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Communities bond through shared experiences

June 23, 2014
by Lori Ashcraft
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Andrew Sekel Q&A
Andy Sekel, Optum

Andrew Sekel, PhD, is 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 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 feeling 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 communities?

Sekel: The work that Sue Bergeson and her team in the director of our Consumer and Family Affairs department have accomplished over the past few years has probably made the most difference in this area. Early in 2009, Sue established our Consumer Advisory Board that advises us on recovery approaches from the perspective of service users. I attended the last meeting–stayed for the whole thing. It was very helpful to glean support and information from that board. It also gave us a chance to bounce some of our recovery and resilience ideas around and get their feedback.

As for connecting with the community, we have several ways of doing this. My personal experience of recovery that began when I was eight years old taught me the important role community plays in the healing and resilience-building process.

Sue and her team developed an approach to linking well trained peers with people who are interested in recovering and have had very good outcomes from this.  Optum hires some peers directly and also contracts with peer and other recovery based organizations to make this service available in communities. In most cases, these resources are focused on underserved groups. The peers work in hospitals linking people to the community, as well as other programs. The basic goal is to keep people in the community where their natural supports can be involved in their healing.



BH: What other approaches do you use to strengthen the behavioral health of communities?

Sekel: We’ve been focusing on mobilizing communities to reduce the effects of trauma and isolation people experience on a day to day basis. If community members know what to do to help each other, in spite of the effects of stigma, they can significantly impact and improve each other’s ability to cope effectively with trauma and isolation.