A Q&A With Erik Oostenink, LMHC, AMHCA's New Midwest Region Director
The Advocate: What is your current job and what drew you to it?
Erik Oostenink: Growing up in Michigan, my primary exposure to the counseling and psychology field was through a youth group leader. The time I spent in his counseling office completing a high school paper on stress management and biofeedback furthered my interest in the field. However, since I also enjoyed analytical thinking, I went to college in Iowa intending to be- come an accountant. I quickly found that accounting wasn’t my passion; people were, so I switched my major to Psychology and found another area for using analytical skills—helping people meet their goals and become more self-sufficient in doing this.
Like most who go on in this field, I recognized quickly that an undergraduate degree would be insufficient and went to a graduate program in Counseling in South Dakota. Since graduating from a master’s program in 1996, I have worked for nonprofit organizations and community mental health centers. Up until the last three years, my career has been focused on providing mental health counseling for children and families, some in homes, but predominantly in an outpatient setting.
Most recently, our agency was awarded a grant from the State of Iowa to develop a system of care to coordinate services for children and youth with serious emotional disturbances. Our goal is to keep these youths in their homes and communities and out of more restrictive environments. I was hired as the project supervisor and have had the privilege of creating the program, hiring staff, and developing collaborative teams in the community to build on this vision. Thus far, the program has been successful, expanded, and despite a poor economy, been granted funding for additional years.
The Advocate: Why did you join AMHCA?
Erik Oostenink: I joined AMHCA shortly after joining AMHCA’s Iowa chapter—Iowa Mental Health Counselors Association (IMHCA). Anger is a strong motivator for me. I joined IMHCA due to frustration over Blue Cross/Blue Shield excluding LMHCs from reimbursement in Iowa, and I quickly became a board member. I liked getting involved and enjoyed the focus on big-picture issues affecting our field, including politics and public policy. Our organization partnered with the Marriage and Family Therapists organization in Iowa and successfully gained recognition through contact with Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the Insurance Commissioner in Iowa.
I felt a similar frustration with Medicare not providing reimbursement for LMHCs. This frustration, along with attending my first AMHCA Leadership Training, motivated me to join AMHCA as I recognized the importance of again paying attention to not only the bigger picture in my state, but also on the national level. I recognized how disjointed our field was at that time with different licensure standards and titles for those providing mental health counseling. This seemed to be a major barrier to getting recognition at the federal level. My fellow attendees and I shared the same frustrations and sought to meet similar goals.
AMHCA gave me an opportunity to put my money where my mouth was—rather than just complain about an injustice in our profession, I could get involved. Plus, the dues I pay goes in part to cover lobbying for results that will benefit our specific profession. This continues to be my motivation for being involved with AMHCA.
The Advocate: What made you want to serve on AMHCA’s board of directors?
Erik Oostenink: Having been a part of IMHCA as secretary, president, past president, and government relations chair, I had gained background on the importance of collaboration, not only in the state of Iowa, but among states in the region. I had the privilege of going to two AMHCA Leadership Trainings—in St. Louis and New Orleans—and recognized the importance of communication between the states. In each year, we had the opportunity for leaders in the Midwest Region to share common issues that the states were facing and successes achieved. Ideas were even shared about creating a regional conference. State leaders developed relationships with each other to further these collaborations for years to come and AMHCA conferences furthered this relationship development.
My interest in serving on AMHCA’s board and representing the Midwest is to further these relationships between states and provide a voice for the states within our national organization. Additionally, when I began my first term on Iowa’s board, I found it overwhelming; it was a struggle as an organization to figure out what we were doing. Direction from our AMHCA region director, other state leaders, and the Leadership Training offered by AMHCA helped tremendously. I would like to help other states find whatever direction they need, not just from myself, but through conversations with our neighboring states.
The Advocate: Since you took office last July, what has been your experience on AMHCA’s board? Are there any particular projects you are working on or looking forward to accomplishing?
Erik Oostenink: I am just over halfway through my first year as Midwest Region director and being part of AMHCA’s board. Thus far, the first year feels like an orientation period as I am still trying to connect with leadership from the other states in the Midwest and learn more about how the AMHCA board functions. Like serving on any type of board or committee, it takes times to develop a sense of the function of an organization and build confidence in one’s role in that organization.
