Getting Outside Myself to Help the Thai People
By Bruce Svare ‘71
Those of us in higher education have a tendency to develop tunnel vision and become overly focused on our professional careers as scientists. When world problems remote from our homes become the lead story in news reports, we often pay attention only briefly and then quickly return to the job at hand.
This pattern characterized my own day-to-day academic life as a behavioral neuroscientist at the State University of New York at Albany until 2004, when a tsunami struck Phuket, Thailand. Overwhelmed by the physical and emotional devastation, Thailand’s compassionate but largely untrained mental health professionals were often helpless in assisting survivors who were psychologically damaged by the disaster. Thanks to the benevolence of the United States and many other countries, trained psychologists descended on the country to provide needed assistance and comfort.
After making some inquiries, I learned that the field of psychology was in its infancy in Thailand, that most universities in this beautiful country had little in the way of a formal psychology curriculum, and that the profession of clinical psychology and the role that it plays in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness was almost nonexistent. As a result, Thailand’s mental health care system is burdened with increasing numbers of mentally ill patients receiving little in the way of professional care or, worse yet, no care at all. As I pondered all of this, I felt a calling to “get outside myself ” and give something back to my profession.
I was named a Fulbright senior scholar to Thailand in 2006. The mission for my yearlong assignment was simple: Promote the development of psychology in the Thai higher education system by bringing my specialization to the country. To that end, I taught behavioral neuroscience and assisted with curriculum development at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, and lectured widely in the country at other universities and medical schools.
The study of behavioral neuroscience is critical for understanding the biological basis of both normal and disordered behavior. It is particularly important for diagnosing and treating those who may be suffering from various forms of mental illness, especially anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); addiction-based disorders; and childhood disorders such as autism, attention deficit disorders (ADD) and Asperger’s syndrome. My ultimate hope is that my Fulbright work will have a positive impact on the growth of psychology in Thailand, the future training of Thai clinical psychologists and the continued development of their mental health care system.
My love for Thai people and their rich cultural heritage continues to grow with each return visit that I make. As a result, I have sought new ways of contributing to their higher education system. I return yearly to teach intensive short-term courses at various Thai universities and medical schools, and continue to promote the exchange of Thai students to the United States for doctoral training in behavioral neuroscience. I have also spearheaded fund-raising efforts in the United States to enable more Fulbright scholars to come to Thailand to teach and conduct research.
I recently attended the 60th anniversary celebration of the Fulbright Program in Thailand. It was held at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok. As a senior scholar to Thailand, I was one of only a few former Fulbrighters given the honor of describing my mission to Her Royal Highness Princess Sirindhorn. Held in accordance with the pomp and circumstance of a royal Thai event, our conversation was cordial and productive. I came away from our discussion knowing that the princess understood my work and appreciated my efforts on behalf of her country.
During the event, I was also given an award by the Thai-U.S. Educational Foundation (TUSEF) and U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Eric John in recognition of my fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Fulbright Program in Thailand. I am grateful for this distinction, for it has motivated me to work even harder for the country that has become my second home.
When I graduated from Susquehanna University in 1971, I never anticipated that I would someday be an academic activist helping a foreign country improve its psychology curriculum. My experiences as a Fulbright scholar in Thailand have given me an opportunity to learn about another culture and to help others who are less fortunate than I. Most importantly, these experiences have enabled me to grow as a person and stretch myself beyond my own comfortable surroundings.
I am forever grateful to Jim Misanin, the late Ged Schweikert and Z. Michael Nagy, dedicated Susquehanna University professors who taught me the principles of psychology and encouraged me to seek additional training in behavioral neuroscience. Their knowledge of the field and their words of wisdom guided me all the way through graduate school, postdoctoral training, and my career as a professor of psychology and neuroscience. Part of what they taught me lives on in a distant country, where the next generation of Thai students is learning about the exciting science of psychology and how it can help to improve the lives of those suffering from mental illness.
Bruce Svare, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the State University of New York at Albany.