Becoming an Ethics Expert: Mary Harb Sheets, PhD
In December 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown appointed Mary Harb Sheets, PhD, a licensed psychologist working in independent practice, to the California Board of Psychology (BOP). She is slated to serve on the board until June 1, 2020. A member of the National Register of Health Service Psychologists, she is also a Fellow and Past President of the San Diego Psychological Association (SDPA). In addition, she has chaired the SDPA Ethics Committee and the California Psychological Association Ethics Committee and has written and presented regularly on ethical issues in psychology. She has also conducted critical incident debriefing with organizations in crisis and offered organizational development consultation services to businesses. In the area of behavioral health, Dr. Harb Sheets addresses living with chronic health conditions specializing in the area of living with the threat of sudden cardiac death.
I (DK) had an opportunity to connect with Dr. Harb Sheets (MHS), an alumna from the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) San Diego Clinical Psychology PhD program, about her career and what led her to an expertise in ethics and her appointment to the BOP.
DK: Can you please provide some background information about yourself?
MHS: I am a native San Diegan. I received my undergraduate degree in Psychology with a minor in Health Science at San Diego State University (SDSU). After my undergraduate education, I had hoped to start work on a PhD in Clinical Psychology. However, financial considerations made that not feasible at the time. I took a detour into banking and worked in Human Resources, managed the Management Training Program, and finally worked in Product Marketing and Development where I became the manager. The experiences I had during those seven years have helped me tremendously both in my clinical work and my work with Workplace Guardian Inc. (WGI) (see below), providing a deeper understanding of what demands, expectations, and benefits are part of working in the corporate world.
I attended CSPP from 1986-1991. My focus during graduate school was behavioral medicine and during my post-doctoral work at SDSU, my focus was on cross-cultural considerations in assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. Those continue to be my two areas of special interest in my practice today. I work in independent practice and as an independent contractor for WGI, a company which focuses on workplace violence prevention. My role is working with organizational issues and executive coaching.
In the past, I taught the Advanced Law and Ethics course with Dr. Bucky at CSPP-San Diego.
DK: What made you choose the field of clinical psychology?
MHS: I first became interested in understanding human behavior in elementary school. Once when looking through a booklet put together describing career aspirations of my sixth-grade class, I found I had listed that I wanted to become a psychologist. When I was able to begin work on my PhD, I wondered if I might take the Industrial-Organizational Psychology route, but my interest in clinical psychology prevailed.
DK: How did your career path lead you to become an expert in psychological ethics?
MHS: I have always had a general interest in ethics. However, being asked to join the SDPA Ethics Committee in 2006 led me to develop that interest more specifically. I ultimately chaired that committee and, after my year as SDPA President in 2010, I was accepted as a member of the CPA Ethics Committee. I later served as the chair of that committee for three years prior to being appointed to the Board of Psychology in December 2018 which necessitated my resignation from the CPA Ethics Committee. During each of those ethics committee experiences, I had opportunities to present and write about psychology ethics and my interest deepened with each new direction and focus within the field of ethics. I have found there are always new areas to learn about and/or to broaden my understanding about. In short, I find the field fascinating and a continual source of professional growth.
DK: Please tell me about the function of the Board of Psychology in California.
MHS: The mission statement of the Board of Psychology describes well what specifically the Board actually does: “Protects consumers of psychological services by licensing psychologists, regulating the practice of psychology, and supporting the evolution of the profession.”
My experience has been to observe Board staff and Board members work diligently to carry out the Board’s mission. As psychologists, we have to remember that the Board’s primary function is to protect consumers and our professional organizations such as CPA serve to protect the profession of psychology through advocacy activities.
DK: What is your role as a board member?
MHS: My role is to participate in the Board’s activities in carrying out their mission statement. If anyone wants a more direct understanding of what that means, I encourage people to attend one of the Board’s quarterly meetings. They are open to the public and provide an opportunity to see the Board function. Additionally, Board meetings are webcast so easily accessible from your computer or digital device. Time for public comment is provided. The Fall meeting is held in San Diego, and this year will be October 3 and 4, 2019.
DK: In reflecting back on your career, what do you believe is important in being a psychologist?
MHS: I have found psychology provides varied opportunities to be of service to others and, for me, that has been an essential part of my life as a psychologist. Examples of service ideas for psychologists include participating in disaster response activities, formally or informally mentoring psychologists early in their careers and graduate students during their training, and providing articles and talks to the public on psychological topics. I think many of us think of providing service, being “helpers,” in what we do for consumers; yet, another important part of being a psychologist is serving our colleagues and our profession. There are numerous ways we can be enriched through those activities such as staying current on topics in our field, through professionally meaningful collegial activities, and developing relationships with other colleagues. These activities also serve to help us avoid isolation in our careers. As professional psychology expands into other arenas such as primary care settings, I expect we will see an increasing and more diverse array of ways we can “help.”
DK: For those who are considering a career in psychology and behavioral health, what advice would you give them?
MHS: Stay connected in the field! Be involved in the field overall as well as in area(s) you are particularly interested in. Be attentive to how our profession is constantly changing and do your best to make appropriate adjustments in how you do your work. When I started graduate school, managed care and insurance panels were unknown to us. When I graduated about five years later, they were a reality and our profession had to make significant changes in how we do business. That doesn’t mean that we always uncritically accept changes and “do it their way.” Be a voice that stands up for our profession and the best welfare for our clients.
DK: Describe one of the most impactful/significant events in your career.
MHS: I was doing some post-graduate training involving seminars and supervision. During one supervision session, I described an event in the previous week’s session with a client. The client had described making a discovery about his partner that left him fearful of losing the relationship and devastated about the truth he learned. He began describing walking near some cliffs and contemplating stepping off with the hope he would not live to continue feeling his pain. I was pretty newly licensed and immediately thought about the importance of assessing for suicidal ideation and/or plans which I then engaged in. After listening carefully to my presentation, the supervisor said to me, “You did the exact WRONG thing.” He then explained to me how this client was sharing deep pain with me and I made the decision to “take care of myself” i.e., fulfill what I saw as my legal obligation (“take reasonable steps to protect” clients if they are in danger of hurting themselves) instead of attending to the client’s needs. In doing so, I probably (unintentionally) hurt the client by giving the message that “I am more here for me (legal protection) than I am for you.” I have always wondered about how that client experienced my response and how it may have affected our therapeutic connection as we continued to work together. I have regretted that I didn’t even process it during our subsequent session(s).
DK: Is there anything else that might be of interest to those interested in psychology, mental health services, or information to the public?
MHS: Whichever direction or focus we choose for our career in psychology, there are always opportunities to learn and grow. Sometimes, there can be so many interesting and intriguing options that we find ourselves on the flip side—taking on too much and moving toward or finding ourselves in a burnout mode. Be thankful for so many choices and, at the same time, be vigilant about taking care of ourselves which, by the way, is one of our ethical responsibilities.
Dr. Mary Harb Sheets is one of our distinguished alumni and we are very proud of her service to the public and to psychology. She is part of the legacy of CSPP alumni whose work is significant and far-reaching and illustrates how someone can make a difference by following one’s passion. This is Dr. Harb Sheets’ impact.
This Guest Author Blog was written by Associate Dean of Academic Affairs & Distinguished Professor at CSPP, Dr. Debra Kawahara.