Mary Jansen, PhD
Mary Jansen graduated with her PhD from Kent State University in 1977 and since then has traveled a unique journey in public service psychology. She has dedicated her career to helping others on an individual, national and international level through work at the World Health Organization (WHO), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), to name a few. She also is the unknown face behind successful advocacy initiatives that individuals with mental illness and disabilities, as well as students and early career psychologists, get to benefit from today. Mary is presently residing in Vancouver, BC and is the director of Bayview Behavioral Consulting, Inc. She is active in APA and dedicates a great deal of time to Div. 18’s Section on Serious Mental Illness and Severe Emotional Disturbance (SMI/SED) and the APA Task Force on SMI/SED. Mary is not only a leader, but is also a genuinely kind and humble individual. Learn about the wonderful work that she has done and continues to pursue in the service of others.
You have held some nontraditional positions as a psychologist. What drove you to pursue these positions?
Before I answer that, I want to say that, probably like most of us, I was heavily influenced by the concepts and values my parents taught me — even though I didn’t realize this until much later in life. My parents were 40 when I was born, and they had both lived through the depression. Neither of them had come from wealthy families and they had to be quite ingenious to navigate those times successfully. So my parents taught me that sometimes it takes very creative thinking to solve a problem; as my mother used to say: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” This is likely where I learned how to think outside the box to solve problems in unconventional ways. My parents also placed great emphasis on values like fairness, loyalty, doing the right thing, social justice and concern for other living creatures. I’d like to think those concepts and values guided me in the decisions I’ve made in life.
Now, on to your questions.
When I finished my PhD, I did what all good newly minted psychologists at the time did — take an academic position and open a private practice. However, I was lucky to meet and become involved with some influential members of the Ohio Psychological Association, who encouraged me to become active in the association. I did and became a board member. This gave me great experience in advocacy work and gave me the courage to apply for the editorship of Div. 22’s journal, Rehabilitation Psychology, which had experienced problems and had lain dormant for some time. So, by the age of 33 I was a journal editor and member of the Ohio Psychological Association board. My Ohio advocacy work led me to apply for a position that became available at the American Psychological Association in Washington. This turned out to be my first “nontraditional” position.
One of the things I realized while working for APA was that there were other things I could do besides teaching, conducting research or having a private practice. Although I had enjoyed some aspects of those more traditional roles, I realized while at APA that I liked administrative work better. In terms of topical interest, a very important, and as it turned out, life-changing opportunity occurred while I was with APA. Because of my involvement with Div. 22 (Rehabilitation Psychology), I was asked to be APA’s representative to a Social Security Administration (SSA) task force looking at the issue of mental illness and Social Security Disability Insurance/Supplemental Security Income (SSDI/SSI) eligibility. At that time, the SSA was unwilling to grant disability entitlements to those with serious mental illness and applied a different standard to applicants presenting with psychotic disorders. There were documented cases of suicide and other harmful effects on those applicants who were denied benefits by SSA. After extensive work by the task force, including APA testimony submitted to Congress that I wrote, the Supreme Court affirmed that SSA was not acting within the law and ordered SSA to apply the same criteria to evaluate all disability applicants, including those with serious mental illnesses. As a result, new legislation was enacted, which permanently changed the evaluation process for those with serious mental illnesses. Although few know about this effort, it proved to be a key highlight of my career because of the profound impact it had on the lives of very ill and vulnerable people.
That’s such important work and I’m sure you didn’t stop there. Can you tell us more about the settings you worked in and the positions you held after that?
Sometime after working at APA, I was trying to figure out what to do when I grew up and I looked around for fellowship or other opportunities. I applied for and was awarded a fellows appointment funded by the World Rehabilitation Fund to study the mental health and rehabilitation policies of five European countries. I’m not sure where I got the idea, but I decided to contact the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) to ask for co-sponsorship. To my amazement, all three agreed and the work was performed under the auspices of WHO. The study findings were compelling and led the WHO to ask me to consult with them to establish a new program to encourage member states to provide better community services for those with serious mental disorders. The program, called the Initiative of Support to People with Mental Illness, was successfully established and, for more than 20 years, remained a vital part of WHO’s advocacy work on behalf of this population.
Even though I was just a part-time consultant, spending time at WHO was the most thrilling thing I’d ever done. Imagine me, a nobody, with an office and my name on the door at WHO. Little did I know then that those names get put up and taken down every time anyone comes into the organization, even if the person is only there for a day. Oh well, thrilling nonetheless, even if only for an instant.
