Wrapping up her year as president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), UT Health Science Center’s Altha Stewart gave the Presidential Address at the organization’s 2019 annual meeting in San Francisco. She urged the 38,000-member organization to continue to focus on treating the whole person, to be involved in current issues affecting mental health across all ages and incomes, and to redouble its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession.
Dr. Stewart was born in Memphis and is the first African-American to lead the APA. She is an associate professor of psychiatry, director of the Center for Health in Justice Involved Youth, and chief of Social and Community Psychiatry in the College of Medicine at UTHSC. Founded in 1844, the APA is the oldest medical association in the country. It sets practice guidelines and represents the field of psychiatry nationally and internationally.
“As psychiatrists, we recognize that we work with people — we don’t work with the illness, we don’t cut it out, we don’t measure it in a lab test — we are the specialists in medicine who actually consider the whole person,” she said. “That is one of the things that distinguishes us from the rest of the house of medicine — we really see and work with the person, not just the disease. “
When she took office in May 2018, Dr. Stewart vowed to promote collaboration among members and across medical specialties, increase mentoring and leadership opportunities for the next generation in the profession, and improve access to mental health care for all, expanding the APA’s work in global mental health. She also stressed diversity and inclusion in treatment and professional development to combat social injustice in mental health care.
“Looking back, I am proud to say that many of you have worked with me on these areas and I believe we’ve built momentum that will move us forward positively into the next 175 years,” she told the convention. She cited the APA’s stance as one of the first medical organizations to condemn the separation of children from their parents at the country’s southern border, and the continued work to change the policy that is harmful to children.
She also mentioned the organization’s efforts to address the mental health needs of vulnerable populations around the world.
“We made some progress on the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she said. “I know that many believe that the election of the first black president means we achieved a major milestone, but let’s not get too comfortable. I would submit it is a great first step and visible sign of the ultimate goal for this organization in the area of diversity and inclusion.”
She said the APA can count among its recent major accomplishments the groundswell of voices addressing diversity and inclusion in the profession. “I hope I am a real-world example of the importance of talking about and doing these things, and how to do it,” she said. “Everything we do as an organization must reflect our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in the services areas, as well as in professional development.”
She said the organization has benefited from bringing more young professionals into its ranks, mentoring them and learning from their perspectives.
“I’m totally excited as a community psychiatrist about the fact that we are focusing more of our attention, more of our training, more of our professional development on understanding the impact of social determinants of mental health and actually seeing the role for psychiatry in addressing those things,” she said. “And finally, I think the future of psychiatry will embody all of the best that we have to offer around collaborative care, psychiatry and its rightful place in the house of medicine, and a next generation of practitioners who are going to lead the way on how to make use of technology, have a moral compass that is driven by the sense of social justice and equity in health care and behavioral health care, and possess a desire to enjoy the profession.”
Dr. Stewart turns over the presidency at the close of the meeting Wednesday and will serve as the immediate past president on the organization’s board of trustees for three years.