Wisdom on Women Wednesday #3: Dr. Martha Bernal

As mentioned in last week’s WOWW post, May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. So what better time than now to discuss some super phenomenal women who have taken the world by its lapel and shook it up some in the Mental Health profession. Today we honor Dr. Martha E. Bernal who is also known as the first Latina to earn a PhD in Psychology in the America.

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Dr. Bernal hails from a Mexican descendant family that was subjected to discrimination during a very intense time of racial segregation. Regardless of the odds that attempted to derail her, Martha was afforded the opportunity to receive her education and eventually graduated from high school then moved onto college.

  1. Bernal was the Daughter of Immigrants

Martha E. Bernal was born to Mexican parents who migrated to the U.S. prior to her birth. Bernal, who was born in Texas, was raised in a time of harsh racial and gender discrimination. Nevertheless, she found a way to rise to the occasion of success even in the face of direct oppression. Unfortunately, at first Bernal’s father was opposed to her attending graduate school and believed that she should focus on finding herself a husband. Obviously the latter did not concern her much as she fought for her education and excelled with it.

As a Mexican-American Bernal and her peers were forbidden from embracing their brown skin and speaking in their native tongue of Spanish. This however did not stop her from using that same “forbidden” culture to improve the Mental Health Profession. Ignoring the protests of her father and the discrimination from society she received her Masters in 1955 from Syracuse University and later in 1962 obtained her PhD from Indiana University, Bloomington.

  1. An Advocate and Champion for her Community

Throughout her career, Dr. Bernal was constantly seen speaking up about the needs of her culture and other minority communities. As a recent graduate Bernal found herself being turned away from job opportunities due to being a woman. Regardless of rejections she pushed through and developed several connections that led to her receiving a grant to study how psychologists prepared for work with multicultural groups.

Dr. Bernal went on to develop the National Hispanic Psychological Association. During her time as a professor at Arizona State University, she focused on understanding the identity development of Mexican-American children and how schools could work to better serve these children. In addition, she was known for being one of the pioneers of implementing the importance of ethnic studies within schools. Bernal even began to conduct training and research for other clinical psycholgoists on how to be more effective when working with the minority population.

  1. A Distinguished Psychologist

Dr. Bernal had an extensive wealth of research conducted which led to a total of 60 journal articles and book chapters produced from her hard work. Within the course of her work as a Psychologist, Bernal taught several courses at schools nationwide, among those schools included the University of California, the University of Denver and Arizona State University. As aforementioned she started the National Hispanic Psychology Association, established the Board of Ethnic Minority Affairs of the American Psychological Association, and even worked with the National Latino/a Psychological Association.

Dr. Bernal also worked on APA’s (American Psychological Association) Commission on Ethnic Minority, Recruitment, Retention and Training and was a member of the Committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Affairs. Overall, Bernal saw to it that communities that were largely underserved received the mental health advocacy that they all deserved through her work as a Clinical Psychologist. However, Bernal did not solely focus on the clinical portion of mental health. In fact she strayed from it a bit to focus on learning theories and empiricism which she used to treat children suffering from conduct disorder. By 1979, she completely shifted her psychological gears to centralize the needs of minorities and ethnic studies.

  1. A Winner

Throughout her life, Dr. Bernal received a plethora of awards for her resilience and extraordinary career in Psychology. She was recognized with the Distinguished Life Achievement Award from APA’s Division 45, the Society for the Psychological Study of Minority Issues. Bernal also received the Hispanic Research Center Lifetime Award from Arizona State University, the Carolyn Attneave Award for her lifelong dedication to ethnic minority studies. In 2001  at APA’s 2001 Annual Convention she was awarded with the 2001 Contributions to Psychology Award.

  1. Expanded the Psychological Knowledge on Minorities

    Dr. Bernal constantly found ways to incorporate studying the minority population in order to provide solutions on how to better serve them. Her studies, literature and advocacy did not fall short, as ethnic studies in Psychological has spread nationwide. Her dedication to increasing the population of Psychologists who worked with and were from minority backgrounds helped to improve the Mental Health Profession as a whole. She even served as mentor for several of her fellow psychologists, and especially those who were fellow Latinas.


In 2001, Dr. Bernal passed away from cancer but we continue to honor her legacy as one of the most distinguished Latinas in the field of Psychology. We thank her for the great work she did with her time here on earth. It is because of women such as herself that other Women of Color, myself included, can feel more confident in the work that we do in the field of Mental Health.

I hope that you all enjoyed this week’s Wisdom on Women post. If you have any suggestions of some unsung heroines that are often left out of the conversation of history, comment below.

Also, if you enjoyed this post let me know by commenting, liking or sharing. I hope that you were able to learn just much as I did while researching Dr. Bernal.

Serenity, Smiles & Positive Vibes,

Ms. Royale





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Author: Sophonie

Sophonie, aka Ms. Royale, is a Creative Writer, the founder and content provider of She Is Splendid Blog, the S'ak Pase With Sophonie Podcast and the CEO of Splendid Writing Services. She obtained a B.A. in Psychology from Montclair State University with a minor in Creative Writing and African-American Studies. Further, she is finding the beauty in everyday life while making mogul moves to become a full-time freelance writer, actress and overall full time creative.

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