Feature

From 1982 until the fall of communism in 1989, there was no psychology in Romania. Even the word psychology was banned from the official lexicon. "Offensive" psychological literature was removed from libraries, and no new materials were permitted into the country. Some psychology professors were jailed. Others took low-paying jobs. Still others transferred to related academic departments or found limited work in industrial and organizational settings, such as testing airplane pilots.

"The communist regime considered psychology especially dangerous, as many of its theories and practices embrace the concepts of experiential freedom and self-determination," explains Illinois State University psychologist Michael J. Stevens, PhD, who teaches summer courses at Romania's University of Sibiu.

Halted in their tracks while their international peers progressed the field, Romanian psychologists in 1989 faced a daunting task of catching up on years of research and practice while helping their nation cope with uncertainty, economic hardship and the mingling of traditional values with Western influence.

"They had to reconstruct everything," says Simona Popa, a doctoral student at Babes-Bolyai University and an assistant professor at the University of Oradea. "Imagine trying to reach a level of standards--for education, research, practice, organization, laws--which is nine years ahead of you. It is not easy, especially when you don't have a good financial situation."

Striving for parity

Romanian psychologists' first step in rebuilding their field was to restart higher education programs in psychology; there had been no new psychologists since the 1970s, when the government abolished academic departments in psychology. Today, in addition to their studies, doctoral candidates frequently pull double-duty as assistant professors at Romanian universities.

"There was--and still is--a real thirst after knowledge," says Adrian Opre, a researcher at the Applied Cognitive Psychology Center in the city of Cluj-Napoca and a psychology lecturer at Babes-Bolyai University, which has graduated more than 500 psychology students since 1995.

Through their own hard work--and assistance from world relief organizations and international colleagues--Romanian psychologists, especially those trained since the fall of communism, have forged ahead and are now on par with many of their international peers.

The Romanian Psychologists Association has reorganized itself into local branches and is coordinating conferences and meetings. The association is focusing its efforts on creating a legal framework to sanction the practice of psychology and developing support for scientific programs, says Mihai Golu, PhD, chairman of the association.

In addition, after garnering graduate and postdoctoral training outside of their country, psychologists have re-established themselves in hospitals and clinics, the military, industry, research centers and in academia. And they are expanding into new areas, such as special education--a field that didn't exist during communism--and private therapy.

Just one example of the growth of the field is the town of Sibiu in the region of Transylvania. The University of Sibiu's psychology department was founded in 1990. Today, the department has about 130 psychology students, and many more study through distance learning. In a city of 140,000, more than 10 psychologists work in the local hospital, and four counseling psychologists were hired in the past year to work at local high schools, says Bogdan Florea, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cluj and assistant professor at the University of Sibiu. In addition, the chief of the Sibiu County Police's prevention unit is earning his doctorate in psychology and working with the local Roma (Gypsy) community to develop community policing strategies that can help overcome ethnic tensions among Hungarians, Romanians and Roma.

Getting to this point hasn't been easy. Romania's economy has struggled in the transition from a state-run to a market economy, resulting in a lower standard of living with higher unemployment rates. Psychologists earn near the national salary average, yet generally make less than other professionals and skilled laborers, according to Stevens.

Although psychologists are generally held in high regard by Romanians, citizens are more concerned with securing their standard of living than with how psychology could benefit their lives, Stevens says. A Romanian is more likely to share concerns with family members than a professional not only because of financial reasons, but also because traditional Romanian society is based on a collective worldview, rather than individualism. As a result, private practice as we know it in the United States is uncommon in Romania.

"Most psychologists who work in the clinical field are affiliated with hospitals," explains Daniel David, PhD, an assistant professor at Babes-Bolyai University who also runs a small practice out of the nonprofit Romanian Association of Hypnosis and Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy. "Only a few psychologists have a private practice. My clients usually belong to the middle or upper class. The patients pay cash for their services. I have clients from the lower class only when I decide for personal reasons to do free therapy."

The next generation

Economic constraints, however, haven't daunted the growing number of students seeking degrees in psychology.

"Today, the number of psychology students exceeds the societal need for psychologists," says Nicolae Jurcau, a psychology professor at the Technical University of Cluj-Napoca.

Florea says the field is "very attractive for students and offers a better opportunity to get a job than other sciences." While he says that not all of the students will have the opportunity to work in the field they study, "many hope to use their knowledge in related fields," he explains.

To meet the demands of this new generation of students, "the academy in general in Romania is reforming after communism," says David Manier, PhD, a psychologist at the City University of New York's Lehman College who has taught at the University of Cluj. "The style of instruction is evolving. Students are doing more research and critical thinking and doing some literature reviews themselves," instead of learning professors' lectures by rote as they often did under communism.

However, the tight finances of most universities make it challenging for professors. "The main problem for psychologists is that it is difficult to get top information--this is because good information is expensive," says Florea.

While the Romania Ministry of Education offers scholarships for young academics to study abroad, and international organizations, such as the World Bank, have contributed money to the country's reforming education system, research dollars from Romanian sources are still hard to come by. Money for laboratory instruments and for Romanian-language books and journals or the translation of such materials into Romanian is lacking, although donations from international organizations and colleagues help greatly.

Despite these economic challenges, younger researchers are taking new approaches in many areas of psychology, including counseling, educational psychology, political psychology, forensic psychology and psychology of religion, says Jurcau. These younger professionals are publishing papers in international journals, bolstering Romanian journals and obtaining competitive international research grants, adds David of Babes-Bolyai University.

"For about 10 years, psychologists worked on the transition from communism," says Florea. "Now we have to work on developing psychology: theory, methodology and so on. Of course, it is hard to change people's way of thinking. Of course, it is not easy to rebuild our country's value system, but, for me, this is a long-time process and we need good psychologists to succeed."

ROMANIA

Population: 22,788,933

Number of psychologists: Roughly 1,000 working in the field (many others have degrees but do not work in a psychology-related field).

Ethnicity: 89.4 percent Romanian, 7.12 percent Hungarian, 1.76 percent Roma, 1.65 percent other.

Sources: Romanian Psychological Association and Romanian Embassy.