Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Health Psychology

Lessons Learned from Two Expert Panel Discussions Held by Division 38

by Jenny Nguyen and Sarah Mills

diversity2The psychology field has historically lacked racial and ethnic diversity. The percentage of clinical psychologists who belong to a racial or ethnic minority group rose modestly from the 1970s to 2010 but remains under 10% (Norcross & Karpiak, 2012).The percentage of non-White first-year graduate students in psychology is higher (28%) but still not representative of racial and ethnic minority populations in the United States. Minority faculty in psychology are especially scarce.

Representation of racial and ethnic minority psychologists is of special importance to the field of health psychology. Members of racial and ethnic minorities experience health disparities that are closely linked to social, economic, and environmental disadvantages. Minority health professionals are more likely to serve in minority and medically underserved communities and may have special insights about the social and behavioral aspects of health within minority populations. Although evidence on the effects of racial/ethnic concordance between patients and health care providers is mixed, some postulate that concordance may help bridge interpersonal barriers to care.

To further discussion of racial and ethnic minority representation in the field of health psychology, the Division 38 Health Psychology Student Advisory Council organized two expert panel discussions at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine Conference and the 2012 American Psychological Association Convention. Both expert panels consisted of the presidents and past-presidents of Division 38, along with several established health researchers and early career psychologists. Common themes emerged across both discussions, which we will broadly divide into barriers to increasing diversity and suggestions to improve representation of diverse groups.

Barriers to Increasing Diversity within the Health Psychology Field

Several barriers to increasing racial/ethnic diversity were identified during the panel discussions. Panelists noted that minorities may not have training in the language to best communicate why they should be admitted into psychology graduate school. Minority students may not be acculturated to the key words that make a successful graduate school application. Prospective minority students may have many skills and life experiences, such as knowing multiple languages or having in-depth knowledge of a particular community. However, without training in how to communicate this in graduate applications, this important and potentially critical information is lost.

Another potential barrier identified was the admission criteria for psychology graduate programs. Standardized test scores may act as a barrier for prospective minority students. Some graduate programs preliminarily exclude applicants if they do not meet a certain cut-off score on standardized tests.

A lack of diverse faculty was also identified as a barrier. Minority faculty serve as role models for young minority students. In addition, the number of minority faculty in a program has been associated with many factors including larger minority student groups, greater number of minority-related courses available, and more minority faculty conducting research on minorities (Bernal & Castro, 1994). Furthermore, in less diverse settings, minority faculty may experience the spotlight effect, where they believe their behaviors are being watched more intently – and judged more harshly – than those of non-minorities.

Last, panelists noted that work settings within the psychology field, particularly in university settings, may have an unfriendly culture/environment for minorities. An unfriendly culture in a university setting is a particular challenge for minority faculty given the importance of establishing working relationships with colleagues. Additionally, minority faculty may feel less comfortable expressing their needs and concerns in an unreceptive environment.

Panelists’ Suggestions for Overcoming Barriers to Diversity

The panelists made key suggestions to address the barriers described above. Panelists noted that faculty should seek out talented minority students who excel in the research lab setting and coursework. Faculty should help students find mentors and build networks as a way to develop environments where they can prosper. Mentors would be able to help minority students understand their strengths and demonstrate them in a graduate school application. Panelists noted the importance of cultivating excellence in ethnic minority students early in education, at the high school and undergraduate levels. Pipelines, or mechanisms that permit the successful matriculation of students from undergraduate studies to graduate programs, are needed. Educational pipelines would serve as a good resource to help orient students to the graduate school application process and careers in the health psychology field.

Some panelists suggested that admissions committees move towards a competency-based model and view prospective students holistically as opposed to placing emphasis on standardized test scores. The discussions urged other faculty members to consider what standardized test scores mean and how they relate to competencies that graduate programs are interested in. Panelists discussed the importance of considering what students can bring to graduate programs in terms of life experience, languages, and cultural knowledge.

The lack of diverse faculty within the psychology field was also addressed at both discussions. Panelists noted that hiring more diverse faculty not only increases diversity directly but also enhances mentorship opportunities for ethnic minority students. To address the spotlight effect, panelists suggested that universities should encourage minority faculty to have open dialogues about their experiences when possible. The process of closing the racial/ethnic gap in this field begins with understanding the experiences of those who are in it. A panelist noted that sometimes the diversity that programs claim to have may be deceiving; emphasis should be placed on how respected and embraced ethnic minority students and faculty feel by their programs.

The importance of an inviting environment for both diverse faculty and students was a common theme that came up numerous times across both meetings. Administrators and faculty need to consider what it means to have a welcoming environment. This requires assessment of the current climate of the program as well as the larger culture of the university and the surrounding community. Additionally, leadership needs to demonstrate commitment towards improving diversity. A statement could be made about the importance of diversity during interviews for students and staff. Websites can encourage a welcoming environment by demonstrating an interest in diverse students and displaying a diversity mission statement. Panelists encouraged their peers to identify exemplar programs that recruit and retain diverse faculty, students, and staff and model other programs off of these exemplar models. It was suggested that a survey be sent out to all ethnic minority faculty across the nation in the health psychology field to get their feedback about their experiences, happiness, and success in their respective programs.

The nation is diversifying, and so should the field of health psychology to meet the nation’s needs. Although other barriers and suggestions were noted, those mentioned above were considered to be the most prevalent themes across both discussions. The Division 38 Health Psychology Student Advisory Council would like to thank the panelists and the other participants for their insight. As the discussion needs to continue on, the next step is to consider how to put the suggestions into action.

Bernal, M. E., & Castro, F. G. (1994). Are clinical psychologists prepared for service and research with ethnic minorities? Report of a decade of progress. American Psychologist, 49(9), 797-805.

Norcross, J. C., & Karpiak, C. P. (2012). Clinical psychologists in the 2010s: 50 years of the APA Division of Clinical Psychology. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 19(1), 1-12.

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