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History of the World Psychiatric Association

The beginnings of the World Psychiatric Association in 1950, as an Association for the Organization of World Congresses of Psychiatry, with Jean Delay as its President and Henry Ey as its Secretary General, must be appreciated within the context of world events and developments in the health field. As becoming to any grand task that followed the immense adversities for all mankind represented by the Second World War, it amalgamated the historical vision, the indefatigable determination and the joint efforts of its founding members. In the general and mental health arena, the World Health Organization had just published the Sixth Revision of the International Classification of Diseases that for the first time included a section devoted to mental, psychoneurotic and personality disorders and few years later the American Psychiatric Association produced the first edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Opening of the First World Congress of Psychiatry at the Grand Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne, Paris, 1950<< Opening of the First World Congress of Psychiatry at the Grand Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne, Paris, 1950

It was during the ebullient years of the first two World Congresses of Psychiatry, held in Paris in 1950 and Zurich in 1957, that the international psychiatric community recognized that the field was in a state of flux, experiencing radical and unprecedented changes in conceptual framework and practice patterns. The expanding frontier of knowledge on brain functioning, the expansion of psychotherapeutic approaches, the advent of psychotropic medication for mental disorders and awareness of sociocultural factors to understand illness and help-seeking behaviors, all contributed to these changes.

Among the many consequences of the course of events in that period was the perception that empirical knowledge was more important than old or novel theories and that this knowledge had to be rapidly shared by all psychiatrists worldwide in order to promote professional competence. This concurrently indicated the need for agreeing on more precise and comprehensive definitions of mental disorders as well as for a deeper understanding of the sociocultural settings in which the accumulating new knowledge and the arising therapeutic possibilities were to be applied. All this meant that psychiatrists could not function any more in isolation behind closed doors. They could not limit any longer their sources of information within national boundaries nor could they keep pace with the new developments by adhering to rigid paradigmatic thinking.

The formal founding of the World Psychiatric Association in 1961, signified a move towards an internationally-valued professional identity, an inspiring effort to respect diversity and use it effectively to attain unity in purpose. By accommodating under the same roof all psychiatrists of different national and cultural origins, of different schools of thought, of various areas of interest and of diverging ideological proclivities, the WPA aspired to establish a worldwide front of professionals united in the pursuit of increased knowledge in the field and of greater capacity for the care of mental patients.

The WPA has continued to accord, as during its beginnings, prominence to the preparation and implementation of World Congresses of Psychiatry as well as to its Regional Meetings. At the same time, a critical factor ensuring th continuity of vitality and productivity in the WPA between World Congresses has been the establishment of Scientific Sections. These are maturing as scholarly bodies enriched by their international anchorage, and increasingly contributing thoughtful studies, qualified symposia, and position papers of considerable impact.

Stimulated by years of complaints about political abuse of psychiatry, WPA General Assemblies have consistently formulated ethical guidelines on psychiatric practice, including the Hawaii Declaration of 1977, its amendment in Vienna in 1983, and, more recently, the Madrid Declaration of 1996, expanded in 1999. The latter represents a widely acclaimed response to the present state of psychiatry and includes guidelines concerning specific situations. WPA has collaborated as well with the United Nations and the World Health Organization to protect the human rights of mental patients.Through its Standing Committees on Ethics and on Review of Abuse of Psychiatry it will continue to work in this domain so fundamental ot its moral commitment.

More recently, especially since 1990, WPA has been paying greater and more systematic attention to educational activities often in coordination with the World Health Organization. Educational Programs have been developed in various aspects of our field, aimed at psychiatrists and other health professionals across the world, particularly those residing in developing countries.

Attentive to world political and social changes, WPA has incorporated in the past decade virtually all psychiatric societies of Eastern Europe. Similar efforts across continents have led to counting within our fold, at the beginning of the millenium, 112 Member Societies from 96 different countries as well as seven international Affiliated Associations.

The organizational structure of WPA has been evolving to adapt to its growing responsibilities. A Manual of Procedures is now in place, complementing our Statutes and By-Laws, to enhance our operational effectiveness and transparency. Eighteen Zonal Representatives across five world regions intend to potentiate the interaction of Member Societies with the governing bodies of WPA and their fuller participation in all aspects of institutional life.The WPA Secretariat, with an efficient multilingual staff using modern technologies, is prioritizing communication at all levels, as a tool and reflection of institutional affirmation. Along with diversified educational, meetings, publications and scientific section activities, the preparation of consensus statements has recently become a substantial component of WPA work.

The challenges facing WPA remain great and the tasks ahead formidable. Our key guarantee of success seems to be to nurture the fresh vitality of its foundational spirit, the legacy of the inspired physicians who recognized the need to integrate psychiatric societies from all lands under one ecumenical organization committed to promote the highest levels of scientific, humanistic and ethical psychiatric care around the world.

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