Chicago Campus Commencement (6-10-11)

Dr. Michele Nealon-Woods
 President, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

Charge to the Graduates
The Chicago School of Professional Psychology
 Chicago Campus Commencement, June 10, 2011


As I stand before you today after a ceremony celebrating your achievements . . .
challenging your thinking . . .
honoring our guests . . .
recognizing our faculty . . .
and culminating in the awarding of the diplomas that you have worked so hard and so long to achieve . . . I cannot help but come back to the same, profoundly simple conclusion . . . that you need to get out of this auditorium as soon as humanly possible.

So, I will be brief.

You are graduating in times of deep structural change. Times that are challenging, but offer opportunity to those who can recognize them, innovate, and seize the day.

At a recent conference I had the very good fortune to meet a fascinating author and futurist who wrote a book several years ago called “Navigating the Badlands.” In her book, Mary O’Hara Devereux explains that about every 100 years, a systemic
structural shift occurs that is driven by multiple innovations and strong environmental forces. The resulting emergent socioeconomic system and business environment look less and less like the past. These are the badlands. Those individuals and organizations that persist in following the old paths and old processes will ultimately become obsolete. But those that are willing to see with new eyes unencumbered by old habits and rules will recognize that it is not about making the old system better, it is about developing something that is fundamentally new. They will be the innovators that adapt to change and advance it – the new leaders.

I suggest that this is the challenge for all of you. The badlands we currently encounter include global challenges like the widening gap between the rich and the poor, fierce global competition, dislocation of people and systems, and the increasing difficulty, across the globe, of making a living wage. And while employment for psychologists is expected to grow at a respectable 12% between 2008 and 2018—and 26% for I/O--the APA’s 2009 Presidential Task Force on the Future of Psychology Practice recognized that the practice has indeed changed. Psychologists and therapists coming out of school today will be working in very different ways from their older counterparts.

In the area of mental health we see ongoing challenges for funding, a dearth of culturally competent services and deep cultural mores and perceptions that not only refuse to see mental health as a health issue, but continue to stigmatize those who struggle with mental illness.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in a given year approximately one quarter of adults are diagnosable for one or more mental disorders. In 2006, Americans spent $57.5 billion in mental health care. Those costs are increasing while funding is decreasing across the board.

B.F. Skinner said that "education is not just the filling of a pail, it is the lighting of a fire." Indeed, that is our goal at The Chicago School, in helping you to develop as engaged practitioners. You all come to us with a passion for this profession—with your own embers if not a full-blown fire. We have not done our job if we have not helped you to truly ignite that fire within you—through cutting edge coursework, dynamic and dedicated faulty, meaningful practicum and internships, and international and service learning opportunities second to none.

Our educational model doesn’t just recognize innovation—it requires it. While providing a grounding in scientific research and theory, a Chicago School education asks our students to be socially conscious active learners and problem-solvers, to turn inquiry and theory into practice, and to demonstrate leadership and independent thinking throughout our programs.

The work you have done and the service you have provided to individuals and communities throughout your time here will help you meet the challenges of the badlands—but even more important is that you have the ability to seize the opportunities. And there are opportunities.

Consider first that primary care providers treat over 60% of mental health problems without assistance from psychologists. It’s a system that is often ineffective for patients, inefficient, and also ignores the major role psychology plays in physical well-being. You all have an opportunity to change this paradigm, to find new ways to ensure that psychologists are an integral part of the primary care team.

Second, the fields of “medicine” and “psychology” are quickly blurring. We need only look at the incredible One Mind campaign that Congressman Kennedy has put together to recognize the next frontier of research. As we build our neuropsychology program at The Chicago School, which is part of our new strategic plan, you can be in the forefront of policy and science that will inform funding, curriculum development, and application.

Another opportunity lies in cross-disciplinary training. As The Chicago School looks at new ways to integrate disciplines,  you too can pave the way in expanding the scope of practice beyond the traditional fields. Areas such as public safety, product development, climate change and sustainability are ripe for input from psychology.

You might also consider the changing cultural landscape. We are becoming more and more culturally diverse, and we ignore the need for multicultural competencies in mental health services at great risk. Our aging population will soon overwhelm the healthcare system—bringing a host of psychological as well as medical issues. And our veterans, as many of you know, encounter mental health issues that require cultural, financial and infrastructure changes to effectively resolve. You can be the leaders of the future in finding new ways to develop and deliver the psychological services that meet the needs of our changing nation.   

And then of course, there is technology. Just as it has informed and transformed every sector of society, technology will continue to transform the delivery of psychological services. You can make your mark in the effective development and deployment of technology to deliver counseling, improve performance, educate, and enhance well-being.

And whether you find yourself in private practice, in a community setting, in a business, school or associated industry, it is our collective responsibility to work to erase the stigma of mental illness. The Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute right here at The Chicago School is dedicated to this endeavor, and it is heartening to see other national organizations and prominent individuals—like our esteemed commencement speaker today—speak out against the stigma of what are, for many, often hidden and consequently horribly lonely diseases. We owe it to ourselves and our colleagues, to our alums, to our future students, to those struggling with mental illness and their families and friends, and to future generations, to not only find new ways to treat mental illness, but also to work relentlessly to eradicate the stigma around it.

So as you leave this auditorium today and embark on a new career, I encourage you to use the tools that you have gained here—and rid yourself of the constructs—and yes even those you might have gotten here—that will narrow your field of vision. Go out and innovate—be the reformer, the game-changer, the risk-taker. And allow us, if you will, to continue to support you in these endeavors. Use us as your sounding board, your resource, your support, and your network. We remain invested in you as you have invested in us.

These are the times when ideas can literally change the world and when leaders are born.

Congratulations and have a wonderful afternoon.