Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Behind the scenes of the APHA Annual Meeting program, part 2: ‘Where the story behind the research can come through’

Margaret Walkover isn’t shy about setting a high bar. As a first-time program chair with APHA’s Mental Health Section, she had no intention of leaving things to chance.

“I’m a researcher, but my background is in public policy, so that’s just the way I think,” said Walkover, who in addition to joining the ranks of APHA’s volunteer program planners is also the director of Wellness, Recovery and Resiliency Initiatives with Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services in California. “Why should we be passive about engaging public health students and professors? We want the best research in our programs, so why not ask for it.”

Walkover is talking about her Section’s call for abstracts, which is how APHA’s many member groups attract submissions for review and presentation at the APHA Annual Meeting and Exposition. Each Section, Special Primary Interest Group, Caucus, Forum and the Student Assembly crafts its own call for abstracts and engages in a variety of outreach activities. Walkover wanted her call for abstracts to reach those on the cutting edge of behavioral health services research — “we’re looking for findings that really make a difference in the field,” she said. So in a first for the Mental Health Section, Walkover reached out to the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health and through that collaboration sent the Section’s call for abstracts to every behavioral health science liaison and department chair in the country.

“I believe in public behavioral health services,” Walkover said. “I believe we deliver services that really help people move through their lives and it’s so exciting to put together a program where the story behind the research can come through.”

As this year’s Annual Meeting will gather in New Orleans, Walkover also made a special effort to reach out to public health folks working in Gulf Coast states. (And since this year’s theme is “Healthography: How Where You Live Affects Your Health and Well-Being,” reaching out to local practitioners and researchers really brings this theme to life.) For example, Walkover said the Section received a number of submissions related to the health effects of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In all, the Mental Health Section received 323 submissions…and Walkover, with the help of 75 volunteer reviewers from the Mental Health Section, rated and reviewed every one of them. Reviewers use an APHA-provided scoring system to help decide which abstracts get officially accepted. For Walkover’s Section, 156 abstracts were accepted and placed into 19 oral scientific sessions and eight poster sessions. APHA encourages Sections to collaborate, and so the Mental Health Section is excited to co-sponsor three additional oral sessions with the Medical Care, Maternal and Child Health, and Public Health Education and Health Promotion Sections.

That’s one of the big challenges of being a volunteer APHA program planner — organizing hundreds of abstracts into a relatively small set of scientific sessions so that each session has a common narrative and adds to a central message. It’s no easy task. For example, one of the Mental Health Section’s Annual Meeting sessions will focus on mental health and young adults. The session’s researchers hail from different parts of the country — Michigan, New York, Maryland and Illinois — and their research focuses on different topics, but thanks to Walkover and her fellow Section volunteers, each adds a chapter to the larger story of youth mental health. (This particular session, #4154, will offer research on campus-based mental health services, working with youth in juvenile drug treatment courts, the role of workforce development programs in addressing mental health among youth in urban areas, and school shootings and mental illness. The session is appropriately titled “Prevalence and Causes of Mental Illness Experienced by Young Adults: On Campus and in the Community.”)

If you read the first part of this behind-the-scenes series, you’d know that the bulk of the Annual Meeting program planning is done in just half a year — it starts at the close of an Annual Meeting, which is typically in October or November, and abstracts are officially accepted on June 1. As Walkover said: “It’s a lot of work.” But she also said it’s well worth all the time and effort.

“It’s just a delight to be able to do this for my field,” she said. “I’ve always had a strong belief that it’s important that research is brought to policymakers and people in the field who are actually doing the work and that’s the opportunity APHA gives us. For people who love going deep, they’ll definitely be drawn to program planning.”

Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes experiences from APHA program planners in the coming weeks! And visit the APHA online program to see what the Mental Health Section and other APHA member groups have in store for New Orleans.

— K.K.

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