Distinguished Alumni Award
Michael Wessells ’73 MA, ’74 PhD
is a professor of clinical population and family health in the Program on Forced Migration and Health
at Columbia University. His work emphasizes the resilience of children, families, and communities and the impact of distress due to armed conflict, disasters, family separation, and deprivation of basic needs such as food, shelter, and security.
Wessells’ current research examines what communities themselves do to protect children, promotes sustainable social change, and challenges the emphasis globally on NGO- and outsider-led approaches.
In addition to research and teaching, global humanitarian work is a central life calling for Wessells. For several decades, he has focused on psychosocial and child protection supports for war-affected children primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. He has worked to highlight the importance of community mobilization building on existing strengths and resources, including traditional practices and working in a spirit of humility and co-learning.
Wessells worked extensively on the reintegration of former child soldiers, whose primary challenges often relate to stigma, lack of livelihoods, and spiritual issues such as being 'haunted' by the spirits of the dead. In all this work, he encouraged an ethical orientation of patient accompaniment, active listening, and enabling the agency of war-affected children.
Believing that psychology has much to contribute to peace and social justice, he helped to establish and served as president of the Division of Peace Psychology in the American Psychological Association. He also served as president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and chair of the Committee for the Psychological Study of Peace, which develops scholarly symposia worldwide and brings in the voices and work of people in difficult political and economic circumstances.
Along with the World Health Organization, Wessells coordinated the development of the first global guidelines on mental health and psychosocial support in emergency settings. In a deeply polarized field, this work helped to develop a more comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to supporting war-affected people. A legacy of this work is that today, mental health and psychosocial supports are seen not as afterthoughts but as central to humanitarian action.
Wessells earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in psychology from UMass Amherst, where his supervisor, John Donahoe, nurtured an enduring interest in science, a keen appreciation of environmental determinants of behavior, and a love of teaching.