AUNE Therapist Finds Happiness Helping People in Northwest Alaska
Every day Osnat (Osi) Kaspi braves average winter temperatures of forty degrees below zero to reach her clients. Undeterred, she regularly hops aboard a bush plane or commutes via a snow machine to tiny, remote villages in Northwest Alaska that are inaccessible year-round by road.
Osi is an itinerant therapist for the Maniilaq Association, a native, non-profit health and human services association in Kotzebue, Alaska. Kotzebue lies on a small spit of land (pop. 3000) surrounded by water, thirty-three miles above the Arctic Circle. The population is mainly Inupiat Eskimo who live primarily by subsistence hunting, fishing and occasional whaling.
Alcoholism and suicide are major problems.
“The Northwest has the highest rate of suicide in the United States and one of the highest in the world,” says Osi who works with clients in Kotzebue as well as in the distant villages of Selawik and Kiana.
“Alcoholism is killing families. There were eight suicides in just one month this past year. Most involve alcohol. It’s like an epidemic.”
“I do traditional therapy, for adults and children, individuals and groups,” she said. “I do movement and relaxation, grief and healing, and recovery support community groups. I also do bereavement work and am the only group therapist. I’m really honored to do the work.”
A Professional Journey Altered on the Battlefields of the Lebanese War
Osi, 48, was born in Chicago, grew up in Haifa, Israel, and is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. At age sixteen, she, along with her parents, relocated to Albany, California. Following her high school graduation, she enrolled as a biology major in Merritt College in Oakland.
At the end of her freshman year, she was abruptly summoned back to Israel for mandatory army service. A lieutenant at age eighteen, she supervised a group of women. “It was one of those life intersections that change your life,” she said.
Soon after her discharge, she was drafted into the reserves when the Lebanese War broke out.
“It was an ugly war,” she said. “I lost many friends.” Osi was in charge of the wounded and casualties. “I did grief and bereavement work with families without a professional background. I didn’t have the skills of a therapist!it scarred me and changed everything. The experience threw me into the field of psychology.”
Following her service, Osi trekked through Nepal and toured India, Burma, and Thailand before returning to the U.S. She graduated with honors in 1987 from the State University of New York at Albany with a degree in psychology with minors in sociology, art studio, and dance studio.
She was working for an Albany mental health service provider when a co-worker told her about dance movement therapy. Eagerly, Osi applied to, and was accepted into AUNE’s master degree program for Dance/Movement Therapy and Counseling.
“I loved my program at AUNE,” she said. “It incorporated the creative arts, especially movement, with a strong counseling background. I really enjoyed my studies. When I graduated, it was hard to leave.”
Move to Alaska was Meant To Be
She graduated from AUNE in 1993, then interned at the Hancock Center for Dance/Movement Therapy in Madison, Wisconsin. There she provided individual and group therapy to adults and youth, and coordinated a group for incest survivors. Declining an offer of permanent employment, she spent time with Native American tribes in upstate New York, learning tribal dances. From there, she worked in Israel as a dance movement therapist for several years, and trekked the mountains of Peru in South America.
In 1998, she returned to the U.S. where she was first employed in a youth treatment unit at a Portsmouth, New Hampshire hospital and later transferred to Hampton. After reading an article about the high rate of suicide among native Eskimo people, she felt inspired to make a career change.
“Out of nowhere, I saw a posting on an online job board for a job in Alaska,” she said. “I thought, this is meant to be. I just knew it. I was so excited. It was perfect.”
Besides her current therapist duties, she serves as emergency on-call psychologist for the local hospital which serves the entire Northwest borough.
“I do a lot of risk assessment,” she said. “I always think of crises as opportunities. That’s my only chance to reach people. I take the time in the hospital to do therapy. That’s the time when I can plant a seed. Suicide prevention makes up much of my work.”
Happy in Alaska since 2008, Osi hopes other AUNE therapists will follow suit. “AUNE cares about the world and people,” she said. “We’re an agent of change. That attracts people that care about the world. One feeds the other.”
“I’d probably be here even if they didn’t pay me,” she said. “I’m glad I can give something back. There’s a famous saying, if you’ve saved one, you’ve saved the world. I sometimes feel that way too.”