During this time, I was living in the Netherlands and commuting to Switzerland every other week and to support myself I also served as a visiting professor at the University of Leiden and as a consultant to the deputy minister of health for mental health in the Netherlands (whom I had met in the course of the five-country study). A rather intriguing part of the latter experience (that almost no one knew about at the time) is that the deputy minister would raise questions to be asked of the WHO and I would write the letter with those questions. The letter would be put on ministry letterhead and mailed to Geneva. When I returned to my office at WHO, the letter would be waiting for me. My supervisor at WHO and I would determine how the letter should be answered and I would then write the response and the letter would be typed on WHO stationery and mailed back to the Netherlands. Once back in my office in the Ministry, the WHO response would be waiting for me — and so it would continue with me writing back and forth to myself and raising questions my colleagues and I in the Netherlands felt important.
I only mention these details because I had to muster enough nerve to make all these contacts, talk to people in whose language (either spoken or conceptual) I was not fluent, create solutions to problems that seemed unimaginable and follow through with promises even when I had no idea what I was doing. This is where the lessons from my parents that I mentioned at the beginning served me extraordinarily well.
After returning to the U.S., I accepted a position with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, which later became the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). After several years with SAMHSA, I accepted the position of deputy chief consultant for mental health and chief consultant for psychology at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Soon after joining the VA, I was asked by WHO to return to Geneva for a two-year assignment as director of the Substance Abuse Department and was officially seconded to WHO by the VA.
This is where I learned another lesson — be careful what you wish for. After my really wonderful experience as a lowly consultant at WHO, I thought that being in the top echelon (department directors are just three levels below the director general) of the most important health organization on the planet would be the greatest experience of my life. And, what an opportunity to make a difference for people all over the world. Well, not quite. The UN, like all international organizations is a huge bureaucracy and because these organizations are dependent on funding from members states, they are inherently very political and some would say to some degree corrupt. That can make it incredibly difficult to accomplish the kinds of things one would like to accomplish.
Speaking of politics, what is it like dealing with the politics involved in working for large organizations? How do you prepare for or manage that?
The politics of any organization can be the most challenging and difficult part of working. I don’t know if it is possible to be truly prepared, but recognizing that there is a political aspect to every organization is probably a good start. I know that I wasn’t prepared at all, and it took me many years before I recognized that I needed to be much more cautious than I had been.
A few specific thoughts: (1) Trying to be a star will surely get you recognized but probably not in a good way, (2) Don’t necessarily trust everyone who is nice to you, (3) Watch and observe everyone and everything that happens for quite a long time.
The above is not meant to stifle presentation of good ideas but rather to say that it is important to know who might not be accepting of those ideas, to be amenable to criticism and other’s ideas and to be flexible enough to withdraw your proposal or make changes. Often time spent preparing and seeing if others might be ok with the idea can be the most valuable time you spend. It is no guarantee of success or of smooth sailing though.
So, what is it like to be the director of a very large organization? What are your job duties and day-to-day activities like in these types of positions?
Being a manager or director in a large organization can be quite rewarding, but it can also be very disappointing. Sometimes it is possible to develop and implement good programs that really make a difference but to do this usually takes considerable time and energy to get others behind the idea and then even more time to develop the concept well so that it has a reasonable chance of success. This is even more challenging when the organization is large, national or international in scope. But, when an idea becomes a reality and is successful, the administrative time and energy it took to make that happen definitely feels worthwhile. But, as mentioned earlier, there are lots of good ideas that are not successful and dealing with these failures can be very challenging indeed. Both the successes and the failures are magnified when the organization is large or national or international in scope and working in such environments may not be for everyone.
The duties of anyone in a management position, whether large or small, national or international, are similar and often consist of rather mundane activities like attending seemingly endless organizational meetings, supervising staff (some of whom may not want to be supervised), reviewing materials prepared by supervisees, etc. There is typically very little time for creative thinking and when a problem arises that truly needs creative thought, that often has to occur at a time and place where it is quiet and no one is around, frequently outside of working hours. This may very well be true for many positions these days so the previously typical 9-to-5 job may be elusive.
Do you have advice for students who want to get involved in large organizations and move up within them?
The best way for anyone to become involved in any organization (large or small) is to volunteer one’s time, energy, creativity and dedication to the organization. When an opportunity becomes available, it is most often (though this is not an absolute guarantee) the person the organization knows and trusts who will be offered the chance to take on the position. But, even if you’ve volunteered, worked hard to prove yourself and then were not chosen, it is highly likely that the organization will be willing to write a very favorable letter of recommendation that can be used to secure a position elsewhere. At the very least — and this is actually not least, but very, very important — the experience gained in the volunteer position will prove extremely valuable in interviews for future positions. No experience is wasted, no matter how insignificant it might seem.
Great advice. Can students and early career psychologists (ECPs) begin to gain experience in administration through volunteering as well?