My initial impression of the board was that this is a highly competent group of dedicated professionals, who, apart from our Executive Director and CEO W. Mark Hamilton, PhD, are working in a volunteer capacity. The board is very committed not only to meeting the current needs of mental health counselors, but continuing to develop a vision for how our profession performs and ensuring it is perceived as having high-quality professional standards.
I have several goals as Midwest Region director. One is an exchange of information between the states on potential conference speakers and topics. Finding new and interesting topics and enthusiastic speakers can be a challenge for each state, and state conferences are often the highlight of each year. I would like each state to share this information so that it could be put on an online bulletin board used in the Midwest Region. We already have a website, however, little information is currently exchanged between states.
On a similar note, I would like the states to share information about legislative activities. Many states are active in legislative advocacy, but some may not know how to go about this process or know about possible legislation that could be useful to the profession in each state. Again, sharing information is vital.
I also have hopes that there may be interest in the region in developing a regional conference. Other AMHCA regions have held regional conferences, and I believe they enhance connectivity between states. My greatest interest is not only seeing each state develop a stronger chapter and organization, but ensuring that the region’s states communicate with each other so that we have common licensure standards. That way mental health counselors will be able to move from one state to another within the region with license reciprocity.
The Advocate: Is there anything about the work AMHCA does that you think members may not be aware of?
Erik Oostenink: Prior to joining the board, I had already started serving on AMHCA’s Public Policy and Legislative Committee. Between my work on this committee and my work with the board, I believe most of our membership is not aware of the number of people volunteering to make the organization work. In addition to the many people involved, the board works hard to represent views of its members in all areas and seeks to balance the stated interests of all members with the need for cohesiveness and sustainability of our profession. This appears to be a delicate balance with what the membership would like to see happen related to public policy issues such as TRICARE and Medicare versus what the federal government requires. Often, the work is incremental, and progress can appear very slow.
AMHCA’s leadership values the input of each member and seeks to find the most effective ways to continue to strengthen our profession for the future. One area that surprised me when I joined the board is the number of students who are AMHCA members. AMHCA’s membership has been growing tremendously, and student membership is a big part of this as well. Prior to joining the board, I had not been aware of AMHCA’s Graduate Student Committee (again with representation from each region). This is a great opportunity for students to be involved in a professional, national organization, and to my knowledge there is still an opening on this committee for the Midwest Region.
The Advocate: Is there anything you would like AMHCA members to know about you?
Erik Oostenink: I believe my Midwest values are demonstrated not only in my personal life but in my professional work and the goals I shared for the Midwest Region. I have lived in Michigan and Iowa, and attended school in South Dakota. Influenced by my Dutch cultural background of conserving resources, I have done extensive vacationing in the Midwest, driving and camping throughout the region, and I have visited all the states in AMHCA’s Midwest Region.
I value personal relationships and connectivity. As such, I prefer face-to-face communication or phone calls over impersonal emails. I strongly value group discussions and collaboration in shaping the direction in any relationships or group organization. Within AMHCA, I highly encourage our state leaders to attend the Leadership Training before the conference in Orlando. If you’re not yet involved in leadership within your state, I encourage you to get involved, or to attend the national conference not only to get quality continuing education, but to get a better picture of what AMHCA is doing and to connect with other members.
I believe in grassroots efforts and that AMHCA is successful due to strong state organizations, which are successful due to strong involvement from the membership. As with politics, if people are frustrated with the status quo regarding legislation or licensure and have a positive vision for the future, it’s important to get involved, not demonstrate apathy. The political primaries have shown recently (and with close votes in Iowa particularly) that a few dedicated people can make a huge difference. Please be part of that difference with me in working with AMHCA to advance the goals and the profession we share. Also as in politics, leadership reflects its constituency and membership. AMHCA is what it is today because of you.
The 2012 election of three other positions on AMHCA’s board of directors—president-elect, North Atlantic Region director, and Southern Region director—open in March; look for an email in mid-March with a link to your personalized electronic ballot.