Magazine article Behavioral Healthcare Executive

Communities Bond through Shared Experiences

Magazine article Behavioral Healthcare Executive

Communities Bond through Shared Experiences

Article excerpt

Q&A with Andrew Sekel, PhD

Andrew Sekel, PhD, is the CEO of specialty networks for Optum. He oversees behavioral health, complex medical conditions and physical health services in the employer and health plan markets, as well as in Medicaid, Medicare and other programs.

Sekel has extensive experience in the commercial and public sector healthcare markets. He was vice president of business development for the specialty division of Centene Corporation in St. Louis, and prior to that, he co-founded and led several behavioral health management companies in Texas and California. He received his BA in psychology, MEd in special education and PhD in counseling psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.

However, Sekel's many accomplishments were hard fought, going all the way back to his childhood. At the age of eight, he and his family escaped from Hungary in 1957 during a revolution that led to the government's collapse. The fears brought on by severe political unrest and the physical challenges related to living in an occupied country prompted a few families to hope for a better life in the United States. And they risked everything for the chance of a new beginning.

Once in America, Sekel's family along with several others, none of whom spoke any English, began a new life in the United States. However, they also experienced the effects of trauma and isolation. Their community gathered for dinner on Sundays to nurture their spirits as well as their bodies. Hungarians who had emigrated earlier helped them learn the language and find jobs.

The impact on Sekel as an eight-year-old was profound, especially at school. He didn't speak English, and no one at the school could communicate with him in Hungarian. But Sekel was a math whiz, and math is a universal language. He could perform at the fourth-grade level in math, which earned him the respect of his teachers who took an interest in helping him succeed.

The ingredients that helped Sekel's recovery are the same things that help the rest of us recover from trauma: A focus on our strengths; love and support from our peers; and opportunities to contribute to the wellbeing of others.

BH: Seems like you had a lot to recover from at an early age, Andy. When you think back on those times today, what comes to mind for you?

Sekel: I haven't seen most of those people [from our Hungarian community] in over 40 years, but when I think of them right now, I can see their faces as plain as day and can hear their voices in my memories. They still mean a lot to me. When a community survives and then thrives together, a special bond is created that strengthens all the members collectively and individually. I can't imagine how my family would have survived without the support of that little community. We shared our resources, our jobs and our stories.

This normalized our individual experiences and validated our perceptions. Through this we gained resilience, adaptability and a determination to not give up. I still have strong feelings for all of them. This is why community remains so important to me today and why I deliberately include a focus on it in the work we do.

BH: Can you share with us some of the specific things Optum is doing to promote recovery for individuals and for communitiesi

Sekel: The work that Sue Bergeson and her team in our Consumer and Family Affairs department have accomplished over the past few years has probably made the most difference in this area. …

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