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Psychologists Need Specific Education to Help Genetic Testing Patients, says MU Researcher

Psychologists can prepare by learning about the connections between genetics and disease.

May 20th, 2013

Story Contact: Timothy Wall, 573-882-3346,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Angelina Jolie’s recent decision to have a double mastectomy resulted from a genetic screening in which she found that she carried a genetic mutation that significantly increased her risk for breast and ovarian cancer. As more people get genetic screenings, psychologists need to increase their knowledge of the relationship between DNA and disease, according to a University of Missouri doctoral student. Doing this will improve psychologists’ ability to respond to the mental strain individuals may feel after learning they carry a gene that increases risk for a disorder, as well as guide further research and inform policy makers’ decisions.

“Academic institutions can incorporate training that helps psychologists learn to ethically assist individuals in managing the impact of genetic testing on health and well-being” said Leah Richmond-Rakerd, doctoral student in psychological science in MU’s College of Arts and Science. “If a particular institution already studies the genetic basis of disease risk, they are well positioned to prepare psychology students to someday counsel patients suffering distress after learning of their risk for a disorder. This specific education could give recent graduates a boost in their early careers.”

Individuals who undergo genetic testing usually receive genetic counseling to educate them about their condition and inform them about disease management and prevention. However, some patients may experience lasting psychological distress. Many psychologists lack training in how to competently and ethically manage these issues, noted Richmond-Rakerd.

“Studies have found that testing can lead to negative psychological consequences for individuals faced with knowledge of their predisposition to life-threatening or degenerative diseases, such as the BRCA1 mutation Angelina Jolie carries,” said Richmond-Rakerd. “These consequences range from stress and depression to suicidal thoughts and attempts.”

Richmond-Rakerd identified ways for educational institutions to help current and future psychologists prepare for the increasing use of genetic screening. Programs must provide appropriate courses, train teachers and supervisors in treating individuals undergoing genetic testing and provide hands-on opportunities for students interested in specializing in treating individuals undergoing genetic testing.

Richmond-Rakerd’s paper, “Modern Advances in Genetic Testing: Ethical Challenges and Training Implications for Current and Future Psychologists,” was published in the journal Ethics and Behavior. The paper resulted from an assignment in Richmond-Rakerd’s graduate course in Ethics and Professional Issues, taught by Nan Presser, clinical associate professor of psychological science in MU College of Arts and Science. The paper was awarded an honorable mention in the 2012 American Psychological Association Graduate Student Ethics Paper Prize competition.

“I am deeply appreciative to Dr. Presser for the opportunity afforded by her course and her support of this paper,” said Richmond-Rakerd.