What Nancy Sidun, PsyD, loves about being a psychologist is that she gets to help people attain a better life than they might otherwise have—her patients, her colleagues and the subjects of her research.
"It's hokey but true," Sidun says. As a girl, "I saw that movie, The Miracle Worker, and I was so taken by the fact that Annie Sullivan didn't give up on Helen Keller. I wanted to be like Annie Sullivan. I wanted to spend my life investing in people others thought were disposable. That's the great thing about clinical psychology. Your job is trying to empower people to be the best they can be."
In her own career, Sidun has followed that goal into some tough areas. In 2014, she co-chaired the APA's Task Force on Trafficking of Women and Girls after chairing a similar investigation for Division 52. "They were the ones who gave me voice" for pursuing the issue, Sidun says of the APA’s Division of International Psychology, but "it became clear that we needed the support of the full APA" to effect any real change. She first got involved with the issue a decade ago, in part because she had adopted a daughter from China. "My God, what if her life had taken a different path?" Sidun says.
She's excited about the influence organized psychology may eventually bring to bear on human trafficking, which the task force report defines as the "economic exploitation of an individual through force, fraud or coercion."
The International Labor Organization has estimated that 12.3 million people worldwide are now living in some kind of forced servitude. Far and away, most victims are women. While many are forced into agricultural work and urban industries like sweat shops, nail salons and domestic service, the overwhelming majority are exploited sexually. In the United States, when women are trafficked for sex, the coercion is most likely psychological, a "grooming" process whereby a woman is lured into a seemingly caring relationship with a man who will put her to work for his benefit in the commercial sex trade, Sidun says.
"Psychology can do so much to help, but we're very late to the table. Every other discipline has been attending to trafficking," Sidun says.
Psychologists can help prevent trafficking by backing empowerment programs for vulnerable women, working to change the public's perceptions about the commercial sex trade to reduce demand, championing the rights of victimized women and identifying at-risk individuals in schools and other settings. Psychologists can also develop effective therapeutic interventions that will address the "extensive and complex" needs of women for whom the very concept of trust has been shredded, and evaluate governmental and nonprofit programs that have been set up to intervene.
One of the most important roles for psychologists is to educate the public and officials in the criminal justice system. People need to know how to recognize trafficking when they see it, and how to follow up with appropriate action that will lead to freeing the women and prosecuting the traffickers. When coercion is psychological, it's not always easy to understand the dynamic without some familiarity with research that has been done on the topic, which psychologists can make available and digestible. They can also testify in court.
U.S. citizens are among both the victims and the perpetrators in the trade, and American Indian women are the most disproportionately trafficked of any U.S. group, Sidun says.
Research on trafficking can be "challenging" to conduct, as there is "no typical case," according to the task force report. What traffickers have in common is their utter willingness to exploit the vulnerable. Any instability creates an opportunity for them, notably poverty, natural disasters and political conflict. Orphans are at particular risk. Only about 6 percent of individuals trafficked into the commercial sex trade in the United States are male.
Sidun says trafficking "runs the gamut from mom and pop operations to organized crime," from sophisticated international enterprises to teenaged boys pimping out their girlfriends. One study that looked at 25 pimps in Chicago found that they often have been "born and raised in an environment where people were exploited. Trafficking is safer and more lucrative than the drug trade, and [pimps] are less likely to get arrested. They often think of themselves as the good guys, protecting the girls. It's quite disturbing," Sidun says.
A New Jersey native, Sidun spent most of her adult life in Chicago, but 17 years ago moved to Hawaii. In Chicago, Sidun taught at a number of colleges, but Hawaii didn't offer the same opportunities. She worked for several years in administration and direct service with Kaiser Permanente, and then went into "telehealth." In a state with a large military presence, Sidun now treats "100 percent" of her clients remotely, via secure clinical video-teleconferencing (VTC) systems. "Most of my clients are in Korea," others are in Japan, Guam, American Samoa, Alaska, and the far-flung islands of Hawaii. Virtually all are military dependents or personnel on active duty she treats through the Pacific Regional Tele-Behavioral Health Hub at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Sidun says.
"For the younger generation, it's the normal way of communicating," she says. "And some of the service members are not as comfortable with emotions, so they don't mind being in an office by themselves during a session. In some ways, for them, that [remote aspect] can enhance treatments. I don't get to read the full body language, but I really like working this way."
She finds the "military culture fascinating. You have to be aware of the culture to be effective [with military clients], and I've enjoyed getting to know about that. I'll say one thing: If I give my military clients homework, it's going to get done!" she says.
In the past, some active-duty personnel may have been concerned their careers might stall if they sought help for such work-related conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but Sidun thinks that now, "the military is trying to change that mindset. There are good treatments for PTSD," including prolonged exposure, cognitive processing therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). "They can help people," she says, adding that military officials definitely are beginning to recognize and encourage active-duty personnel to get the help they need.
Sidun is a past president of the Hawaii Psychological Association. She thinks activity in associations is "critical in protecting psychologists' interests. We watch bills in the legislature very closely, and advocate if we think we need to," she says.
Sidun also trains psychologists in self-care, and she's returning to using her early training in art therapy in this sideline. "We psychologists are bad at self-care," she says. "We take care of our patients, not so much of ourselves."
You could say Sidun is pursuing the role that led her into psychology, that of the dauntless teacher.
"I love supervision. I love training. It's my favorite thing," she says. "I think I'm a good clinician, but I have an opportunity to touch more people if I'm teaching."