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Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint: One of the finest psychiatrists in America

22 Oct 2008

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Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, MD, a leading psychiatrist, grew up in East Harlem, New York. His ancestors were from Guadeloupe and New York City. Dr. Poussaint is a veteran of the civil rights movement, serving as Southern Field Director of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s. He is the former chair of the board of directors of PUSH[1] for Excellence. Later, he served as one of Rev. Jesse Jackson''s advisers in the 1984 presidential campaign. 


[1] Operation PUSH is an organization founded by the Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1971

He is currently a professor of psychiatry at Judge Baker Children''s Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston. In addition to co-authoring Come On People, Dr. Poussaint is co-author of Raising Black Children and Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling the Mental Health Crisis Among African Americans. Dr.  Poussaint collaborated on several of Bill Cosby’s bestselling books.  Dr. Poussaint’s books should be translated into other languages (French, Spanish, Creole, etc).   

He closely collaborated with Dr. Bill Cosby EdD (as a script and production consultant) on The Cosby Show.  This sitcom was the most-watched television program in America from its debut in 1984 until the end in 1992.  Dr. Poussaint was also a consultant for A Different World  

He has appeared on numerous channels such as CNN. He is known for his numerous contributions to Ebony magazine.  He has been a frequent guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show.  Through his books and his influence in the media, the legendary psychiatrist Dr. Poussaint gave us a legacy and we are looking forward to his next contributions. 

By the freelance reporter and legist Patricia Turnier, LL.M (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).   This article has been translated in French by the same author and published in this language.   

Patricia Turnier, LL.M. talks to Dr. Alvin Poussaint, M.D.:

P.T.:  Can you share with us your medical professional journey?  How did you overcome the obstacles as an African-American to become a doctor during segregation era in the US and to teach later in one the top university of the world?   

Dr. A.P.:  I discovered my passion for this field when I was about 9 years old. At the time I became ill.  I had a rheumatic fever and was hospitalized for about three months.  I then spent two months in a convalescent home.  I admired the doctors who saved my life.  This really influenced me later academically.  So when I got back home, it became a fantasy of mine to be a doctor.  I knew that I had to excel at school until college.    

When I was in college, there were very few African American doctors. Most of them attended Southern medical schools, such as  Meharry Medical College  in Tennessee and   Howard Medical School in Washington, D.C.  I wanted to study in the North where there was no segregation. I stood a chance to succeed with a good record as an African American male.  I received my BA from Columbia College in 1956. 

After, I enrolled in the medical school of Cornell University in New York City.  I chose Cornell because I was born there.  Symbolically, I wanted to return there where my mom gave birth to me.  I received an M.D. from Cornell in 1960.  I completed my residency at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and in 1964 I received a  Master’s of Science degree in this same institution.   

From 1967 to 1969, I taught at Tufts Medical School faculty.  I served there also as director of the psychiatry program in a low-income housing project.  All these professional and clinical experiences helped prepare me for my duties at Harvard Medical School.  So, in 1969 I joined this institution.  I served from 1975 to 1978 as director of student affairs and I was an associate professor in the psychiatry department at Harvard.  Now I am a Professor of Psychiatry and Faculty Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Harvard Medical School.  

I knew discrimination existed. To overcome the obstacles, I said to myself that I would work as much as I could. The best deterrent for discrimination is excellence.  I had to do everything to make sure it would be difficult to refuse my admission with an excellent record.    

P.T.:  How important has activism been for you throughout your life? 

Dr. A.P.:  Activism has been a big important part of my life for a long time. As a teenager, I started to fight for justice.  In college I was involved in the civil rights movement during my studies in medicine.  I was part of the NAACP College Chapter.  In fact, I believe that activism was always part of me. 

When I finished my training in psychiatry, I was employed from 1965 to 1967 by the Medical Committee for Human Rights. There I provided medical care to civil rights workers and helped desegregate Southern health facilities. When I studied at UCLA, the activists and I wanted changes.  Later I was engaged in Operation PUSH. Throughout my life, I also used writing to criticize and challenge the status quo.   

P.T.:  In your latest book Come On People you expose with co-author Bill Cosby your assessment and your collective vision for Black America.  You explain how in the past the African American people were able to overcome mistreatment and other difficulties thanks to their resilience. It is said that young black people are not aware enough of the victories of their ancestors and that might have an impact on the negative image they can have of themselves. 

For example, very few people in the American society know that the first woman law professor of a chartered school in the US and also in the world was the African American Lutie A. Lytle, in 1897.  Do we need a more inclusive education system? What solutions do you see to make young African American people feel that they can accomplish anything?  

Dr. A.P.:  We definitely need a more inclusive education system and American history has to be corrected.  {quotes}Black stories have not been entirely told.  And it should start at preschool.{/quotes}  It is important also to include in American history, the pre-Columbian period regarding the Natives, the contribution of the Latinos, etc.  It is also the responsibility of the parents to start the education in the home. 

They should teach their kids black histories, their accomplishments, etc.  This will give them a stronger sense of self-worth and will strengthen their self-image.  The whole of mainstream society should also read those books because it is part of American history and it will develop linkages between the different communities.  By improving the lives of every minority groups, this country can become as powerful as it really can be. 

P.T.:  What sort of bridges can be created between the black intelligentsia and the African-American youth to transmit their knowledge about their history, their professional experiences and how they overcame the odds?  

