efforts. Finally, I learned that aging-related issues and relevant stories about loved ones are unifying and can be the foundation for productive partnerships.”

All of the students and faculty members who participated reported positive experiences, and even that they had built linkages that might bring their representatives to their campus. The advocacy efforts seem to have led to positive effects. Just recently we learned that both the House and Senate appropriations bills now include funding for Kevin and Avonte’s Law.

So, remember, Election Day is not the only day to have your voice heard, and voting is not the only way you can influence important national issues.

APA also offers its members the opportunity to use their psychological expertise to impact public policy through its policy fellowships. You could spend a year working for a member of Congress or a federal agency. Past fellows have found their year in Washington, DC to be a rewarding experience.

Make sure you apply before January 6, 2019:


Walter R. Boot, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at Florida State University and Chair-Elect of APA’s Committee on Aging. He received his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Visual Cognition and Human Performance. Walter is one of six principal investigators of the multi-disciplinary Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology Enhancement (CREATE), a long-standing National Institute on Aging funded center dedicated to ensuring that the benefits of technology can be realized by older adults. His research interests include how humans perform and learn to master complex tasks (especially tasks with safety-critical consequences), how age influences perceptual and cognitive abilities vital to the performance of these tasks, and how technological interventions can improve the wellbeing and cognitive functioning of older adults.

William E. Haley, PhD, is a Professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida and a member of APA’s Committee on Aging. He completed a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a clinical internship and postdoctoral fellowship in Geriatric Clinical Psychology at the University of Washington-Seattle. Dr. Haley’s research focuses on how older adults and their families cope with chronic illness, including coping with Alzheimer’s, stroke, cancer, terminal illness, and bereavement by family caregivers. Recent research has demonstrated benefits of caregiving and how caregiving may build psychological and physical health resources, including studies showing that family caregivers live longer and have greater stress resilience than noncaregivers who were carefully matched on demographic and health factors.

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