Amy Davis, PsyD, BS (’05), fell in love with a mind-body-spirit approach to psychology as an undergraduate in Bastyr University’s health psychology program. After counseling in schools, earning a doctorate in clinical psychology, and coauthoring a textbook, she returned as a core faculty member in the Department of Counseling and Health Psychology. Dr. Davis helps lead the new Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology program, coordinates counseling practicums, and supervises counseling shifts at the University’s Seattle teaching clinic.
She spoke to us about the questions that led her to psychology and her research into global differences in counseling ethics.
You’ve experienced Bastyr’s health psychology program as both a student and a professor now — tell us about your time here as an undergraduate.
The academics were rigorous and prepared me for graduate school, but I would say that personal and spiritual growth were just as important. It wasn’t just a focus on what we are learning, but on “who is this person doing the learning?” My relationship to my own health shifted. I went from eating a standard American diet and not exercising much to eating organic and vegetarian, things I've mostly kept up. I also learned to practice more self-compassion.
To really embrace learning at Bastyr, you find yourself opening and changing. None of us is the same person we were before coming here, and not just in a cognitive way. You cannot remain separate from mind-body-spirit wisdom and healing once you’ve investigated it as deeply as we do here.
How did you first discover your interest in psychology?
Like many of us drawn to this complex and multifaceted field, I’m fascinated by the differences and similarities in people. Why do we do what we do? Why do siblings, who come from the same home environment, sometimes turn out so differently? Why do some people respond to adversity more easily than others?
Because of my own background, I was interested in how mental illness and substance abuse affect families. What are the lingering challenges for those of us raised in families that struggle in this way? How do these experiences shape and help determine who we might become as adults?
How did that interest lead you to Bastyr's health psychology program?
I was working in human resources recruiting and training in the corporate world. As much as I enjoyed my role, I missed having deeper interactions with people.
For years I had also studied tai chi and healing traditions. When a friend told me about Bastyr and I saw that it taught all of these things, I knew I had to visit. My first visit to the campus felt like a homecoming of sorts. I remember thinking, “This is the place I’m supposed to be.”
In a Q-and-A on our website three years ago, you mentioned wanting to find a balance between teaching, research and practicing. Is that still your goal? And how is it going?
I am doing that, and it feels like the best of all of those worlds. I’ve been teaching for more than three years, and now as a core faculty I’m teaching courses I love, including ethics. I am licensed as a psychologist and have just opened a private practice. And I’m thinking about ideas for my next book. So I’m finding that blend. And I get to be involved in program creation for the master’s in counseling psychology. That’s such a rare opportunity, and it’s all very creative and new.
You recently coauthored the textbook Ethics for Psychologists, which compares the American Psychological Association (APA) code of ethics with codes from other countries. What did you learn about how counseling is practiced differently in other countries?
The American code of ethics has been greatly informed by our legal code. Some pieces of the code seem to be more about protecting the psychologist and adhering to laws and regulations that may or may not be the most ethical toward clients.
One example came up when the Abu Ghraib atrocities in Iraq were released to the public. The question for military psychologists was whether it’s ethical, legal and moral to use their training in psychological operations considered harmful by the Geneva Convention and the Nuremberg Code. The APA released a statement saying, essentially, if the code of ethics conflicts with a law or government organization, to follow the laws of government. By contrast, the code of ethics in Spain says unequivocally that no psychologist should ever use their skills to harm or torture anyone, for any reason. Regardless of whether they’re at war.
Another example of global differences is the code of ethics for psychologists in New Zealand, which includes significant amounts of information integrating cultural beliefs of the indigenous Maori people. The American code does not.
The significant piece of learning for me, being native to the United States, is that our code of ethics is a time capsule specific to our country. We can’t mistake it for something that can be applied globally. That may seem obvious, but it’s hard to see outside of your own culture until you take a step out of it. The first author of Ethics for Psychologists is from China, so it’s easier for her to remember that not every country does things the same way. As we move into a more global world for psychology, that’s really important.
You’ve described yourself as a feminist psychologist and an existential psychologist. What do you mean by those terms?
Feminist psychology seeks to balance out the power differential between the psychologist and the client. It’s trying to move to a more equal relationship and it’s trying to help the clients be empowered and learn to empower themselves.
Rather than telling a client, “I’m the expert on your experience and I’m going to tell you what’s wrong with you and how to fix it,” a feminist psychologist can say, “You’re the expert on your life. It’s your narrative and your story.”
Existential psychology addresses how we find and create meaning in our lives. We no longer necessarily have meaning handed to us as we did hundreds of years ago through a church or a guild system. We're often out there creating our own meaning. Existential psychology is very closely related to health psychology because it is holistic — I'm looking at somebody's mind connected to their physical body, their environment, their food, medication and home. It's also very rooted in spirituality.
If, for example, you see a therapist about panic attacks, an existentialist wouldn't just want to make it stop, but would help you look underneath the panic attacks to see what's driving them and why they may be necessary right now. They're a symptom of something else.
I think feminism and existentialism are both really being present with the client and being open and transparent about who I am and what I’m doing. Rather than being mysterious and hiding behind a counseling protocol and not telling the client how it works.
Finally, since you’re involved in launching the master’s in counseling psychology program, what’s one thing that’s been surprising about the first year?
When we got the first few students together and we all began the journey, we knew that they would be up to the tasks academically.
But what’s surprised me is how they’ve gelled together as a community. They’re not just a group of students in a program together. They are intimately connected, they care about each other, they look out for each other, they help each other grow, and they have gone through difficult moments together.
They created a pretty ferociously well-connected community for themselves that went beyond some of our wildest dreams. It’s been fun to be a part of that.