By Joshua Wolff, PhD (APA Congressional Fellow)
Have you ever thought about doing something totally new, exciting, and out of your comfort zone, but then had the immediate follow-up thought of “but I could never do that!”
That was my thought process when I first read a description of the APA Congressional Fellowship Program that landed in my inbox via a division listserv email.
My first thought was, “Wow, this sounds so exciting and could be life changing!”
My next thought was, “But I have very little experience in politics so they would never want me!” Fortunately, a mentor encouraged me to apply and challenged my underlying assumptions that I was not cut out for the position.
For years prior, I had been thinking about the role of psychology in the larger public health sphere. As an intern and postdoc at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, I had seen too many mental health crisis situations that could have been entirely prevented, had services been in place or laws existed to protect our nation’s most vulnerable youth. I saw children with developmental disabilities end up in emergency rooms, only to linger on medical floors because no psychiatric facilities were available or willing to admit them. I evaluated an adolescent, relentlessly bullied for being gay, after a suicide attempt, who then had to go back into a school and social environment with systemic anti-gay discrimination with few legal protections.
I also know from firsthand experience that it is essential to have psychologists be part of primary care to address the difficult health care challenges we face as a nation. Working on a solid organ transplant team gave me the opportunity to see the importance of providing mental health resources in managing a child’s illness. Mental health problems can contribute to medication non-adherence and family dysfunction and, therefore, disease progression. This experience was rich and valuable, and I hold immense respect for providers on the “front lines” of patient care. Yet, I left wanting to be able to confront the issues at the policy and social level.
I’m glad I listened to my mentor’s encouragement and applied because I am now an APA Congressional Fellow who will be working in the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Majority Health Policy Office, for Senator Tom Harkin. As a child clinical psychologist, I have a unique opportunity to address problems facing our nation’s vulnerable youth and will be working on a range of issues related to psychotropic medication oversight, graduate medical education for pediatric providers, mental health parity, and promoting affordable health care for families who fall through the cracks. I also anticipate being assigned to a host of other issues that are likely to surface throughout the year.
I have a lot to learn but have just buckled my seatbelt and am excited for the ride ahead this year. I hope that if this sounds exciting to you that you will consider applying for next year’s fellowship.
Joshua R. Wolff, PhD, received his degree in clinical psychology from Biola University, where he also completed practicum at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He completed his pre-doctoral internship and two years of post-doctoral fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He worked with families and children diagnosed with chronic and life-threatening medical conditions in the pediatric transplant center, pain management program, and the department of psychiatry. Dr. Wolff is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of Rhode Island, and an Assistant Professor in the department of psychology at Rhode Island College. Dr. Wolff’s research interests have focused on children’s health issues, including fathers’ roles in caring for children with life-threatening illnesses, transition from pediatric care to adult care facilities, and psychosocial aspects of asthma management. His current research examines the role of the religious environment on health risk behaviors for GLBTQ youth and experiences of GLBTQ students who attend religious colleges and universities. Dr. Wolff is the Jacquelin Goldman Congressional Fellow, which is funded by the American Psychological Foundation. He will serve in the Health Policy Office of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Good luck in your endeavour and good for you on making that leap. Mental health is definitely something that needs more attention and less stigma in this country. As someone that had a family member die by suicide, I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about the stigmas of mental illness and being what they call a “suicide survivor.”