Research on Icelanders' Psychological Help Seeking Patterns

In recent years there has been a tremendous increase in international work and collaboration between psychologists in the United States and scholars around the world.

By Stefanía Ægisdóttir

by Stefanía Ægisdóttir, PhD, Assistant Professor
Department of Counseling Psychology and Guidance Services, Ball State University
In recent years there has been a tremendous increase in international work and collaboration between psychologists in the United States and scholars around the world. International collaboration on research projects and training initiatives can be extremely rewarding and can move the field forward as scholars from different regions of the world share theories, methodologies, interventions, and research results that may aid theory development and tools of the profession. With increased technology the ease in collaboration is greatly enhanced. In this article, Stefania Ægisdóttir shares her experience of collaboration with a counseling psychologist in Iceland on a funded study on psychological help seeking in Iceland. She describes some of the challenges, opportunities, and insights this collaboration has offered.

Being a native Icelander who has lived, studied, and worked in the U.S. since 1993, my ties and interest in the Icelandic people and in the development of psychology in Iceland has remained strong. During my graduate studies I managed to perform a couple of cross-cultural comparative studies on counseling expectations between Icelandic and U.S. participants. Since then, I have been especially interested in psychological help seeking behavior of Icelanders with the hope that research in this area might influence Icelandic authorities in enhancing their emphasis on psychological services in the country.

Having a research plan in mind, but not a clear idea about its feasibility due to long distance and cost, in the spring of 2005 I called my friend and former classmate from the University of Iceland Dr. Sif Einarsdóttir. She is currently an associate professor at the University of Iceland. We discussed this research idea with enthusiasm.  She agreed to collaborate and also encouraged me to apply for funding from the federally governed Icelandic Research Fund (RANNIS). We successfully received this funding for a three year research project.

Embarking on a large research project conducted in one country and primarily directed from another has many challenges. Some of these challenges were expected and some were not. We were well prepared to deal with difficulties in translating and adapting the instruments that we used and in determining the best fitting means of data collection methods and procedures. While this type of planning and preparation took a lot of thought and time its predictability made these difficulties easy to handle. Some challenges, however, were unexpected and therefore more difficult. Operating in two very different time zones often made it hard to coordinate different schedules. Working from the US, I had forgotten about the frequent holidays in Iceland, which caused some delays in the project and required patience on my behalf.

Another interesting challenge for me had to do with work expectations and time orientation. Having been trained in the U.S. and being more accustomed to the U.S. future orientation and work environment, I wanted to plan ahead and know exactly what would happen next and in what order. It was a challenge for me to reconcile this orientation with the more relaxed attitude among my Icelandic counterparts who wanted to simply address issues as they came along. There were pragmatic challenges as well. It was sometimes difficult to direct the project over the phone and over email, because it made me feel less in control. I had to recover within myself the old Icelandic attitude of “þetta reddast einhvernvegin” – that is, “things will somehow work out well.”

Operating on a budget in two different currencies (U.S. expenses and Icelandic expenses) posed another challenge. The exchange rate fluctuations during the time of the project resulted in my repeatedly looking at the money market pages! To stay within the budget limits, I had to reexamine and rework the budget and be extremely flexible. Beyond budgetary matters, coordinating communication between the institutions involved careful attention.  The institutions in Iceland and the US have different perspectives and organizational cultures; they use their own language of communication, and have their own set of working rules. Sometimes I felt caught in the middle, and served in the role of translator for documents and contracts for signatures, and the role of expediter in explaining different organizational cultures, regulations, and habits to make each party comfortable with the transactions.

The rewards of this collaborative work are numerous.  In the end they have far surpassed the challenges. The collaboration between me and my colleague, Sif, and the support from the organizations involved have given us an opportunity to perform a large-scale study that is meaningful to us and that we hope will have valuable implications for the Icelandic people. Additionally, throughout this collaboration, I have had the opportunity to travel, meet, and work with talented Icelanders, two of whom are now studying counseling psychology in my department in the US. During this process I have been able to nurture old friendships from Iceland and plant seeds for future professional collaboration. Also, I was able to involve other psychologists in the translation of instruments and have had the opportunity to exchange exiting ideas that have resulted in other collaborative work.

In addition to the many interpersonal rewards, I have learned much about myself. I have been reminded of many cultural characteristics of the people and land that I had “repressed” having lived abroad for so long. Finally, now, when I look at the data we have collected these last two years, I see that we have been able to adapt the U.S. instruments we used to be culturally valid in assessing Icelanders psychological help seeking attitudes and tendencies. And, unexpectedly through this process, ideas have emerged on how to improve the original U.S. versions for future research in the U.S.

In conclusion, collaboration between psychologists around the globe is an extremely valuable experience professionally, personally and for the psychology profession. Collaboration across countries and cultures not only broadens one’s personal horizon and worldview, but also aids the development of new theories and methodologies. By sharing ideas, interventions, theories, worldviews, and habits, new ideas and perspectives will develop. I encourage anyone embarking on collaboration and work overseas to nurture his or her patience and humbleness and enjoy the ride. Ψ