For both students and early career psychologists, volunteering can be a good way to gain insight into the workings of an organization and what its managers do. Volunteering for professional associations like Div. 18 can be a great experience where making a good impression on leaders will likely lead to their willingness to write a great reference letter for you when you are ready to move on.
With respect to paid positions, students can gain wonderful experiences in nonpsychology positions or small organizations such as social service agencies. Early career psychologists can do this as well and can also get started in lower or mid-level management positions in the field of psychology. I’d say to keep your eyes open for opportunities both inside and outside the organization and think creatively about what you want to do.
No one ever starts at the top so the important thing is to decide what appeals to you and try your hand at it. If it isn’t the right fit for you or doesn’t work out, decide what can be learned from the experience and go from there.
Given all of your pursuits, it sounds like you have an adventurous spirit. Did you always know that you desired something other than a typical 9-to-5 job? Did that have any impact on your family life?
Actually, I didn’t see myself as having an adventurous spirit. In fact, I was very timid and nonassertive. I was terrified each and every time I contemplated a new possibility. At this point I must credit my husband who encouraged me, supported me, helped me think through challenges. Probably because of his support, and some innate tenacity, I felt compelled to pursue new opportunities despite the fear of failure and somehow, these opportunities usually worked out. And, it wasn’t that I wanted to work more than 9 to 5 each day or forego having children. I just had a lot of energy that for some reason was channeled into professional activities. That’s likely because, as we know, positive reinforcement leads to repeating the behavior that led to the positive reinforcement, so with even the slightest hint of acceptance or success, I kept on trying new things. As for settling down with a family, while we had planned to have children, that was obviously not the first priority for my husband and me. Having said that, we actually did decide to start a family but a medical problem precluded that possibility.
It seems that you have been mostly successful in your pursuits. Did you experience any failures along the way?
Ah, yes, failure — that’s been a definite part of my career. There have been many times that I’ve applied for something that I wanted and thought I would be good at, but was rejected unceremoniously. There have been several other times that I was unable to accomplish what I truly believed needed to be done — several of these I still believe were the right thing to do. The reasons for these failures range from my own naiveté, lack of flexibility or other personal attributes, to larger organizational or more political reasons that were beyond my or anyone’s control. And, some of these failures caused me substantial emotional pain. But, as the saying goes “no pain – no gain” and more often than not, at the end of the day, I’ve been truly glad about the ways things turned out. While most don’t talk about or admit to failure, I’m guessing there isn’t a person on earth who hasn’t failed and done so more than once. And my observation is that the more successful one appears, the more failures that person has experienced. I know that when I was starting out, it would have helped me to know that most well-respected people have failed on more than one occasion, and sometimes failed quite substantially, so I think it’s important to acknowledge this fact.
What advice do you have for students who have a specific cause that they are interested in?
Students and early career psychologists today are much more sophisticated and knowledgeable than I was when I started out because I had no idea what I was interested in or where I wanted to go. If young psychologists (or older ones for that matter) find something they are interested in, my advice would be to look into it, find out how you can get involved and don’t let thoughts about being insufficiently prepared or potential rejection stop you. Go for it! Definitely be ready to volunteer your time and energy — most of us have had to spend many hours proving ourselves — all without compensation or reward, and typically in evenings and on weekends outside of that 9-to-5 job you mentioned earlier. And if you are rejected after trying to get involved or applying for an opportunity, see if there is something you can learn from that and then try again.
For me, I discovered what I enjoyed doing just by stumbling into an opportunity, or taking advantage of one that presented itself like those mentioned above, working really hard, having some success and feeling good about it because of the impact achieved. I’d suggest giving something a try and if it’s not to your liking, give some thought to getting involved in something else.
What are your plans for the future? Are you currently working on any projects?
Over the course of the past several years, many of us have realized that doctoral training in psychology is not adequately preparing psychologists to work effectively with people who have serious mental illnesses. We know this from clinical experiences, from data showing persistently high recidivism rates, from people living with these illnesses who tell us they are leaving treatment unprepared to resume satisfying lives and from students and early career psychologists who want to work in this field but recognize they do not have the expertise to do so.
In an effort to try to rectify this situation, Div. 18’s Section on Serious Mental Illness and Severe Emotional Disturbance, in collaboration with the APA Task Force on Serious Mental Illness and Severe Emotional Disturbance, has begun work to petition APA to recognize a postdoctoral specialty that will focus on giving psychologists the specialized knowledge and skills needed to work effectively and truly help people with these illnesses.
I’ve been leading this effort and working with several dedicated colleagues who are also committed to doing our best to make this happen. It is completely voluntary and no easy task. Completing the APA specialty application will take many months, possibly even several years. Thus, for the next couple of years at least, you will find me working at my computer or engaging in conference calls with colleagues who are working on the application. Beyond that, who knows?