MSW alumna Bunny Berman reflects on a lifetime of service and learning

April 16, 2024 - Shelly DeJong and Brandon Drain

Content Warning: This Q and A mentions child abuse and incest 

Can you walk us through the origins of your passion to help others? How and when did this arise? 

My passion to help others was a piece of my life since childhood. I would have garage sales, lemonade stands, etc... and give to various charities. I come from a long line of relatives who were charitable and taught me the importance of giving to others. 

When I was 12 years old, I volunteered at a camp in my hometown and there was a young boy, four years old, who was being physically abused by his mother. He always wore a long-sleeved shirt, wouldn't swim and did not interact with other children. One day, he ran off into the woods at the camp and being the volunteer, I was asked to go find him. I found him sitting on a log crying. He began to talk to me, and he took off his shirt, his back was scarred with iron marks, and he told me that his mother puts the hot iron on his back. It is a sight that I can remember like yesterday, and it was 52 years ago. 

That began my curiosity, as well as my passion, for wanting to understand both the perpetrator of this abuse as well as helping the victim. As I called the police and dealt with his very delicate matter, I found myself having empathy for all involved. I was fired from that camp as I was told, "this was none of my business". I was not able to comprehend that, believing it was everyone's business to help this little boy.  That began my desire and goals for the future.  


From your perspective, what unique qualities did you derive from studying in both the psychology and social work realms? How have those two schools of thought and practice refined your skillset? 

Studying both psychology and social work gave me a wide and varied perspective for my future career goals. I had an amazing education at Michigan State University and to this day, I am so grateful for it.  Learning the psychological perspective of human behaviors was an integral part of my foundation for getting my MSW and being able to help individual's in so many ways, with the knowledge that was needed to ensure client's needs were being met and they were being heard. Psychology coupled with social work, allowed me to see situations from all angles, the behavioral issues, the power of our minds, as well as the community issues that is an integral part of individual's actions/reactions.  


Can you briefly describe what you’ve been up to since graduating in 1984? 

I graduated in 1984 with my MSW. I worked at the St. Vincent Home for Children in East Lansing after graduation and loved being there and being involved with the children. We introduced a therapeutic foster care program at that time, and I was able to be a part of working with foster parents and the adolescents to try to foster a connection and establish healthy relationships. This was quite a challenge, yet there were some successes stories. Shortly after working there, I moved to Florida. My family had moved to Florida when I was a freshman, however, I stayed at MSU to finish my education as I loved it there. My father passed away unexpectedly at a very young age, and I then moved to Florida to help my mother with my 2 younger sisters and to regroup as a family. This was a very difficult time in my life, as I loved East Lansing and had anticipated that it would be my forever home, but as I have since learned, "life happens" when you least expect it. So, in January of 1985, I relocated to Florida.   

I then obtained a position in a program that was being newly developed for families in which incest had occurred. It was the Family Sexual Abuse Treatment Program (F.S.A.T.P.) and it was very exciting to be part of the ground floor of developing a much-needed program. We were awarded a federal grant and that program continued for many years and was the precursor to all the child abuse services in Palm Beach County. It was amazing to be part of a team and watch what has developed because of the risk we took to develop a highly controversial program.  

During that time, I got married, and adopted two children. My daughter is from Florida and my son is from Guatemala. I decided at that point that it was important to me to stay home and raise my children. They both came home with various issues, and I ended up home-schooling them, which was quite an adventure. Both with various medical issues, which kept our family busy, I learned more from them than anything I had ever done. At that point in time, I realized that it was important to see the world through the eyes of the individual you are talking to, not through the judgement of your own. So, now I look through the eyes of others to help them regain their own self-respect, helping them to find passion and purpose in their lives.  

After I was divorced in 2014, I reentered the work force full time, as I had always had a small private practice to help those that couldn't afford treatment elsewhere. My pay was often an apple pie, some baked goods, or a picture that was colored for me. All I knew is that somehow it would all work out and everyone deserves help. 


Can you tell us about the book you published? And why was it important for you to write this book? 

From 2014 to this day, I have run various substance abuse and mental health recovery centers. One day, when sitting with a coworker, talking about a book I wanted to write that was to be titled, "More Than a Junkie". I wasn't happy with the direction of that, as so many write about the opiate epidemic, family members that have substance use issues and I wanted it to be different -- to be a simple yet passionate true story. Helping those with the disease of addiction as well as their family members. I wanted to write something that anyone could understand and relate to. So, in jest, I said to him, "What if my couch could talk?" As we were sharing the stories of the people in recovery that had sat on my couch to heal. At that moment, I knew that my book was "born".  

Writing the book, with my couch as the narrator, gives readers an in-depth and out of the box way to relate to understanding the disease of addiction, and is aimed to help many along the journey, to let go of judgement and embrace those that need them. Enabling each individual to be on a journey of self-discovery, sobriety, reconnecting with others and finding their own passion and purpose which is the cornerstone to living a clean/sober life. 


From your years of study and practice combined, what would you say is the most common psychological condition we all face, and how can we remedy this? 

In answering your question regarding the most common psychological condition we all face, it is complicated. I think we have become a very selfish society, entitled and technology based. While there are many positive things that have come out of all of this, I also see the negative and how it has changed social interactions, caring, and connections. Unfortunately, this has led to a very anxious world, individuals not trusting each other, not wanting to get to know one another and being suspicious and paranoid of regular interactions. While we work on lessening the stigma of mental health, individuals are trying to deal with anxiety and depression by self-medicating, hence a strong connection to those with substance abuse issues.  

This is an area we could discuss forever, but it doesn't start with this generation, they are the byproduct of a world that has made many changes and most of those changes have taken people away from each other, not brought them closer. The family unit has suffered for years and the increase in mental health issues is part and parcel due to the lack of connection between individuals.  

We remedy this slowly and hope that new students are learning the things I learned at MSU. Individuals deserve compassion, being listened to and validated, not judged. I have not found the online programs that so many now attend for their master's degree to be anywhere near the exceptional education and experiences I had at MSU.  


What’s your favorite MSU memory? 

It's hard to pick a favorite memory over my six years at MSU. It was a wonderful time in my life. I went to school among the now famous, "Magic" Johnson when he was still "Earvin" for a while, I was someone who helped by taking his science notes. The campus is gorgeous and the times on the Red Cedar River were peaceful. The professors in the graduate program were the best, and my classes with Dr. Marilyn Frye, Dr. Joe Miller, and Ruth Koehler, and meeting Dr. Joel Bergman, were among some of my greatest memories. The concerts, football games, beating the University of Michigan, El Azteco Mexican restaurant and just the comradery of being a Spartan.  


What do you wish you had known as a student? 

There is nothing that I wished I knew as a student. I feel that I had a wonderful education that I am very proud of. I have been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker since 1987 and feel that I had the foundation from being a Spartan to lead me to where I am today.  

As for me now, at this stage of my life, I am 63 years old, have found the soulmate of my life and am engaged, continue to work in the field of recovery, have two grown children that I am very proud of, my daughter married with two children, (my most precious grandsons) and my son engaged. I continue to enjoy helping others find their passion and purpose, love writing and hope to continue with another book, enjoy spending time with my family and most of all am grateful to have found my soulmate at this later time in my life.