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An Interview with APA CEO and Medical Director Marketa Wills

  • June 18, 2024
  • APA Leadership, What APA is Doing For You

The American Psychiatric Association's new CEO and Medical Director Marketa Wills, M.D., M.B.A.,  was interviewed by Azza Hussein, M.A., with APA’s Division of Diversity and Health Equity (DDHE). Her appointment is a historic milestone as she is the first woman and Black American to hold this role.


AH: Dr. Wills, congratulations on your new role as the CEO and Medical Director of the APA. As the first woman and Black American to hold this role, how do you feel your experiences have prepared you for this historic position at the APA?

MW: I am humbled that the Search Committee and Board of Trustees determined that after a nationwide search, I best embody the leadership qualities needed to guide our historic organization forward at this watershed moment for mental health, based on my track record of strong performance and commitment to the field. The APA has a long, rich, and complicated history, and I am profoundly humbled and grateful to occupy such an important role in the organization at this time. We have a lot of work to do as an organization to continue to unwind and move beyond some of the past ways in which our field reflected outdated values and mores that no longer serve us.

All institutions and organizations in our country are alive and ever evolving, and it is exciting that the APA is embracing new leadership prototypes. I am thrilled and excited to be able to represent that for others as I step into the important role of leading the APA administration. I want to be clear that all voices are welcome in the APA. We need everyone’s views represented in order for us to continue to evolve and advance as a profession for the benefit of the patients we serve. We need to foster a culture that values and rewards positive, healthy discourse and supports an open exchange of ideas, and where even less popular points of view will be listened to with respect.

AH: Building on the experiences you’ve shared, what pivotal moments in your career have influenced your professional path and leadership style?

MW: Many of the pivotal moments of my career revolve around mentorship and sponsorship. Throughout my career, mentors, sponsors, leaders, and senior colleagues actively took an interest in my personal growth and development by creating opportunities for me to be in spaces and functions that I may not have been able to enter without their coaching and support. They offered professional challenges and opportunities I had not been exposed to, took risks on me, and provided me with leadership roles. These experiences stick out to me as pivotal moments in my career. As a result, I’m always very thoughtful and intentional about building organizations where development is woven into the culture and is part of the fabric of how all leaders approach the careers of their staff.

Equally important defining moments in my career are times when I’ve made mistakes and/or failed. Taking the time to learn from those mistakes is essential as we get back up with even more conviction and resolve. In those moments, I was granted the space and grace from my own leaders to recognize that we are all human and that we can be better off as we learn from our mistakes and challenges. I strive to be a compassionate and empathetic leader who is willing to learn from all experiences, including those that may not feel great as they’re happening.

AH: Thank you, that’s reassuring to hear. As someone still early in their career, hearing you say that mistakes are not just setbacks but opportunities for growth and help shape the path you’re on is comforting.

MW: Absolutely, and it ties to my first point about making sure that you have a trust-based relationship with leaders, mentors, sponsors, and senior peers. These relationships help contextualize challenging moments so that you don’t deeply internalize them and instead find ways to grow from them.

AH: Shifting gears a bit, a topic we have been hearing a lot about is artificial intelligence. Given your experience in driving innovation, what role do you think AI could play in advancing mental health care, and do you think it can have a role in the APA?

MW: Thank you for that important question. Given APA’s longstanding, illustrious 180-year history, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to ensure that the APA is around for at least another 180 years — and hopefully many more centuries beyond that. APA is the first medical professional society in the United States, and as far as I’m concerned, I want us to be in existence in perpetuity. One of the exciting things about the CEO role is that in partnership with the Board of Trustees, I get to be very thoughtful and intentional about how to “future-proof” our organization and how to ensure that we will be around for many more years to come.

