May 1st, 2013

Barbara Okun, Ph.D. follows her interests across the globe

Given the relatively short amount of time we have on this planet, how do we choose to spend that time? For some, a single cause or subject matter takes center stage. For others, like Barbara Okun, Ph.D., variety is the key to contentment.

Okun has spent a career as a teacher, writer, speaker, clinical psychologist and world traveler following her interests. Her 30-plus year trajectory has taken her from the corridors of Northeastern University, where she is a professor in the department of counseling and applied psychology, to writing a highly successful book on interviewing and counseling techniques, to teaching graduate courses in Kuwait, Nicaragua and Mexico. She is also an adjunct instructor at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Hospital.

She has written books, given talks, and published numerous articles on families, aging, grieving, re-building after tragedies and gender and diversity. Her most famous work, “Effective Helping: Interviewing and Counseling Techniques” is now in its eighth edition. She spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson-Souter about her work and her many interests…and how they really all tie together.

Q: You published two books in the past two years. Tell us about them.

A: “Saying Goodbye: How Families Can Find Renewal Through Loss” is a book I wrote with Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D., for the general public. The health care situation has changed so much and it is more common for people to live with terminal diagnoses, even for years.

It was clear to me that most books and media publications about death and dying were outdated. Not that there still aren’t accidental and sudden deaths. But more typically today people get a diagnosis and they may have treatments, there may be a period of remission. From the time of any kind of diagnosis of a serious and potentially fatal illness, the clock is ticking and it’s sort of a wakeup call. It is not just the patient who is affected but whole family system.

Q: Is this written for the patient or for the family?

A: Patients have read it and asked family members to read it. It wasn’t written for patients per se, but it applies to both.

Q: And the other book, “Conceptual and Treatment Planning for Effective Helping”?

A: I had written “Effective Helping” in 1987 and it was always clear to me that that was introductory, for the first level of communication and interviewing skills and basic helping theory. A colleague, Karen Suyemoto, Ph.D., and I decided there was a need for a more advanced level book to take them the next step and integrate all the courses they have had into understanding cases from beginning to end from multiple perspectives.

Q: You are also working on the next edition of “Effective Helping.” How has that changed over the years?

A: It gets added onto. We always deal with the social changes that have occurred. People are living longer so the services needed are emerging and expanding. There is more integration of mental and physical health, more awareness of that integration.

We are also going to put in more about crisis and disaster theory and practice, and about global mental health.

Q: That leads us to your work abroad as a global mental health instructor. How did you get involved in working overseas?

A: I first taught in a program that Northeastern had created in Israel in school counseling. Then, I worked in Kuwait when a colleague developed an advanced graduate study program with the Kuwait government for practicing psychologists. It was fascinating because it was during the time there were hostilities in Iraq and being so close it was an interesting, challenging experience.

Since then, I have been working in Central and South America with the Ecumenical Institute in a program that trains pastoral counselors. It is an adult population made up of clergy, lawyers, teachers, government personnel. It is like a second career.

And I have been to Venezuela, to Mexico, to Nicaragua. I have guest lectured in Argentina. It is usually an intense weekend, four full days.

 Q: What have you learned by working with people in other countries?

A: It has opened up worlds for me in terms of understanding some of the issues and how universal they are.

In Kuwait the first year, there were 12 students, all practicing psychologists, a few men and the rest women. They all spoke English and when we were at lunch, the women sat separately from the men and were dressed in traditional garb. One of the men said something and the woman said, “Oh you men, you just don’t know how to multitask!” I just cracked up. They were surprised by my reaction but I just thought it was the funniest thing in the world. It was the last place I would have expected that. Here I was in Kuwait and I said, “You don’t know how universal that kind of comment is.”

By being in a relationship with people and opening to new perspectives and sharing, you are always learning. It is wonderful and you get stereotypes that you don’t even know you had exposed and deconstructed. People are people and they have the same issues no matter where you go.

It is interesting having them ask me questions about this country based on their stereotypes.

Q: What is the hardest part of teaching in other countries?

A: I had to adapt to different learning styles. For example, the whole notion of time and energy are different in the Middle East and in Central and South America. Here, we start and end classes and take breaks when we say we are going to. There, people come and go and it’s much more fluid and you have to flow with it and adapt.

Q: What is next for you?

 A: I often think how much there is that needs to be done in this country. You don’t have to go abroad to do good things. Even in the Boston area, there are so many pockets of underserved people without resources and services, especially today when things are being cut. A couple of colleagues and I have been talking about how we can do something in the Boston area doing family and parent education, helping people find resources in health care.

We are also talking about another book project in September on the impact of technology on families. That’s what everyone is talking about these days; people having cyber-relationships rather than human relationships. We would talk to families and to colleagues – do an interview study. I have already started collecting data and run focus groups on it.

I’ve also been helping Northeastern develop courses on healthy aging and we are going to launch the first course next year. We are hoping to get the other courses online so we can offer a certificate program.

Q: It sounds like you have your hand in many pots.

A: I like learning, I suppose. I have a lot of intellectual and emotional curiosity. But really, all of these things are all interrelated. I love people and I love working with people in different capacities. 

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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