Q&A with Veayla Williams

PAWNY president says that there is a need to diversify the field of psychology and that stigma attached to mental health therapy is still a concern

By Brenda Alesii

At first glance, one might think that an organization whose acronym is PAWNY may have a connection related to animal charities. That assumption would be inaccurate.

PAWNY, in fact, stands for the Psychological Association of Western New York. It’s a nonprofit 165-member organization advancing the science and profession of psychology, supporting professional growth and association among practicing psychologists and educating the public about the profession and science of psychology as a resource for healing and change.

Veayla Williams, Ph.D., is the current president of PAWNY. Williams earned her doctorate at SUNY Buffalo, graduating in 2012. A city resident, her term at the helm of PAWNY ends in June.

She spoke with In Good Health about the organization and her own work.

Q: As president, your one-year term is up this spring. While overseeing the monthly board meetings and ensuring that the business of PAWNY runs smoothly, what else do you do in your professional life and what motivated you to become a psychologist?

A: I have always had a passion for helping people. Before graduate school, I was a case worker at the Salvation Army, where I saw the recurring theme of underserved people struggling — trying to attain goals, working to be a good parent and friend. My goal was never about how much money I could make or to have a career that depended on my physical capabilities. As a psychologist, no matter where I am in life, I will be able to help others.

I have been treating veterans at the VA Medical Center for 10 years in the behavioral health department, working with veterans of all ages and backgrounds. I love their rawness and authenticity. I also have a private practice in Tonawanda at Family Counseling Associates.

Q: Is there still a stigma attached to mental health therapy?

A: Absolutely. It’s unfortunate, but I do not think it is as bad as it once was because so many people have been touched by anxiety and depression with everything we experienced during COVID-19 and also through other societal problems such as the ongoing opioid crisis. Those situations and many others have brought a lot of people to therapy. Strength is knowing when to ask for help and realizing that we all hurt. Asking for help does not make one weak. By pushing pain and emotion down, the individual does not learn about him or herself. I can see potential in people; we then work on the client recognizing those possibilities. It is so gratifying to see clients changing in a positive way — that is my whole purpose.

Q: Are people of color reluctant to seek mental health help?

A: Yes. There is still the common thought that a person of color who is feeling vulnerable should turn to their faith for comfort. There is nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t mean therapy should be excluded. It is not an either-or choice. Several providers from PAWNY started working with Cavalry Baptist Church. With the support of the pastors, we’ve had multiple group conversations about mental health at the church.

We also need to diversify the field of psychology. Some people don’t feel comfortable starting a therapy relationship with people who don’t look like them as they may not have had similar experiences. To that end, PAWNY is supporting students of color who are interested in becoming psychologists. We have been talking to young people of color about careers in mental health, including holding a panel discussion with local Girl Scouts of color. In 2020, we created an anti-racism task force to connect the minority community with supportive resources. It also gave us the opportunity to examine our own biases as therapists.

Q: The May 14 shooting at Tops on Jefferson Avenue must have had a profound impact on the mental health of so many area residents.

A: After that horrific tragedy we wanted to ensure that resources were readily available. The work continues to address racism and link individuals of different backgrounds to the appropriate help that is specific to their situation.

Q: Important distinction here: psychologists do not prescribe medication. Correct?

A: That is currently correct in New York state. Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners, who are mental health professionals with a medical degree, are the providers who can prescribe medication. Some primary care physicians may also prescribe certain basic psychiatric medications. However, in some states psychologists who have received specialized training can prescribe psychiatric medication. As psychologists, we offer counseling services and often work collaboratively with the client’s psychiatric care provider.

Q: How can PAWNY be reached?

A: Our website: www.PAWNY.org or by calling 716-249-0221.