The federal holiday honoring King is annually held on the third Monday in January.

The executive body of a prominent nationwide healthcare organization has issued a formal apology for what it described as a history of racism, the announcement coinciding with the federal holiday honoring the life and work of civil-rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) Board of Trustees made the announcement on Monday, citing a historical track record of “enabling discriminatory and prejudicial actions within APA, and racist practices in psychiatric treatment for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).”  The apology was addressed to APA members, patients, their families, and the public, and was accompanied by a document outlining specific practices and policies it said were at fault, dating “to the time of the founding of the APA” in 1844.  

“The Board is issuing this document on Martin Luther King Jr. Day because we hope that it honors his life’s work of reconciliation and equality,” APA President Jeffrey Geller, M.D., M.P.H., said in a statement accompanying a press release. “We do not take that legacy or his call to action lightly.”

In the statement, APA’s trustees acknowledged that early psychiatric practices laid the groundwork for “inequities in clinical treatment that have historically limited access to quality psychiatric care for BIPOC.”

“These actions sadly connect with larger social issues, such as race-based discrimination and racial injustice, that have furthered poverty along with other adverse outcomes,” the statement read. “Since APA’s inception, practitioners have at times subjected persons of African descent and Indigenous people who suffered from mental illness to abusive treatment, experimentation, (and) victimization in the name of ‘scientific evidence,’ along with racialized theories that attempted to confirm their deficit status. Similar race-based discrepancies in care also exist in medical practice today, as evidenced by the variations in schizophrenia diagnosis between white and BIPOC patients, for instance.”

“Unfortunately, APA has historically remained silent on these issues,” the statement continued. “As the leading American organization in psychiatric care, APA recognizes that this inaction has contributed to perpetuation of structural racism that has adversely impacted not just its own BIPOC members, but also psychiatric patients across America. We hope this apology will be a turning point as we strive to make the future of psychiatry more equitable for all.”

The apology is part of an initiative spearheaded by Geller soon after he became APA President last April, with a goal of addressing structural racism in psychiatry – and ultimately eradicating it. The initiative involved, among other actions, forming a task force with stated goals to provide education and resources on APA’s and psychiatry’s history regarding structural racism; to explain the current impact of structural racism on the mental health of patients and colleagues; to develop achievable recommendations for change to eliminate structural racism in APA and psychiatry, now and in the future; and to provide reports with specific recommendations for achievable actions to the APA Board of Trustees at each of its meetings through May.

“Many will argue this apology should have come sooner,” Geller said. “That said, the events of 2020 – the killings of Black people by police, the health inequities laid bare by the pandemic – were an eye-opener for many among our membership, and a clarion call that it was past time to take action.”

The APA boasts a membership of nearly 39,000 professionals nationwide; its four-pronged mission statement proclaims goals of promoting the highest-quality care for individuals with mental illness, including substance use disorders, and their families; promoting psychiatric education and research; advancing and representing the profession of psychiatry; and serving the professional needs of its membership.

First observed in 1986, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is held annually on the third Monday of January, roughly coinciding with Dr. King’s birthday of Jan. 15. It is one of only three federal holidays honoring individual people (George Washington and Christopher Columbus are the two others), and one of only two national days of service designated by the federal government to promote volunteer citizen action to benefit others (the September 11 National Day of Service is the other).

Born in Atlanta in 1929, King rose to national prominence as the face of the national civil rights movement, which culminated with the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize that same year, reflecting his commitment to the tenets of nonviolence and civil disobedience, he continued to advocate for progressive causes and labor rights until his assassination in 1968. 

The APA also announced Monday that it will be holding a town hall, titled “Structural Racism & Psychiatric Residency Training: Recruitment, Retention, and Development,” scheduled for Monday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. EST. Panelists will address the “disproportionate number of minority psychiatrists, their experiences in different practice settings, and why having diversity in the psychiatric workforce psychiatry is important for everyone.”

To read the APA’s statement in its entirety, go online to https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/apa-apology-for-its-support-of-structural-racism-in-psychiatry.