Dr. A.P.:  There are a number of approaches which can be used. For example, the media can invite African American from many fields (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc). The media should also call on Natives, Latin-American professionals and so on. This would give opportunities for the kids to relate to them. I think it is also important that the black intelligentsia be involved in schools where they can visit and talk to the kids.  They can be life coaches to the youth. The black elite can expose the children to art, literature, travels, etc.  Mentorship, tutorship, Big Brothers Big Sisters programs represent other useful tools for the youth. There are already a lot of things going on but it is not enough.    

Local businesses, work offices, summer camps, medical clinics, law firms, carpenters or people from any fields should hire young people from the African American community. This would give them the exposure and experience they need. These learning experiences would help them realize the importance of work ethics, etc.  The youth definitely need these opportunities to grow on a personal and a professional level. This is how the black intelligentsia can pave the way for the current and the next generation. The African American elite must pass on their knowledge, experiences and information to the younger generation. This will encourage the youth to keep working to achieve their goals.

P.T.:  The American Psychiatric Association has never officially recognized extreme racism (as opposed to “ordinary” prejudice) as a mental health problem, although the issue was raised more than 30 years ago.  After several racist killings in the civil rights era, a group of black psychiatrists sought to have extreme bigotry classified as a mental disorder. The association''s officials rejected the recommendation, arguing that because so many Americans were racists (at the time), even extreme racism in this country was seen as normative—a cultural problem rather than an indication of psychopathology (until the 1960’s). 

In 2002, you wrote an article called: “Is extreme racism a mental illness?” for the Western Journal of Medicine.  What is your position about this issue?  Do you think that social ills like racism or any other bigotry such as anti-Semitism should be included in the D.S.M. IV?  Do you think that clinicians need guidelines for recognizing delusional racism in all its forms so that they can provide appropriate treatment?

Dr A.P.:  Right now the DSM IV does not include an index on racism, anti-Semitism, prejudice or on any other social ills.  This situation gives no tools to the clinicians to classify them or to allow them to give a diagnosis on the manifestations.  For example, for an individual who has paranoia symptoms about Blacks and Jews with deadly ideas the DSM IV offers no descriptive terms to classify this condition as a disease. 

The clinicians need guidelines for recognizing extreme delusional racism, anti-Semitism or other forms of bigotry.  This would raise consciousness in the psychiatric profession and in the general public.  These conditions are not normative and those people need mental health care.

P.T.:  As a psychiatrist and as a media advisor what do you think about the negative images regarding misogyny, verbal or physical violence that we see in some videos or movies?  It is seldom in videos that we see people in a working environment.  We often view people partying all the time in the clips.  What impact these factors can have on the youth psyche?  How can we improve this situation? 

Dr. A.P.:  My concern is about gangsta rap. I can say that I have no problem with regular hip hop. This beautiful artistic musical form originates from poetry, blues, jazz, funk, soul, etc.  But gangsta rap glorifies misogyny, violence, casual sex or promiscuity, usage of vulgar or derogatory language such as b* and h*. When the youth watches violence, they can become more vulnerable and they can be tempted to imitate what they see. 

I definitely don’t approve of too much violence or any musical forms that worship aggressiveness particularly among vulnerable and easily influenced young black males because it can create more problems.  It is hurtful in particular toward black women. You can do hip hop and it can be positive. Unfortunately gangsta rap is destructive and it sells. If children behave poorly it is a reflection of adults.  It is imperative that they hear good messages or watch positive images in the media.

P.T.:  I could add that a lot of young kids don’t know what they really glorify.  They are not aware that baggy pants come from prison where it is forbidden to have belts.  They are imitating others without knowing the root of this trend. 

P.T.:  The media often portrays the African American community as a monolithic group where three areas of success are presented as options to the youth:  becoming an athlete, a rapper or a singer without giving nuances or explaining the difficulties which might occur (abusive record contracts, problems with royalties, etc).  As a psychiatrist and as a media advisor, what solutions do you see to change this situation? 

Dr. A.P.:  We need more variety in the media. We have to see more diversity in hip hop and more images of African American people in any field of life.  We already see other kind of images in some programs.  For example, on CNN there are more African American reporters. We can view Black news sportscasters on different channels commenting on football and baseball.  This provides more options to young African Americans.  In cop shows there are some characters with significant roles or more lawyers.  But we could see more of them:  scientists, mathematicians, actors portraying black professors, etc.  We definitely need to encourage that. 

P.T.:  Do you have a message for young people about how to succeed in general and advice to give to those who are interested in the medical profession?   

Dr. A.P.: The message that I want to give is addressed to young people but also to the parents.  To succeed it is important to teach the value of education.  The parents need to demonstrate an interest in their kids by reading to them, by encouraging them, by building libraries for their children and by taking advantage of the schools for expanding their knowledge.  Parents have to reach out more often to schools, tutors and mentors. It is important also for parents to use positive reinforcement with their children.  More specifically concerning the medical field, one of the ways to make your mark is to conduct medical research, write and publish specialized articles that can be highlighted in your resume.  

P.T:  Dr. Poussaint, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your rich store of experience.  It was an honor to interview you.

 

Books by Dr. Poussaint:   

Why Blacks kill Blacks (1972), (introduction by Rev.  Jesse Jackson) Emerson Hall Publishers, Inc.; 1st edition  

Raising Black Children, (originally titled Black Child Care (1975)) co-author with James P. Come, Plume: New York, 1992 

Lay My Burden Down: Suicide and the mental health crisis among African-Americans, by Alvin F. Poussaint, MD and Amy Alexander, Beacon: Boston, 2000.

 Come On, People: On the path from victims to victors, by Bill Cosby and Alvin F. Poussaint, MD, Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2007.

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