Why Psychology Is Essential to Building Healthy Communities

Children of Immigrants
Poverty & Family Economics
Racial Equity


EDITOR’S NOTE: This blog post is part of a national awareness campaign week focused on healthy communities. Follow online with #HealthyCommunities.

Your house is on fire, and you call 911.  When the firefighters arrive, they turn their hoses on all the houses in your neighborhood.  Does this make sense?  Not really. No fire department would show up to a fire and start dousing all the houses. They would target the house on fire.

That is the crux of the issue when it comes to confronting health disparities and creating health equity. Although the United States offers some of the most advanced health and mental health services in the world, not everyone in the country shares equally in these benefits. Not every house on fire gets the water.

Health disparities are caused by a complex interaction of individual, social, biological, genetic, and environmental risk factors. These factors are influenced by pervasive structural inequities and social determinants of health – and can create a harmful long-term effect on young children. Psychologists around the country are working hard to alleviate these inequities. Health disparities are of critical concern for psychologists. It is why we use our expertise based on the best available science on human behavior to direct needed attention to health inequities and to build healthy communities.

Dr. Jason Purnell, a social psychologist, leads a research project with colleagues that explores factors beyond medical care, such as limited economic and educational opportunities, that negatively affect the health and well-being of African-Americans in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He uses psychological science to understand how poverty, education and race influence health outcomes.

Research shows that psychological and social factors, as well as community design, are important elements that can shape physical activity and combat obesity. Dr. James Sallis, a health psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, uses psychological science to collaborate with urban planners to design communities that encourage more walking and less driving.

Dr. Jennifer Manly, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University, was intrigued when she saw research data showing that elderly African-Americans and Hispanics exhibited higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease than elderly whites. She launched a research project in the neighborhood near Columbia University, where she works, to study how cultural and educational differences might affect the development and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. She is working to reduce disparities in cognitive aging by researching how people’s cultural experiences – especially the quality of their early education – affect their brains as they age.

In addition to the valiant efforts of our members, the American Psychological Association has prioritized confronting health disparities in our programmatic work. As the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, we realize the serious challenge that health disparities pose to our mission of “applying psychology to benefit society and improve people’s lives.”

In 2011, APA approved the support of a health disparities initiative as an activity of its Strategic Plan.  That program has since grown to become the Health Disparities Office whose mission is to increase support for research, training, public education and interventions that improve health and reduce health disparities among underserved and vulnerable populations. We have launched various programs addressing health disparities related to obesity; stress; substance abuse including smoking.  We’ve also focused efforts on reducing trauma, violence, and substance abuse among vulnerable boys and men, as well as addressing implicit bias in early childhood education. We will continue to champion research, interventions, and evidence-based solutions that reduce or eliminate health disparities and help to build healthy communities nationwide.


Dr. Arthur C. Evans, Jr. is Chief Executive Officer of the American Psychological Association. He holds a doctorate in clinical/community psychology from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in experimental psychology from Florida Atlantic University, where he also completed his undergraduate work. Before joining APA in March 2017, Evans was commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Service for 12 years. It is a $1.2 billion health care agency that is the behavioral health and intellectual disabilities safety net for 1.5 million Philadelphians. He realigned the agency’s treatment philosophy, service delivery models and fiscal policies to improve health outcomes and increase the efficiency of the service system. Evans has been recognized nationally and internationally as a health care innovator and effective policymaker. Among his numerous awards, he was named by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy as an Advocate for Action in 2015. You can follow Dr. Evans on Twitter at @ArthurCEvans.