How APA President Dr. Thema Bryant Is Breaking Barriers and Creating Change

Thema Bryant

Photo: Austin Kwomo

So much has happened in the world of mental health in the last few years: We have opened up a discussion around mental health and battled against long-standing stigma surrounding therapy. We have started addressing systemic racism’s impact on the field of psychology, including an official statement of apology from the American Psychological Association (APA) acknowledging the association’s role in oppression.

There is still a long way to go in these conversations and implementing needed change. One of the most notable changemakers in this conversation is Dr. Thema Bryant, psychologist, professor, minister, author, and 2023 President of the APA.

Introducing Dr. Thema Bryant

Dr. Thema took the time to speak with us about the important work that she is doing, and she is very busy!

In addition to her clinical practice, Oasis Wellness Services, and her role with the APA. Dr. Thema is a tenured professor in the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at Pepperdine University. She is an advocate, ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and author.

In her clinical work, Dr. Thema specializes in trauma and recovery. She helps her clients work through individual traumatic experiences as well as the stress of existing in oppressive systems.

Dr. Thema is the author of Homecoming: Overcome Fear and Trauma to Reclaim Your Whole, Authentic Self, which she wrote in an effort to “share psychological knowledge to help people to hope and to heal.” It includes educational information as well as homework prompts for readers to use on their own healing journeys.

The book came out of Dr. Thema’s podcast, Homecoming, which she uses to share accurate and accessible information about mental health. She shared that she uses the concept of “homecoming” as a metaphor for trauma recovery: “When you experience trauma it disconnects you from yourself, so as you heal you reclaim yourself more, your body, your voice, your needs, your feelings, and that’s healing and liberating.”

Initiatives With the American Psychological Association

Dr. Thema has been active with the APA for many years, and she was elected president for 2023. She has actively helped the organization move forward on pre-existing goals and initiated several of her own.

Regarding APA’s apology two years ago, Dr. Thema said, “I think people are looking for follow through.” She shared that the organization has spent the last year researching and developing plans to put the apology in action, and this year, she will spearhead putting that plan into action: “What are the things that actually make impact? Because we could immediately put on a program or a panel, and you could say we had a panel on racism, but did that do anything? So trying to have measurable impact.”

In particular, this year, Dr. Thema is presenting APA’s apology specifically to Indigenous people, which she said is important because “we have not only the overt racism but the erasure.” This summer, she will attend the Society of Indian Psychologists’ annual convention: “As opposed to them coming to us, we’re going to issue the apology, and the apology has the recommendations in there too in terms of the way forward.”

In addition to acknowledging the issues, Dr. Thema is implementing specific plans to improve things and dismantle historically oppressive symptoms.

Within the APA, Dr. Thema has several initiatives, with primary focuses on trauma, grief, and oppression:

  • First, this October, APA is hosting a free public-facing conference at Howard University. The conference is open to anyone and will focus on trauma recovery and supporting survivors. In addition to the conference, Dr. Thema is working to create “culturally-informed trauma recovery kits” including videos and written documents to make mental health knowledge and resources more available and accessible.
  • Through Dr. Thema’s initiatives, American Psychologist Journal is putting out a special issue focused on “decolonizing and liberation psychology” in an effort to dismantle oppressive and racist systems. APA is also putting out a documentary called Representation Matters. For this project, Dr. Thema’s team interviewed 30 psychologists from historically excluded identities about “How they made it, and how they approach leadership.” She hopes that this can show others that they can thrive in the mental health field.
  • Dr. Thema is also conducting a research study to improve a sense of belonging in the organization. She shared, “Whenever you have a large organization, it can be hard for people to feel like they’re a part.” She wants to promote things that help give people a sense of belonging and identify what barriers prevent others from feeling like they belong. She is focused on “individual [and] systemic change, institution change.”
  • Finally, Dr. Thema has initiated a task force to study “the influence of social media on children and youth.” While she is not specifically researching how social media impacts trauma, she recognizes the need for parents and caretakers to have good information about social media and children’s developing brains.

Ministry and Community

Part of improving people’s understanding of mental health and reducing stigma is meeting them where they are within their communities. Through Dr. Thema’s work with First AME, she helps with health ministry. She noted, “As is often the case, health conversations leave out mental health.” With her students at Pepperdine, Dr. Thema offers educational workshops on a variety of mental health topics, including healthy relationships, bereavement, and coping with stress in a healthy way.

In addition to these public-facing workshops, Dr. Thema helps the pastoral staff and greater community respond to people’s mental health concerns and trauma disclosures in a healthy and affirming way. She said, “A big part that affects people’s recovery process is the response they get to their disclosures.” She also strives to create an environment where people can receive holistic support rather than a “false choice of are you going to be spiritual or are you going to focus on your health?” Both are important!

Public Education, Awareness, and Stigma

Dr. Thema’s community and educational initiatives around mental health expand beyond her role as a pastor. She shares this knowledge on her podcast and to her hundreds of thousands of social media followers. Her goal is to share accurate and helpful information about mental health

I would say a big thing that we’re battling is misinformation and disinformation. Not only politically, but I would also say psychologically. There’s a benefit to more people knowing about psychology, but also people take a little bit of knowledge and then are posting things that aren’t true.

While Dr. Thema wants people to feel empowered to learn more about psychology and share their knowledge, she wants to ensure that those seeking this information can find accurate and credible sources. Because of this, she is encouraging mental health providers to be active on social media, whether they post under their true identity or as an anonymous account focused on sharing mental health information. 

When interacting in the online space, Dr. Thema encourages strong, clear boundaries. Second, she said, a therapist should never make negative posts about their clients: “It’s not only harmful to the individual client, but it makes people mistrust the profession.” Third, she chooses to be careful about her disclosure. She said, “I personally don’t treat social media like a diary. I know some people will say that’s freedom or liberation, but there’s cost to that. Just be thoughtful as it relates to your personal life, how much you want to share.”

Dr. Thema’s impact is global. She has spoken about trauma-informed care and mental health in the Middle East and will speak in Auckland later this year. She is also a mentor with the Global Psychology Alliance.

The State of Mental Health

Regarding the state of mental health in 2023, Dr. Thema said, “I would say there’s still crisis! Suicidality, depression, panic attacks, addiction, are all symptoms of the distress and the collective trauma we had during the pandemic." She noted the trauma of not only losing loved ones, but in many cases not receiving any kind of closure due to COVID safety precautions.

"And then of course we had all the racial trauma and hate crimes," she said. "And for young people, one of the things I talk about is not only visible losses like when you lost a loved one, but the invisible losses—for many people the loss of time.” 

Even with these challenges, Dr. Thema is hopeful about the future. She shared: “My hope is for liberation, flourishing, thriving. So when I was running [for APA president] my theme was let’s thrive, and for me, it’s important to help people deal with their distress, but I feel like that should not be the end of our work.”

Yes I want people to be able to cope and heal, but ultimately, and this may be the part of me that’s a minister, is the desire for people to live in purpose, to live with a sense of love and belonging and connection and community.

For herself, Dr. Thema is part of a “sister circle” of women who support each other and thrive together. Additionally, she makes time for dance, walking, yoga, and other forms of movement.

On a final note, Dr. Thema shared a quote from Dr. Jaiya John, author and poet: “When you see someone with good light, thank them. It will help them keep the lights on.” Affirmation and gratitude “encourages you to keep going.”

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.