20 Dec 2016

Michael Hendricks Uses Research to Advocate for LGBT Community

Michael Hendricks Uses Research to Advocate for LGBT Community
APA Fellow Michael Hendricks has done pioneering work with transgender people, and as a gay psychologist, he's also fought some tough battles within the profession.

Washington, DC, psychologist Michael Hendricks, PhD, has worked for decades to move our society to extend a more dignified and healthy life to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, and has advocated for the LGBT community both within and outside of the APA.

A clinician, researcher, Fellow of the American Psychological Association and a gay man himself, Hendricks has been involved his whole career in developing and improving models of care, especially for LGBT people. He came into the profession during the HIV-AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, and has never lost his sense of urgency about the need to create a rigorous scientific basis for addressing LGBT issues.

"One of the great things that distinguishes psychology is its ability to do solid research and then stand on that research to advocate for something that needs to change," he says.      

Most recently, Hendricks has been involved in pioneering studies of the experiences and health care needs of transgender individuals, whose gender identity and expressions do not conform to the sex they were assigned at birth. Hendricks was a member of the APA Task Force that developed the Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People, passed by the APA Council in August 2015.

Hendricks is also a suicidologist, an expert in what he calls “the sentinel event of mental health. Keeping people alive is the most important thing we do.” In his private practice, he combines clinical and forensic work. His psychotherapy clients tend to be LGBT individuals and couples; individuals with moderate to severe depression, anxiety or mood disorders; or individuals who have considered or attempted suicide. In his forensic work, he serves as a clinical evaluator or, less often, as a "content expert" in suicide, psychopharmacology or other issues.

He worked on the 2005–2006 Virginia Transgender Health Information Study (THIS), which revealed, among other findings, that transgender individuals had higher rates of suicide ideation and attempts than any other population examined to that point. Hendricks contributed a key timeline methodology that helped establish those results. For him, especially given his expertise in suicidology, the new understanding of the vulnerability of transgender individuals was a call to action. He set to work disseminating the study's results, and also creating tools for therapists working with transgender clients, "charting a course through the therapeutic process that would foster resilience to stress."

In 2012, Hendricks teamed with Rylan Testa, PhD, a research affiliate at the Center for LGBT Evidence-based Research (CLEAR) at Palo Alto University, Palo Alto, Calif., to adapt Ilan Meyer’s LGB Minority Stress Model for a transgender population. This new "conceptual framework" was designed to help clinicians understand the impact of a lifetime of discrimination, isolation and often violence on transgender individuals, so they can assist their clients in developing strategies to deal with those stressors. In 2015, Hendricks was awarded the APA Presidential Citation.        

For Hendricks, working with the LGBT community comes naturally. Growing up gay in a small town in conservative western Michigan was “a stealth existence,” a life informed not even by real shame but by “quasi-shame,” the understanding that many of the people living around him would never understand or accept him for who he really was. Now Hendricks is “very out,” he says, and is a past president of Division 44, the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues. Presently, he represents Division 44 on the APA Council.

Hendricks was a premed student at Michigan State University in East Lansing when he took his first psychology class. He loved it so much he abandoned the study of medicine and started pursuing a degree in social psychology.

"I enjoyed focusing on how people behave in groups, on questions like, when do people decide to help other people?" he says. But social scientists mostly worked in academia, and that didn't feel right to Hendricks, so he went instead in to American University's graduate program, training to be a clinician in the Boulder Model — "heavy on the science."

Hendricks' career was touched early by the HIV-AIDS crisis. Until effective treatments emerged, the deadly viral disease decimated communities of gay men and created an emotional havoc of grief and fear. Both his master's thesis and doctoral dissertation dealt with HIV.

"In my age cohort, a huge number of psychologists were doing research on HIV, all across the country," he says, and many LGBT psychologists became openly active in the APA, often first in Division 44.

"We all realized we had something to contribute. We were very much invested in getting our research out there. If we wanted to change what psychology said about LGBT people, we had to be in the governing body," Hendricks says.

He was also a founding and longtime member of the Virginia HIV Community Planning Committee (VHCPC), which oversaw expenditures of federal funds for HIV prevention. VHCPC committed 5 percent of its budget to research on groups most affected by HIV, and to assess what prevention strategies might work best with specific populations. That led to the Virginia THIS study, which Hendricks participated in as then-chair of the VHCPC Research Subcommittee.

The emancipation of LGBT people arguably began in 1957, when Evelyn Hooker PhD, a Los Angeles, Calif., psychologist, published "The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual," a science-based study of gay men, in the Journal of Projective Techniques. At the time, gay men were considered mentally ill; gay sex was against the law and could lead to prison sentences and horrific medical interventions geared toward "curing" homosexuality. Hooker's work helped depathologize the movement, and showed that science could fight the misinformation that had been used to justify discrimination against gays, Hendricks says.

The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973; in 1975, the APA did the same. Science had opened the door. In 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the remaining state criminal sodomy laws.

Hendricks says, "You're not just advocating for someone's rights on principle. It has to be grounded in science. Nobody is surprised to hear that discrimination causes psychological harm, but a study can show what kind of harm it inflicts, and the negative impact."

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