March 2012

Professor To Take Helm At APA

Dr. Donald Bersoff is home again. Well, maybe not literally. But 23 years after serving as the first in-house counsel for the American Psychological Association, Dr. Bersoff is now serving the prestigious organization as its president-elect.

A professor in the Earle Mack School of Law and in the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Bersoff is the director of Drexel University’s joint JD-Ph.D program in law and psychology. Students who complete the program, which takes seven years, go on to practice law, become involved with public policy or conduct research.

Dr. Bersoff’s first experience with the American Psychological Association (APA) came when he served as general counsel of the association from 1979 to 1990. In January 2013, he will take the helm as president of the 154,000-member APA, the largest association of psychologists in the world.

An expert on legal and ethical issues in mental health, Dr. Bersoff was an Air Force clinical psychologist who spent two years in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. One of the initiatives he plans to pursue as APA president involves psychologists providing mental health services to returning members of the military along with veterans and female soldiers who have been sexually harassed during their service.

Dr. Bersoff’s personal experiences have influenced his plan. His father didn’t speak for a year after returning from serving in North Africa in World War II. He also witnessed the effect of war on soliders during his tour in Vietnam. The initiative will continue the APA’s history of work with the military.

“There are more soldiers that need help than people who can help them,” Dr. Bersoff explains.

Dr. Bersoff also wants to attract more diverse students into the field of psychology. Noting that by 2040, non-Hispanic Caucasians will be in the minority, he says there is a need for psychologists who will reflect the type of patients they will be treating. A third initiative will be to attract more scientists and researchers to APA.

“The presidency gives me a chance to do some things that I have wanted to do for a long time but I haven’t had the platform to do it,” he says.

Dr. Bersoff’s career revolves around the intersection of law and psychology. In 1995, he authored Ethical Conflicts in Psychology. The book is in its fourth edition and has become a mainstay in the field. He says psychology has and will continue to play a role in the field of mental health law. The research of developmental psychologists, for example, was used in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 to outlaw the execution of children under 18.

Eyewitness identification can be particularly unreliable, Dr. Bersoff says, citing cases where defendants were initially found guilty of a crime but then exonerated when witness testimony was found to be faulty. Jurors need to be more skeptical of witness testimony, Dr. Bersoff says. Cross-race identification, for example, is not as sound as same race identification. When a weapon is used, witnesses tend to pay more attention to the weapon than a person’s face.