Culture and Mental Health. Member Spotlight. Suzanne Anderson

“A lot of my life I was trying to make my own corner of the world a better place, it can be my office, people around me. There was something in looking at this passion for helping the world being a more peaceful place. That really resonated that has been there with me since my childhood, but it was dormant.”

Inspired Peacebuilder

Suzanne is a certified crisis responder and trainer with the National Organization for Victim Assistance. Suzanne has trained crisis intervenors in the United States, Canada, Yugoslavia, Singapore, India, Thailand, Indonesia, China and Myanmar. She has responded to an industrial plant explosion, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, cyclone, tidal surge, tsunami, terrorist attack, drowning as well as working with war refugees. Suzanne was born and raised in the United States, but she has been based in Singapore for the past 24 years. She is currently a mental health counselor running a solo practice, Restorative Community Concepts/Counselling for 15 years. Previously she worked with the US Department of Justice as a contractor, as a part of the team disseminating information coming out of research. Some of this work was also related to restorative justice – something that Suzanne was always interested in. After coming to Singapore, she started working on a Master’s Degree in Social Work at the National University of Singapore, and did an attachment with the probation department, where she was able to put together a training manual for probation officers to run restorative justice conferences with probationers and the victims of the crimes. In the 1970s, she had an opportunity to live in Japan for a couple of months, and that sparked a strong interest in the world and living overseas, that she has to this day. As Suzanne says, her interest in mediation has been like a stepping stone.

As a child, she was really affected by the wars happening in the world. “I remember praying that war and rape and murder will stop and feeling so powerless because of course they did not, she says. All her life she was trying to make the world a more peaceful place, even if only her close surroundings. Looking for a community to share this goal with, and trying to figure out how to expand her career, Suzanne joined Mediators Beyond Borders International. Since then she appreciates what the organization is doing, there is a place for people to just be there and listen and a place for people to get involved. She also used a mediator before in a business situation and really appreciated that process. While an MBBI member, Suzanne participated in a Congress in Bali, in some group discussions that took place during COVID, and while appreciating the passion and energy towards building a more peaceful world, she is still staying involved and looking for a perfect place to utilize her experience.

Reinventing Herself

Speaking about challenges she faced during her career, Suzanne mentions that working in victim assistance, she started in a field where there was not an education program. “Our knowledge didn’t come from university programs but from on-the-job training, working with trauma survivors,” she says. That is how the situation looked like in the mid to late 1980s. When she moved to Singapore to work on her second degree, the industry that seemed to be best related to her experience was social work. However her background from the US was in victims assistance and a degree in Criminal Justice Administration from San Jose State University, and neither of those degrees were recognized in Singapore. At first, she got turned down while applying for the next degree. “I decided to go back an appeal,” she says, “I put together a matrix presenting the area of study social work students, my academic and work background and how it matches up, and asked if they could reconsider?” That effort paid off because, at the next approach, Suzanne was accepted and completed a Master’s of Social Work. For her, moving to Singapore with her whole family to follow her husband’s work, was kind of reinventing herself. “I came as a mother of young kids, but very interested in working and figuring out what I have the qualifications for, or what kind of industry would be open for me here” she adds.

Cultural Misunderstandings

In terms of achievements, Suzanne says that one of the big intersections that she sees with much of the work of MBBI is an understanding of trauma, and working with people and situations where trauma is one of the dimensions of it. And that connects with her personal experience because she was able to maintain a thread through her university, practice, second and third degree, that is trauma focused. While conducting research for the Doctoral Degree at the University of Southern Queensland, Suzanne was researching the impact of trauma on women who have been trafficked and sexually exploited in the Mekong countries. Also, the other theme she hears a lot about in MBBI and relates to is intercultural issues. Understanding how those come to play in conflict, and trying to understand one another. Both trauma and intercultural, or what she calls cultural transposition are themes that have gone throughout her life.

Speaking more about intercultural issues, Suzanne says that sometime after her family was living in Singapore, there was a conflict that arose at her husband’s place of employment. It seemed to arise between the expats and the local community. “I was passionate about trying to figure out how the conflict could have come about through miscommunication, and misunderstanding, without making anybody the bad guy. Not putting blame anywhere but trying to understand and describe, and through that come up with a narrative and strategy for resolution.” Suzanne thinks conflicts like that are happening all the time. If we have a culture that is more likely to hold a lot more close in, and share less, while talking to a culture that shares a lot more, the latter one will look at the first thinking they are seeing everything and get shocked when they find out more later on. And the culture that does not share much is going to constantly look at the other one thinking there has to be more, what is the angle, how will I get surprised? Those are just very different views of the world. In her doctoral research, she learned that Western workers, especially Americans, are talking about truth and justice, what is fair, but there are a lot of people around the world who do not have those same expectations of justice and fairness because that has not been a part of the narrative. Some cultures are happy to complain about the family members and describe the problems going on in the family system, and other cultures hold that very strong loyalty that no matter how bad it is, they cannot say anything because that would be disloyalty. Sacrificing your mental health for maintaining loyalty to a system that is at the same time harming them, often through verbal abuse or domestic violence. “In my practice, I worked with people from 50+ countries and cultural groups. I cannot look at anybody who comes to my office without thinking what is the cultural lens? What are the expectations? How does that culture explain the problems, how does it describe solutions? Not to prescribe or to impose, but just as part of the discussion of all the things that are at play, that could be helpful to explore.”

Mental Health

What Suzanne is also passionate about is mental health. As she says, challenges for young people are increasing all around the world. Even before the pandemic, we have been trying to figure out what is happening. She mentions an article written by a population researcher, who looks at different dimensions within population groups and always sees that things that start to rise will come down, that there is a natural trend. But while watching the number of mental health problems of young people in the US, it was just going up and up. And it was correlated to the saturation of the market of smartphones. “I would say technology might be something that blankets most countries, and every country will have its issue. Also, in the US another issue is privilege, I think we have a sense of entitlement. Parents are protecting children making sure that all the doors are open for their children and every obstacle removed (helicopter & snowplow parents). When these children grow up and run into obstacles they get upset, because they haven’t faced challenges or they haven’t heard ‘No’ before. Suzanne says that taking care of our mental health should be the norm, but it is interesting how we define mental health. Whether it is something that can be defined around the world, when is mental health a problem and when is it just a consequence of life choices? It is a problem when people feel like it is a problem, interfering with people’s ability to function in life. “I think people recognize it, but it is really hard to address it, where do you start? I do think it would be nice to have it normalized, to be as common as going to see a medical doctor” she says.

Article by Maciej Witek, MBBI Writer