The World Psychiatric Association was first established in 1950 as an association for the organisation of World Congresses of Psychiatry. With Jean Delay as its President and Henry Ey as its Secretary General, its creation must be appreciated within the context of world events and developments in the health field. The Second World War had only recently ended and the World Health Organisation’s Sixth Revision of the International Classification of Diseases for the first time included a section devoted to mental, psychoneurotic and personality disorders. Against this backdrop, founding members combined historical vision with indefatigable determination to open the First World Congress of Psychiatry in the Grand Ampitheatre of the Sorbonne, Paris.
It was during the ebullient years of the first two World Congresses (Paris, 1950 and Zurich, 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 development 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 changed perception that empirical knowledge was more important than old or novel theories. Moreover, the need to agree more precise and comprehensive definitions of mental disorders was recognized – as was the need for a deeper understanding of the sociocultural settings in which this new knowledge and arising therapeutic possibilities were to be applied. Psychiatrists could no longer function in isolation behind closed doors. They could no longer limit their sources of information within national boundaries. They could not keep pace with the new developments by adhering to rigid paradigmatic thinking. In short, it was accepted that in order to promote professional competence, this new knowledge had to be rapidly shared by all psychiatrists worldwide.
The formal founding of the World Psychiatric Association in 1961 signified a move towards an internationally valued professional identity. By bringing together 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 group that respected diversity while maintaining unity of purpose. This purpose was, and is still today, the advancement of mental health and psychiatry across the world.
The World Congress of Psychiatry remains the WPA’s flagship event and is now complemented by a program of regional and thematic meetings. The association also works with its members to support a broader program of local meetings, staying true to its founders’ intention to share knowledge worldwide.
The later establishment of Scientific Sections ensured its continued vitality and productivity. Now, many of these sections are viewed 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 and amended in 2011. The latter represents a widely acclaimed response to the present state of psychiatry and includes guidelines concerning specific situations.
Looking back, WPA has also collaborated with the United Nations and the World Health Organization to protect the human rights of mental patients. Through its Standing Committee on Ethics and Review it continues to work in this domain so fundamental to its moral commitment.
Starting in early 1990, WPA increased its focus on education often in coordination with the World Health Organization. More recently, it has worked with a variety of Education Institutions across the world to bring learning programs to psychiatrists and other health professionals, particularly those residing in developing countries.
Over the years, the organizational structure of WPA has evolved to adapt to its growing responsibilities. A Manual of Procedures is now in place and updated regularly, complementing its Statutes and By-Laws, and enhancing operational effectiveness and transparency.
Eighteen Zonal Representatives across five world regions act as mediators between the association’s member societies and governing bodies of WPA. These are elected roles, voted on every three years at the General Assembly during the WPA World Congress of Psychiatry.
Last, but by no means least, the capable multilingual team of the WPA Secretariat is the communications hub of the organisation. It manages the organisation's finances, legal and HR requirements, while also supporting its educational, meetings, publications and scientific section activities.
The challenges facing WPA remain great and the tasks ahead formidable. Embracing its rich history of vitality and action, and the legacy of the inspired physicians who recognised the benefits of bringing together psychiatric societies from all over the world, will be key to its continued success. WPA forges ahead as a society committed to promoting the highest levels of scientific, humanistic and ethical psychiatric care around the world.