I believe leveraging technology and ensuring that we, as the American Psychiatric Association, have a leadership voice in defining its use in our field is crucial. This will enable us to utilize current and future technologies for the benefit of our members, patients, and society as a whole. There are many ethical, legal, financial, and practical considerations in considering how to incorporate artificial intelligence and other new technologies into clinical psychiatric practice and research. With the breadth and talent of our membership, almost 39,000 strong, we have the potential to collectively harness that brain power to direct, shape, and define how AI and other technologies should be best used. We certainly need to be cautious, as artificial intelligence is still being defined.

We want to use new technologies in safe and equitable ways, ensuring that psychiatrists can use them to augment their practices versus the technology replacing the physician’s human expertise. We need to be intentional and thoughtful in how we safely utilize these tools for the betterment of the psychiatric health of the nation.

AH: You mentioned the APA members, what strategies are you thinking of implementing to connect with APA members more effectively and ensure their needs and voices are heard?

MW: As a professional membership society, our members are quite literally our reason for being. We are here to support our members, to support their practice, and to support their professional development so that they can better serve their patients. One of my most important strategic imperatives is further strengthening our offerings to assist our members in their work. To do that, I will need to deeply listen to all our members across the country.

Over the next 12 to 18 months, my priority is to go to as many district branches and state associations as I possibly can. I want to hear and witness firsthand the victories, opportunities, challenges, and pain points our members are experiencing in their day-to-day work. District branches and associations are the building blocks of our organization, and I am committed to further strengthening the already solid relationship that the APA enjoys with them.

I can’t wait to have more interactions with members through councils, committees, and in-person and virtual interactions. I truly want to hear what’s on the minds of our members so that we can strengthen our member value proposition and re-earn their membership year after year.

AH: Mental health disparities have notably worsened among marginalized groups since the pandemic began. What do you believe is APA’s role in effectively addressing and mitigating these disparities within marginalized and racialized communities?

MW: This is a very important issue, and an issue that’s very important to me, professionally and personally. First and foremost, I want to applaud the work that the previous administration, our members, and the office of the DDHE do day in and day out to shine a light on disparity issues. I think the most important thing an organization like the APA can do is use its platform to both support the research that defines and characterizes these disparities and amplify the research findings to bring awareness to the issues.

Historically, research was not done in these areas. Now that we have pioneers opening the field to examine these disparities, it’s important to unpack the drivers that cause the disparities, and to implement strategies to mitigate these concerns. We must recognize that the solutions may differ from community to community and that we need to engage community voices to define culturally relevant solutions that will truly drive change. Gone are the days when physicians sat in ivory towers and pushed out solutions “from on high.” We need to collaborate with community stakeholders to effect the change that we want to see in our society, with respect to these mental health disparities.

For example, in some communities, engaging faith-based leaders might be effective. In other communities, we may need to engage barbershops or beauty salons to connect with community members. We’ve got to get expansive and creative in widening our solution set to address the social determinants of mental health, which may look different across populations.

AH: That’s great. Diversifying the psychiatric workforce is key to mitigating mental health disparities among marginalized communities. The APA SAMHSA Minority Fellowship Program aims to achieve this through pipeline programs from high school through residency. As an esteemed alum of the MFP program, what advice would you offer to the young professionals in these programs and to the aspiring leaders in the field of psychiatry?

MW: My advice is to soak up all the mentorship and lean into the relationships that you’re afforded through these programs. I am still in touch with folks I met during the Minority Fellowship Program — they’re on speed dial and have been for the past 20 years as our respective careers have unfolded. Cherish and nurture those relationships over the years. Be aware that you have stepped into a very special network of people, and be intentional, thoughtful, and deliberate about nurturing those relationships for many years to come.

I’d also invite all participants in these programs to allow themselves to dream as big as they possibly can. Those dreams are going to look different for everyone, so trust your own inner voice about what inspires you and know that your aspirations may shift over time. But whatever you do, THINK BIG!

We encourage all aspiring psychiatrists and young medical professionals to learn more about the APA SAMHSA Minority Fellowship Program and apply 


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